Tourtiere: A French-Canadian Twist On Christmas Pie

Dec 23, 2011
Originally published on December 23, 2011 6:35 pm

If you happen to spend Christmas Eve in Canada — especially Quebec — you might be lucky enough to be invited to a festive dinner after midnight Mass. The feast is an old tradition from France called reveillon, and it's something to look forward to after a long day of fasting.

"They'll have a huge feast, with sweets and lobster and oysters, everything," says Thomas Naylor, executive chef to the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. "But in Quebec, at least, you'll always have tourtiere. It will be the center of the reveillon."

NPR's All Things Considered visited Naylor this week in the kitchen of the ambassador's residence in Washington, D.C., to learn how to make tourtiere.

Naylor knows about this Christmas Eve custom because many years ago, it traveled with French emigres across the Atlantic to Canada (and to New Orleans). The tourtiere is a savory, spiced meat pie, which both French- and English-speaking Canadians love to serve around the holidays. (For more on the history of pie, see Alison Richards' recent story.)

The pie is so beloved in Canada that it has spread far beyond Quebec. "The recipe has been altered so many times," he says.

Along the coast, it's made with salmon. And even within Quebec there are different variations, Naylor says. There's a ground pork version in Montreal, while some in Quebec City prefer game meats. Even within a family you might find different recipes.

I have been at events with Canadians around Christmastime where there can be a little tourtiere competition, and everyone brings their own. Naylor agrees: "It's like hockey rivalry."

One thing that's usually the same is the four spices: cinnamon, clove, allspice and nutmeg. Naylor likes to add savory and rosemary to his pie. "It's a very festive flavor," says Naylor. "The use of spices goes back to medieval times. They used to serve them along with sweets."

But the first step in creating a perfect tourtiere, says Naylor, is to make a buttery, flaky pastry shell.

Then Naylor moves on to the meat mixture — he adds pork, water, onion and celery to a pan. Then he adds the spices.

Naylor lets that mixture simmer for an hour and a half. At the end he mixes in a cup of rolled oats, which binds the meat and makes it easier to slice a piece of the pie later on. Once the meat filling has cooled, he spoons it into the pastry shell and covers it with a crust. Then it's time to decorate with some of the leftover dough.

Once the tourtiere is ready, says Naylor, it is usually served with some kind of tasty condiment or sauce. It could be cranberry sauce, pickled beets, something sweet and sour, or "something with a kick to it to pair with the spiced meat and flaky crust." (I like to serve a chili sauce with my tourtiere; you can find Naylor's recipe and my chili sauce recipe here.)

All and all, it's a memorable dish. And it's "one of Canada's better contributions to the culinary world," says Naylor.

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

For the last several days, we've been bringing you some holiday treats. Today, it's tourtiere, a savory meat pie from Canada. Thomas Naylor, executive chef to the Canadian ambassador to the U.S., says, traditionally, French-Canadians would serve it after coming home from midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at a festive meal known as reveillon. He spoke with us from the kitchen at the ambassador's residence.

THOMAS NAYLOR: It's a tradition from France, probably to go back and still even practiced in New Orleans, where a family, if they've been fasting all day, comes back from midnight Mass, then they'll have a huge feast with sweets and lobster, oysters, everything but always has - in Quebec, at least, they'll always have tourtiere be the center of the reveillon.

NEARY: There's no one way to prepare tourtiere, says Naylor. Every region has its own version of this spicy meat pie.

NAYLOR: The recipe has been altered so many times. If you go up to the Gaspe region, you almost have, you know, the cousin of the tourtiere, which is made with salmon. And, of course, every recipe is very distinct to every different region in Canada, even to the families.

NEARY: Well, I know I've been at events with Canadians around Christmastime where there can be kind of a little tourtiere competition. Everybody brings their own tourtiere.

NAYLOR: Oh, yeah. It's like hockey rivalry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: All right. So what makes a - so - and everybody has their own recipe, in other words, right?

NAYLOR: Yeah, everybody has their own recipe. I mean, in Montreal and the rest of Quebec, they'll make it with ground pork, maybe Quebec City, Charlevoix, the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean area on the north shore of Quebec, of the Saint Lawrence River. And they'll use cubed meats, game meats, veal, beef et cetera. But the main ingredient, I would say, is definitely the spices. There's four main spices - you have cinnamon, clove, allspice and nutmeg - and usually combined, say, in my recipe from Montreal, with savory and rosemary. That will make up an authentic tourtiere.

NEARY: So how do those spices combined with the meat - how would you describe the flavor then?

NAYLOR: Well, it's a very festive flavor, especially savory, which is one of Quebec's favorite herbs to use. But you - when you get a combination of clove and nutmeg, allspice, just like, you know, in a butternut squash soup and other festive sort of fowl Christmas recipes. It gives a nice spiciness to it. It almost, you know, since the recipe and the use of the spices goes back to medieval times, they used to even serve, you know, these kind of spiced meats along with sweets.

NEARY: The first step in creating a perfect tourtiere, says Naylor, is to make a buttery, flaky pastry shell.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD PREP)

NEARY: Then, Naylor moves on to the meat mixture.

NAYLOR: So what I have is a straight edge fry pan, and it's really simple. We're just going to add two pounds of pork - ground up pork - a cup and a half of water...

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD PREP)

NAYLOR: ...one cup of onion - diced - and a half cup of celery - diced.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD PREP)

NAYLOR: When the water comes to a boil, what you're going to do is you're going to add the spices...

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD PREP)

NEARY: Naylor let's that mixture simmer for about an hour and a half. At the end, he mixes in a cup of rolled oats, which binds the meat and makes it easier to slice a piece of the pie later on. Once the meat filling has cooled, he spoons it into the pastry shell and covers it with a crust. Now, it's time to decorate with some of the leftover dough.

NAYLOR: We can take a little cookie cutter. You have cookie cutters. I have a little maple leaf cookie cutter here. So we'll cut out a couple of maple leafs, put them on top and finish it off. You got to make some vents for the steam to escape, so what I do is I use scissors and just make sort of triangular - they look like sort of chevrons in the top here.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD PREP)

NEARY: And again, just to clarify, that this is, of course, a French-Canadian tradition, but a lot of Canadians who are not French-Canadians also love tourtiere.

NAYLOR: Oh, of course, yeah.

NEARY: Yeah.

NAYLOR: Tourtiere, I'd say, is definitely one of Canada's contribution to the culinary world.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: All right. Thank you so much.

NAYLOR: OK. Well, thanks for coming and have a happy holidays, and I hope you get to eat some tourtiere this season.

NEARY: To find Thomas Naylor's full recipe for tourtiere, visit our website, npr.org. And to get you in the mood, Thomas Naylor suggests a little French-Canadian music.

NAYLOR: (Foreign language spoken) is kind of - it's like a French-Canadian, like a Canadian gig bag, you know, it's sort of the accordion and the fiddle and...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NAYLOR: (Singing ) (Unintelligible).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.