Words by Pete Heck / Photography by Dalene & Pete Heck
When travel gives you the opportunity to taste food at its origin – fresh pasta crafted by hand in Italy, authentic pierogi in Poland, baba ganuj in Jordan – it has the unintentional affect of turning ones palate more discriminatory. I’ve turned into a food snob, I totally admit it. I often steer away from these specific cuisine-style restaurants outside of their original countries. While the food can still be quite good, it just doesn’t taste the same in comparison.Our return to Quebec was highly anticipated for several reasons, one significant one being that it is the home of Montreal smoked meat sandwiches and poutine. We savoured our first real taste two years ago on a mammoth 6 hour food tour through various Montreal neighbourhoods and we sampled some of the best. These items are popular across Canada and we’ve tasted it on several other occasions, but it of course was never quite the same. And while Quebec’s food history is an interesting and varied one – from native cuisine to French, to English, to Quebecois, and includes some quite interesting and entertaining side stories (seriously, read this account of how the Pope was petitioned to make beaver tail declared a fish) – my interest, and my salivary glands, drove me back to these two standards.
Quoted by Montreal writer Mordecai Richler: smoked meat is a “maddening aphrodisiac”. Similar to Pastrami but packed with more flavour and less sugar, it’s a beef brisket that has been salted and cured and covered in spices for over a week, hot smoked and finally steamed to completion. The most common preparation stacks the meat between two pieces of rye bread. The result is melt in your mouth meat full of smoked flavour.It’s unclear who brought the godly meat sandwich to Quebec, but most indications are that the creators were from Eastern Europe. But regardless, shrines should be built for whoever did. Simple, delicious, and I have yet to find it so good elsewhere on this planet.
While the majority of people immediately default to Montreal when discussing smoked meat, that best we sampled in Quebec easily rivaled it. In fact, we frequented La Fabrique du Smokemeat on more than one occasion. The clear indicator that this small shop outside of the tourist centre is the real-deal is the fact that there was a staff member outside to guide traffic during the lunch hour rush. It is that popular, and that good.
Typically served up in Quebec’s greasy-spoon-diner style places, it consists of french fries topped with squeaky cheese curds and doused in gravy. In fact according to Merriam-Webster, poutine is from a Quebecois slang word which quite appropriately means “mess”. It was thought the dish was originally topped solely with the cheese curds, and the gravy added later in an effort to keep the fries warmer longer.It sounds like a heart attack in a bowl and it pretty much is. But damn if it isn’t the perfect hangover cure or comfort food. There are restaurants dedicated solely to it and even many variations to the plain poutine. But I found simple to be the way to go. Leave all the other toppings for some other dish.
Frite A’lors is an excellent spot for a diverse menu of different classic poutines. I also liked Le Chic Shack that does a more gourmet variation: smashed potatoes instead of fries and the gravy settling on the bottom as opposed to oozing over the top, to save the crispness of the potatoes.