The province of Quebec is complex and beautiful. Sure, 18-year-old Americans still come here for a wild weekend, Celine Dion -- and Cirque de Soleil -- were born here, and we might have a bad rep for language discrimination... but all of that pales in comparison to our accolades. Quebec has become an icon on the international stage for its cuisine, with many dishes deeply rooted in history and tradition (and no, we aren’t solely referring to the tradition of going on a poutine run after a night on the town). Whether you were born here or not, there are things you must eat and drink before you can stand tall and call yourself a true Quebecois. These are those items, in no particular order:
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Montreal-style smoked meat is a staple of the city, and we have our Jewish community to thank for supplying us with the scrumptious preparation of brisket. While some smoked meat aficionados argue that Dunn’s, Reuben’s, and Jarry Smoked Meat serve the best smoked meat on rye bread with mustard, no deli is as iconic as Schwartz’s.
Bûche de Noël
No Christmas feast is complete in Quebec without a log-shaped cake called bûche de Noël -- served at the end of the meal. The Yule log tradition first started in the 12th century when Europeans would burn a log sprinkled with oil and wine to ward off evil spirits on Christmas Eve. Leave it to the Parisians to draw inspiration from this ritual by creating a cake version of the Yule log by rolling up sponge cake and filling -- and covering -- it in buttercream. The cake is now a common fixture on Quebecois Christmas tables with slight modifications thanks to pastry chefs who continue to experiment with its flavors, including espresso, passion fruit, lemon, and hazelnut. Patrice Patissier creates a bûche de Noël menu every Christmas season that features flavors like dark chocolate, banana with caramel version, and also, a lemon with a white chocolate mousse and sweet clover cake. It’s easy to understand why reserving a cake in advance is highly recommended.
Pâté chinois is the Quebecois version of a shepherd’s pie, but it’s also a source of contention when the order of its layers are not respected and people try to get fancy with the ingredients. The typical pâté chinois starts with a bottom layer of beef (sometimes with onions), then corn, then mashed potatoes, sometimes sprinkled with paprika on top. Since this is a dish from most Quebecers’ childhoods, many will argue they can’t eat it without squirting ketchup on their slice of pâté chinois. Even though chinois means Chinese, the meal itself is far from being so. This likely has you asking yourself, so where does this chinois part of the name come from? Rumor has it that pâté chinois was introduced to French-Canadians working on the railways by Chinese cooks who obtained the recipe from their British employers. While the best pâté chinois are made in most Quebecois households, there are two restaurants worth ordering the comfort food dish at, La Binerie Mont-Royal and Restaurant Mâche.
Pouding chômeur, meaning "poor man’s pudding," is surprisingly rich and smothered in maple syrup. The dessert was first created during the Great Depression by women who wanted to conjure up a sweet treat that didn’t require expensive ingredients. Using butter, flour, milk, eggs, and maple syrup, the humble, upside down cake can still be found everywhere from any grand-mère’s kitchen to popular restaurants like Jardin Nelson offers the scrumptious dessert year round while Juliette et Chocolat serves up a delicious pouding chômeur with candied bacon as part of their maple season menu.
This old-school dessert is a lot less mainstream than pouding chômeur, even though the two were invented around the same time. Using minimal ingredients that weren’t too expensive, Quebecers created soft dumplings using butter and flour and fried them up in boiling maple syrup. Yes, more maple syrup. Some say the dessert was created with grandfathers in mind... particularly those who didn’t have teeth so the soft dumplings made it easy for them to eat it. The best place to find these sweet treats is to visit a cabane à sucre like Érablière au Sous-Bois.
There is nothing better than poutine after leaving a bar or club in the early hours of the morning. Actually, there is nothing better than a poutine at any time of day. French fries topped with cheese curds and covered in rich, brown gravy is the base of any good poutine. While many restaurants experiment with toppings like foie gras, smoked meat, chorizo, and pulled pork, the defining characteristic of good poutine are cheese curds that squeak when bitten into. Montreal’s La Banquise serves reliably classic poutine, but be sure to check out Poutine Week every February, a province-wide competition where restaurants explore the depths of their poutine creativity for seven days.
This deep-dish meat pie is a classic French-Canadian staple that abides by no rules. Fill it with veal, pork, lamb, beef, moose, or any game meat, and the double-crusted pie will always be delicious. Adding vegetables to a tourtière isn’t a faux pas, but the crust and the meat should be the focus of this pie for it to be considered a true tourtière. When serving a tourtière, keep ample supplies of ketchup (preferably a homemade version) and maple syrup on hand. For the best tourtière in the province, head to the Saguenay--Lac-Saint-Jean region where the pies are made with scrumptious potatoes.
Oreilles de crisse
Oreilles de crisse are deep-fried pork jowls often used to garnish soups and stews. They’re often served at breakfast with baked beans and eggs, and the crunchy pieces of pork are elevated to the next-level when dipped in -- you guessed it -- maple syrup. During the sugaring off season, you could find oreilles de crisse at Atwater Market and Jean-Talon Market and they also accompany every meal at sugar shacks across the maple-filled province.
Cretons and baked beans
When you order bacon and eggs in Quebec, your breakfast will almost always be accompanied by baked beans cooked in pork fat, maple syrup, and a pinkish, gray square that looks like pâté. Looks can be deceiving though, as cretons aren’t as smooth as pâté. Made up of pork, onions, spices, and pig marrow (to help it congeal), the fatty and cold spread is great on toasted bread with a touch of maple syrup. Practically every restaurant that serves breakfast across the province adds fruits, a creton square and a little bowl of fèves au lard aka baked beans to your dish. Head over to L’Avenue and Regine Cafe if you’re craving some homemade cretons with your delicious brunch.
This one is a given: 72% of the world’s maple syrup is produced in Quebec. This translates to roughly 800 million dollars a year. It's liquid gold to our economy and to our stomachs, and most of Quebec’s culinary staples revolve around it. Traditional cabanes à sucre (sugar shacks) are open year-round, but maple season (the best time to visit) usually runs from the end of February until the end of March. The earlier winter ends, the sooner maple trees can be tapped.
Cabane à sucre menu
The true rite of passage for any Quebecer is going to an aforementioned cabane à sucre and feasting until you’re a bloated, sugar-filled mess. The meal begins innocently enough with maple taffy or as we call it, la tire. Boiling hot maple syrup is poured onto snow in a straight line, and it’s up to you to take your Popsicle stick and roll it into a ready-to-eat maple lollipop. Once you’ve finished your taffy, lunch begins with a bowl of yellow pea soup, on which you’re encouraged to drizzle maple syrup. Then comes the main feast: ham, pork links, bacon, meatballs in gravy, oreilles de crisse, cretons, baked beans, pancakes, the thickest slice of omelette you’ve ever seen, and heaps of maple syrup to drown every item on your plate (or plates). Once you’re full and ready to be rolled out, it’s time for dessert: more maple taffy on snow, pouding chômeur, and sugar pies. If at the end of your meal you find yourself sticky and sleepy, you know you’ve made your province proud. Érablière Charbonneau and Cabane À Sucre Labranche are some of the best traditional sugar shacks around, but the one cabane à sucre that will have you salivating for days is Chef Martin Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack.
I once had a co-worker from Joliette tell me her grandmother made the best sugar pie around (a common statement made by many), but like most grandmothers, she doesn’t use a recipe and definitely doesn’t measure her ingredients. Doing everything by eye, my co-worker would watch intensely as her grandmother made a sugar pie and soon realized what the secret to her delicious pie was: heaping scoops of sugar. This classic Quebecois dessert is made with flour, butter, cream, and loads of brown sugar or maple syrup. The foolproof way to know if your sugar pie is legit is to have it be so sugary that it hurts your teeth. If you don’t know the feeling, you’re not a full-fledged Quebecois. If you aren’t fortunate enough to have a friend who is gracious enough to share her grandmother’s sweet treats, make your way over to Mamie Clafoutis, Sweet Lee’s, and check your local markets and grocery stores for sugar pies that come directly from sugar shacks.
Pets de Soeur
The name of our next dessert is a funny one, but since this is the province that hosts Just for Laughs and practically every Quebecois swear word is connected to the church, it makes sense. Pets de soeur, which translates to "nun’s farts," are rolled up pastries with a brown sugar and butter filling that resemble a brioche. You can eat them individually or they can be made into a sugary cake. While no one truly knows where the name comes from, some simply assume the pastry was known to give nuns gas. To find the best tasting with the most unique presentation of pets de soeur in Quebec, make a reservation at Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack where it’s served as a pie and comes to your table with a porcelain nun on top to keep it warm.
Opening up a bottle of Domaine Pinnacle, Clos Saragnat, Domaine Lafrance, or Domaine Neige is the best way to end a good, hearty meal. Quebec’s ice cider game is strong and within the last few years, it has become widely popular internationally. There are two ways to make ice cider. The first, cryoconcentration, involves harvested apples that are stored until the temperature drops to freezing cold levels. It's at that point the apples are juiced and left in the cold. By doing this, the water in the juice begins to separate, leaving a concentrate behind that's fermented before becoming ice cider. Another method that Quebecois cideries use is called cryoextraction, which means the apples are left on the tree to freeze, defrost, and repeat on their own until they are eventually picked, pressed, and fermented. This practice is much more difficult, but the results are often delicious, complex notes that are well-worth the added work. See these methods up close when taking a cider tour of any cidery like Cidrerie Michel Jodoin in Rougemont, Domaine Neige in Hemmingford, and Cidrerie du Minot Inc, also in Hemmingford.
Sucre à la crème
How to adequately describe sucre à la crème? It's sugar... on top of sugar... with more sugar, and a small dash of sugar on top of that in the shape of a cube. It’s basically the craziest sugar high of your life waiting to happen in fudge form. The secret to a good batch of sucre à la crème, which is made with cream, butter, and heaps of sugar, is in the consistency of the sugar. You don’t want your fudge to be gritty or granular, so powder sugar is the way to go. Some will also swap out half of the sugar content for maple syrup. Yup, we’re serious about our syrup. While the best sucre à la crème is made in Quebecois households, you could always find some great fudge at Délices Érable & Cie and Mlles Gâteaux.
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Felicia Di Palma is a freelance writer for Thrillist and a short, feisty woman who loves to eat, drink, laugh, and travel -- not necessarily in that order.