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Gourmet Poutine
by Barry Lazar
To be really authentic the potatoes must be old
The gravy must be hot and the cheese must be cold
With a Journal de Montréal wherever it is sold
Served with a roll in a bowl by a troll.
Bowser & Blue, from The Night They Invented Poutine

What is the great culinary secret of Montreal's top chefs? Could it be the way Martin Picard bakes a succulent whole fish in a salt crust at Club des Pins? Is it the way Normand Laprise makes a luscious goose liver at Toqué? Is it David MacMillan's three-hour braised rabbit at Globe? Might it be Gilles St. Hilaire's sea bass with black beans and galanga served at the Ritz-Carlton? Or is it that once in a while these top chefs whip up a little local delicacy in the privacy of their kitchens, a little something Québecois that isn't on their menus? Did someone say poutine?

Ah, there it is. The national dish that never makes it to the menus of our most fashionable restaurants gets to the taste buds of our top chefs.

"I make it for la famille,"said Laprise. La famille is chef-talk for the restaurant's staff. "I use a little goat cheese, some duck gravy and I prefer Yukon gold potatoes for frying." It's not quite what they serve at the Montreal Pool Room, but it does have the essential ingredients: potatoes, cheese, and gravy.

The Globe's poutine is not on the menu but chef David McMillan has been known to serve it on request. It is made from thickly cut and freshly fried potatoes, a sauce derived from rendered duck skin, and Stilton. Stilton? "It's also good with buffalo-milk boccocini," said McMillan, serving up a platter with a glass of Côtes du Rhône.

The Club des Pin's chef, Martin Picard, doesn't serve poutine in his restaurant; but if his sister's kids are at his home for dinner he often takes out his french frier, pours in peanut oil, and cuts french fries from old PEI potatoes. ("They are the same ones Frites Alors uses," he said). He tops it with cheddar cheese curds and bbq sauce. "I use Habitant brand." Martin has tried more exotic versions of poutine but said nothing can beat the original version. "I like it with ketchup," he added.

Poutine's climb into the exalted kitchens of our master chefs needs a little context. There are many dishes made with potatoes and cheese but the potatoes are usually mashed and the cheese grated into the dish. There are also a few versions of potatoes and gravy but here the potatoes are usually roasted in the same pan as the meat and braise in the sauce. There are even a few dishes that bring french fries into the mix. In Boston, gravy is poured on top of french fries and the dish is called "wets." But only in Quebec did the three essential ingredients—fries, cheese, and sauce—come together to make poutine.

The word itself derives from pudding. According to Bill Casselman's outstanding compendium—Canadian Food Words—the English word "pudding" became "la poutina" in a local dialect of Southern France. Loosely translated, it meant stuff stuck in a mess of something else.

Acadian cooking includes a well-known traditional dish called poutines râpées. It has mashed and grated potatoes, salt pork and spices. This kind of poutine can also be made with onions and flour, stuffed into a cotton sac and steamed or boiled. One recipe in La cuisine traditionnelle en Acadie notes that "you can also cut the potatoes into slices and fry them in pork fat or butter."

So imagine these varied Acadian approaches to cooking potatoes migrating into Quebec as far as the Townships. There, one day a truck driver with a load of cheddar cheese curds persuaded restaurant owner Fernand Lachance (often called "le père de la poutine") to mix the cheese into the french fries. Lachance added his wife's gravy. Voila, une poutine de chez nous!

You might consider poutine as an all-in-one meal. There's protein and calcium in the cheese, fiber and vitamins in the potatoes, plenty of carbohydrates and enough calories to jump start the Concordia Stingers offensive line.

But ask a group of friends if they want to go out for poutine and the response will be mixed at best. Maybe it is because it so often made so poorly.

It is easy to spot a bad poutine. The fries are limp and lukewarm, the cheddar cheese smells a little, well, cheesy; the curds have the consistency of pencil erasers; and the sauce is as appealing as sludge.

A new documentary about Quebec cooking—De la poutine à la terrine—starts with the premise that poutine has given Quebec cooking a bad name, that outside Quebec many people equate all Québec fare with poutine. The film, by Ian McLaren, shows how sumptuous and varied our cuisine has become.

Great poutine requires just as much effort as any good cooking. The potatoes must be freshly cut and fried so they are crunchy outside, soft within. They need to be a little firmer and less greasy than standard fries. They have a heck of a load to bear.

The cheese should should smell fresh and taste a little rich, slightly sweet from the milk and slightly salty from the processing. Cheddar cheese curds do the trick. They melt satisfyingly onto the fries but still retain their consistency and flavour.

Finally the sauce must have its own flavour. It should be a little tart to balance the richness of the cheese. The ideal poutine sauce is also the same gravy used for hot chicken or hamburger sandwiches at a good casse-croute. If the sauce is only used for poutine, it has probably been on the back burner for some time getting progressively lumpier and overcooked. Great sauces work with lots of dishes and so should the gravy for poutine.

The standard for great poutine is a high one. Most of the chains cut their fries too thin to support the incredible burden of poutine. The Montreal Pool Room and Frites Alors both have great fries but their sauces taste like bland over-starched consommé. Worse, some places crush the curds into the french fries so that everything turns into mush.

Not so at Chez Clo, an unpretentious "mets Québecois" snack-bar-cum-bistro on Ontario street, in the city's east end.

At Chez Clo, the juke box is stacked with 45 rpm records, dozens of pudding chomeurs sit in their small saucers ready for the daily specials, and the poutine tastes great. This is not bloat-the-belly food. Here is the essence of poutine. The potatoes are hand cut, the cheese is fresh and the sauce is superb—not cloying, a little spicy and beefy, just the way good gravy should be. The ingredients are a secret. "It has a chef's love" said Isabel Ruel, who makes it.

Great chefs know that good peasant food can make sublime dining. "Why shouldn't we serve it? It has good local ingredients," said Fred Morin, Globe's sous-chef. "We should take pride in poutine."

In McLaren's film, the food writer Daniel Pinard almost drools as he tells of a marvellous poutine he had in the Charlevoix. It was made with a demi-glace and morels.

Maybe we are at the start of a new appreciation for Quebec's least-applauded dish. The attitudes of our trendiest taste mavens are changing. Poutine is about to come out of the closet. Look for it soon in a fine restaurant chez nous.

Here is how two of our top chefs make poutine:

Traditional Poutine à la Ritz
The Ritz-Carlton-s Executive-Chef Gilles St-Hilaire serves this at home.

35O gr. French fries
20O gr. Canned poutine or BBQ sauce
25O gr. Cheese curds
2 Tomatoes, diced
1/2 teaspoon fresh tarragon, chopped
1 Clove of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
A dash of chili, salt and fine ground pepper

Preheat olive oil. Add garlic, tomatoes and tarragon and simmer for 2 minutes. once done, put aside. In a deep bowl, put 100 gr. of cheese and all the French fries. Add the tomato mixture, as well as the rest of the cheese. Add Poutine or BBQ sauce. Sprinkle with a dash of chili, salt and fine ground pepper. To add flavor to the sauce, reduce it by 1/2 and add a few roasted chicken bones while it cooks. Remove the bones before serving.

Modern American Bistro Poutine
The Globe's David McMillan builds a tower of poutine and cheese in a lagoon of rich duck gravy or a reduced red wine sauce. This version is based on what he serves.

Make the sauce first and set it aside.The sauce could be as simple as the one in the previous recipe. Better yet, save the pan drippings the next time you roast meat or fowl. Pour off the fat. Add enough chicken stock and a dash of good red wine to make a cup of thin sauce. Boil this slowly to reduce the amount by as much as half or until it thickens. Add salt and pepper to taste. You can thicken it further by adding teaspoon of cornstarch. To keep the sauce from being lumpy, first add enough liquid to the cornstarch to make a runny paste and then stir this back into the sauce. Keep it warm.

Cut two large potatoes (350 grams) Pont-Neuf style. These will look like small square logs about 1/3 of an inch thick and 2 1/2 inches long. Fry them golden brown. Drain them well. Stack them to build a small square tower 4 to 6 inches high. Fill the center with your favourite cheese. Stilton, fresh mozzarella or cheddar curds all work well. Top with some finely chopped fresh chives. Pour the sauce around the base of the tower.

Chez Clo is at 3199 Ontario St.East (522-5348). Poutine starts at $3.75. Globe is at 3455 St-Laurent (284-2823). Poutine costs between $9 and $12.

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