BY: LISA JACKSON
DECEMBER 19, 2016 | 4:11 AM
This holiday season, think outside the traditional menu and look to our food-loving and French-speaking neighbours for ideas and inspiration. Québec has a mixed bag of edible holiday traditions that’ll make your mouth water — some imported to the New World from France, while others are influenced by the (chilly) outdoor elements or British, American and Indigenous cultural traditions. Chuck Hughes, host of Chuck’s Day Off and Montreal chef extraordinaire, shares some French Canadian holiday traditions, as well as delicious menu items to add to your Christmas dinner.
Start with a Midnight Feast
In the 1600s, Québecois settlers traditionally gathered on Christmas Eve for midnight mass, and celebrated afterwards with réveillon — a festive feast fit for a king. Traditionally eaten in Europe, the table would be overflowing with seafood, meat dishes, wine and luxurious sweets, consumed late into the evening. Four centuries later, this dining ritual continues in many French-Canadian homes.
“When I was a kid, the real tradition is on December 24,” says Chef Hughes. “We would go to church at midnight and then after that, you come home and have a big feast. That was really our main meal.”
Put Out the “Pig Foot Stew” and Pickled Beets
Although réveillon originates from Europe, Québecois have added their own French Canadian additions to the table. For instance, the centrepiece isn’t usually turkey — it’s a hearty pig foot stew simmered in spices for half a day.
“[The menu] revolves more around pork than turkey,” says Chef Hughes. “Our tradition here is Ragoût de pattes de cochon, which means ‘pig foot stew.’ My grandmother used to serve it with potatoes and bow-tie pasta.”
For one tasty rendition, try this satisfying and savoury Pig’s Feet Meatball Ragout, packed with meaty morsels of pork. In other versions, beef, pork, or veal meatballs (or all three) swim in the stew, each seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves and rolled in flour to help thicken the broth.
Want to try a Chef Hughes’ family tradition? Fill each bowl with cooked potatoes, a heaping spoonful of stew and meatballs, and then dash with pickled beets — a staple ingredient at his table.
“In the fall, my grandmother pickles her beets,” he says. “Pickled beets are the side dish, served in the centre of the table.”
If you’re tickled by pickled foods, try making some other preserved veggies to accompany the stew. From carrots to cauliflower, dazzle your diners with an array of pickled vegetables using this recipe from Chef Hughes.
Tourtiere and Bûche de Noël
No French Canadian-inspired festive feast would be complete without tourtière, the famed double-crusted meat pie that originates from Québec. Although every family recipe varies, the basic ingredients are the same: a pastry shell is filled with spiced, minced meat, and then baked until the crust is golden and flaky.
“Obviously, this traditional Québec meat pie is a big part of [holiday eating],” says Chef Hughes.
This delicious dish dates back to 17th century Québec, when the pie played a starring role at réveillon and was often stuffed with wild game (rabbit, pheasant, or moose). For a less rustic rendition, try Chuck’s Tourtiere, a crust teeming with ground pork and veal seasoned in onions, cloves, and spices.
Once your guests are ready to burst, bring out the pièce de résistance — a Bûche de Noël, a one-of-a-kind Québecois dessert. It’s a classic Christmas jelly roll cake, layered with sweet flavours and fillings, such as cream, cherries, and caramel. Rolled up and decorated like a log, just slice it along the end to feature the rings.
Pancakes, Maple Syrup, and Caribou
After such an indulgent midnight feast, what should be on the menu for Christmas morning? Chef Hughes suggests adding a little Québec maple syrup to your holiday brunch.
“Christmastime revolves less around maple syrup, but it’s a big part of celebrating,” he says. “We’ll make pancakes — it’s messy, fun, and easy. You have your pancakes with Québec maple syrup and then you open gifts.”
For something stronger to fight the wintery weather, pour yourself a glass of Caribou — a sweet beverage made of red wine, liquor and maple sugar that’s served warm in the wintertime.
“Back in the day, you’d be outside, playing hockey on the rink, and you’d have a sleigh ride,” says Chef Hughes. “And that’s the thing you’d drink — Caribou. It’s a Québecois alcohol that you drink to warm up.”
Caribou juice aside, Christmas traditions are ever-evolving with the times in Québec. But no matter what’s at your table, Chef Hughes encourages getting playful with festive recipes and ingredients, and adding French Canadian twists to your menu that will delight family and friends. After all, it’s the best way to “keep the tradition alive.”
Looking for more delicious recipe? Try our 10 Delicious French-Canadian Dishes.