The tourtière has become a traditional part of Christmas and New Year’s celebrations in Quebec, but the pie is also enjoyed at other times throughout Canada, as well as in the upper Midwest and eastern parts of the United States, especially in New England.
My internet research states that the tourtière is a French-Canadian meat pie that originated in Quebec as far back as 1600. Most recipes for tourtière include ground pork and occasionally other ground meats. There is a difference of opinion about the origin of the name of the dish. Some believe that the dish is named after the now extinct passenger pigeons, called “tourtes,” that were cooked into the original pies. Another opinion is that the pie is named after the deep ceramic baking dish that families used to create the pies. It is, however, agreed that by 1611, the word tourtière had come to refer to the pastry containing meat or fish that was cooked in this medium-deep, round or rectangular dish.
A while back, Dede Borkush of Hampstead, N.H., sent me her family recipe for French Canadian Pork Pie. She has been reading the Times’ sister paper The Eagle-Tribune for a long time and enjoys the food and recipe pages. I contacted her to find out more about it. She shared with me her childhood memories of Christmas Eve, which included pork pie, and her family’s customs that have evolved in more recent Christmases.
I love hearing about traditions that develop from one’s heritage and past generations, especially when celebrating the bigger holidays. I have learned so much from listening to others tell of their beloved traditions and memories. It is a wonderful way to learn about the world around us. So I thank Dede for her story and her family recipe. She told me she enjoyed taking a stroll down memory lane as she wrote the recipe and its history.
Dede explains her Christmas tradition with pork pie:
“The French custom, as I remember from my childhood, was that tourtiere (pronounced took-kay) was served after attending midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The fasting rules for receiving communion at that time were very strict, leaving a long time with nothing to eat or drink before one received communion at Mass. By the time one returned home, many hungry hours had passed.
“We would leave our house around 11 p.m. in order to get a seat, because midnight Mass was always packed to the rafters in most churches. Of course part of the Christmas Eve night was arriving early to hear the choir sing beautiful Christmas carols before the Mass began, and thus “officially” starting Christmas Eve. Since the High Mass said on Christmas Eve usually lasted anywhere from 1 1/2 to 2 hours (or more, after all the Merry Christmases were said), we were pretty hungry by the time all was said and done and we arrived home.
“After returning from midnight Mass, relatives would gather together at one home and there would be a feast of delicious foods. Several “took-kays” were always on the table prepared by different aunts and grandmothers. After eating all kinds of special holiday food, we would stay up and open our gifts, finally going to bed in the wee hours of the morning.
“Today, since Christmas Mass times have changed and are more frequent, many families choose to eat their “took-kay” in the morning for breakfast instead. This is the custom that my family has adopted. The aroma of the pie cooking in the oven early in the morning woke up the family in anticipation of starting a wonderful Christmas Day. Others like to take a tourtiere along to a Christmas dinner. No matter when it was eaten, tourtiere was always part of the French tradition in celebrating Christmas.
“Many French people also serve tourtiere at Thanksgiving as well. Since pork is more plentiful now, many do not wait to serve it just on Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is a culinary favorite that can be enjoyed all winter long.
“Hope you give it a try and become a French Canadian for one Christmas Eve! Ah oui!”
TOURTIERE (FRENCH CANADIAN PORK PIE)
Makes two good-sized meat pies
2 1/2 pounds of lean ground pork
1 large onion, diced
1/2 teaspoon each of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon Bell’s seasoning (or poultry seasoning)
2 cups of water
1 large potato, peeled and boiled
Crust for two 9-inch pies (top and bottom)
In a large saucepan, combine ground pork, onion, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and salt and pepper.
Brown the meat and onions for about 5 minutes on medium-low heat. Cover meat mixture with the 2 cups of water. Simmer on low heat for approximately 11/2 to 2 hours, until meat is light brown and water on the bottom of pan has almost completely evaporated. Stir occasionally. If water evaporates too quickly and meat is sticking to the bottom of the pan, add a little water, as necessary, to keep mixture moist during cooking time. When finished, there should be only about a tablespoon of water with juices remaining on the bottom.
While meat is cooking, boil the potato until it is soft but not mushy. Drain and mash cooked potato with a fork, leaving tiny chunks of potato for texture. Set aside.
When meat is done, stir in the 1/2 teaspoon of Bell’s seasoning into meat mixture. Fold in the mashed potato. Place half of the meat filling in one of the prepared 9-inch pie plates. Cover with the top crust. Make vent holes in top of crust.
Repeat with the remaining meat and other pie crust.
Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 40 minutes until top crust is golden brown. Bon appetite!
Dede’s note: “Some people like to use ground pork butt, but I find that it makes the meat filling fatty and greasy. I prefer to use lean ground pork in my recipe, and the taste is not compromised.”
Patricia Altomare invites feedback. Email her at email@example.com.