What could be better for a historic cook? A cooking challenge, a holiday event, a traditional recipe and a research mystery, all combined!
The challenge: the Historical Food Fortnightly, a year-long social media event that encourages bloggers to cook from a historic recipe every two weeks. Challenge #1, “Meat-and-Potatoes.” The event: our yearly holiday gig at fur trader Oliver Faribault’s cabin. The recipe: tourtière, a spiced meat pie famously served as part of réveillon, a traditional feast enjoyed on Christmas or New Year’s Eve by French-Canadians everywhere.
Easy to make from potatoes and whatever meat is on hand; tourtière reheats easily, keeps well and serves many. While the filling usually includes pork, it is sometimes mixed with other meats, including local game and fowl such as rabbit or partridge. Often served cold , the use of quatre épices, a mixed spice or “kitchen pepper” (salt, pepper and allspice or clove, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon), helps insure the pie’s keeping abilities as well as give it its unique flavor.
The mystery? For all the times I’ve made this pie for club gatherings as well as living history events, I’ve never followed a proper recipe, historic or modern. Except for the spices, it’s been slightly different every time I’ve made it. Google up the name and there are hundreds of variations, all claiming to be “traditional.” But I wanted a primary source, an 18th century primary source, a source that could justify tourtière appearing at upper Midwest fur trade sites in the early 19th century.
My search for a truly historic recipe led me in many different directions. Apparently, several recipes for tourtière were printed in La cuisinière canadienne (Montreal, 1840), the first French-language cookbook published in Canada. But I don’t speak (or read) French; plus I wanted a source closer to the time of the British fur trade period. So off I went in search of earlier recipes.
It turns out tourtière has a complex culinary heritage, having evolved from all sorts of meat pies, both aristocratic and humble, including cipaille, “sea pie,” tourtes, and “pan-pies.” (Interestingly, the name “cipaille” is of English origin, being derived from the similarly pronounced “sea pie.”) So searching for tourtière led me to dozens of recipes in which pork, mutton, veal, beef, game, various fowl and potatoes (which came into use in the Canadian colonies in the 1770s, by way of the British), all get combined, simmered and spiced before being enclosed in sturdy pastry.
For inspiration, I finally settled on a recipe for “Cheshire Pork Pie for Sea” from Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747 edition) because it included both meat and potatoes.
Take some salt pork that has been boiled, cut it into thin slices, an equal quantity of potatoes, pared and sliced thin, make a good crust, cover the dish lay a layer of meat seasoned with a little pepper,
and a layer of potatoes, then a layer of meat, a layer of potatoes, and so on, till your pie is full.
Season it with pepper, when it is full, lay some butter on the top, and fill your dish above half full of soft water. Close your pie up and bake it in a gentle oven.
Glasse’s recipe (1774 edition) for “A Yorkshire Christmas Pie” was also inspirational because of its holiday connection, a rather large variety of meats and her instructions to season with mace, nutmeg, cloves, pepper and salt.
. . . bone a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon. . . Have a hare ready cased. Cut it to pieces, that is, joint it; season it, and lay it as close as you can on one side, on the other side woodcocks, moor game and what sort of fowl you can get . . .These pies are often sent to London in a box as presents.
In the end, however, I really didn’t find exactly what I was looking for. It seems older recipes for cipaille, “sea pie,” tourtes and “pan-pies” have gradually morphed into today’s “traditional” tourtière. It’s not surprising that this dish has gained special status as a festive holiday dish. It renews the link between older aristocratic versions of the meat pie and the more popular versions of its predecessors.
Could Oliver have eaten tourtière at a gala réveillon at father Jean-Baptiste Faribault’s spacious home at Mendota? I’d like to think so. Perhaps the elder Faribault recreated the holiday feasts from his early days in New France; perhaps Father Galtier told stories of the festivities that followed midnight mass during his childhood in France; or perhaps Oliver’s mother Pelagie remembered festive meals from her childhood among the English traders at Michilimackinac. In any case, there was plentiful game, cattle and pigs, potatoes shipped up the Mississippi. At Christmas, there was family, celebration, a grand feast and maybe, just maybe, a spiced meat pie or two!
The Challenges: #1. Meat-and-Potatoes, and #3. History Detective
The Recipe: Countless versions exist . . . this one is cobbled together from several modern sources, all claiming to be traditional, and several from late 18th century recipes, particularly from Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.
The Date/Year and Region: late 1700s, early 1800s, upper Midwest fur trading posts
How Did You Make It: A mixture of meats ground together, an onion from the larder, potatoes to bind and moisten, a dash of brandy and lots of warming spices, all encased in a sturdy pastry case.
Time to Complete: Maybe 4 hours, plus a little extra to grind the meat?
Total Cost: Maybe $10 total? Almost everything, except the meats and Cognac, I had on hand.
How Successful Was It? Rich and delicious, this spiced meat pie is perfect winter fare to combat the cold, dark and damp. I make it several times each winter for group gatherings and never have to bring home leftovers!
How Accurate Is It? Since Grandma never taught my mother to make pie dough, and my mother never taught me, I used store-bought frozen dough. (Judge me as you will!) Other than grinding the meat instead of chopping or mincing it, my version is certainly true to the ingredients, methods and spirit of 18th century meat pies. Overall, I’ll give myself an accuracy rating of 85 percent.