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Exploring Tourtières (Canadian Meat Pies)

Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.

Tourtière is a very rich pie made of flaky crust and savory ground meats.

Tourtière is a very rich pie made of flaky crust and savory ground meats.

There's a World of Meat Pies

Let’s spin the globe. No matter where you find a spot of dry land, you will also find a variety of meat pie. Every country, region, and ethnic group has a savory meat-and-crust meal that spotlights their local herbs, spices, proteins, and vegetables. For example:

  • Colombian empanadas
  • English sausage rolls
  • Russian pierogi
  • Moroccan pastille
  • Lebanese sfiha
  • Greek kreatopita
  • Chinese beef meat pies (牛肉馅饼)
  • Quebecois (French Canadian) tourtière

A Brief History of Meat Pies

Long ago, in a distant galaxy . . . No, I'm kidding. But archaeologists do point to the Neolithic Age (about 9500 B.C.) as the advent of the pie. They tell us that our ancestors made a pie that

"was a flat crusty galette made from ground oat, wheat, rye, and barley and was filled with honey. It was baked over hot coals."

Over 3,000 years ago, royal bakers for the pharaohs of Egypt added some fruits. Drawings of this can be found in the Valley of the Kings, etched on the tomb walls of Ramses II. We're told that the Greeks nudged in a bit of meat, but . . . that still sounds like dessert to me. So, where's the beef?

The Roman Empire Came to the Rescue

Leave it to the Romans to assimilate the food of the Greeks and add their own decadent spin. They created a galette filled with meats, oysters, mussels, lampreys, and fish. But there's one problem. They tossed away the crust.

Unlike the flaky pastries that we make today, the crusts of the Romans were little more than a mixture of flour and olive oil. They were rock-hard and not meant to be a part of the meal, they were little more than a convenient vessel.

All Roads Lead to (or Is It From?) Rome

(The following is a greatly abbreviated version of history, with tongue set firmly in cheek.)

Something as wonderful as meat pies (even if the crust is inedible) is difficult to contain. They traveled with the Roman legions and spread across Medieval Europe faster than the plague, with a little help from the Crusades of course. Lords and ladies were still discarding the pastry. (I wonder if this is where we gained the expression “upper crust”.)

The state of the crust improved somewhat in Northern Europe. There the locals grew wheat and raised their own sheep, pigs, and cattle. And instead of olive oil, flour was mixed with butter or lard. With these winning ingredients, a proper meat pie was finally born.

But they weren’t being called pies, at least, not yet. These wonderful meat-filled pastries were called coffins (yes, just like it sounds, meaning a box). Members of royalty (of course) took even this humble dish to the next level. Songbirds were often cooked and used to “adorn” the top of each coffin to indicate the type of filling contained therein. (Perhaps “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” is not merely a nursery rhyme).

The Quebec Meat Pie (aka Tourtière)

The tourtière (tor-tee-AIR) is a direct descendant of those European meat pies of royal birth. The etymology of the name is still subject to debate. Some believe the tourtière comes from the French word for the vessel in which it was baked. Other food historians say the name comes from "toure," the French name for the passenger pigeon that was abundant in the area (and often used as part of the meat filling for the pie).

The people of the Saguenay Lac-St. Jean region claim the tourtière as their invention, created in the 17th century when Quebec was a French settlement.

 Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean's location in comparison to the whole Canadian province of Quebec.

Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean's location in comparison to the whole Canadian province of Quebec.

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Read More From Delishably

Near the end of the century Amelia Simmons wrote and published the first known cookbook by an American author. Unlike other books of Britain, American Cookery presented dishes adapted to the foods available in the Colonies. Within its covers is a recipe that sounds very much like the tourtière of today.

"Four pounds of flour and one and a half pounds of butter mixed together. Wet with cold water and place the dough in the dish. Spread the cuts of pigeon and pieces of turkey, veal, sheep, or birds with the slices of pork, salt, and pepper. Powder it with flour. Continue until the dish is full or the ingredients have been used up. Add three pints of water. Cover carefully with dough and let cook moderately two and half hours."

Classic tourtière (Québec pork pie recipe)

Classic tourtière (Québec pork pie recipe)

Classic Tourtière (Québec Pork Pie Recipe)

A true tourtière is not a quick-to-fix meal; it's a labor of love that requires several hours of simmering on the stove and then more time baking in an oven. Perhaps this is why the dish is served at Christmas-time or for New Years. It's a special dish not to be taken lightly. Anything that requires this dedication is worthy of celebration. A perfect example of an authentic tourtière is Aimee Wimbush-Bourque's classic tourtière (Québec Pork Pie Recipe).

Aimee was born and raised on the west coast of Canada; she and her siblings were home-schooled in a rural area where they raised chickens, chopped wood, and foraged for mushrooms. That connection to nature led her to Quebec as an adult. She attended culinary school and served as chef, caterer, and personal chef. With love, marriage, and children she has exchanged a chef's apron for a laptop. She and her family now make their home at a seaside cottage in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she has authored two books: The Simple Bites Kitchen, and Brown Eggs and Jam Jars.

Her recipes are artfully photographed, precise, do-able by even the novice cook, and a true expression of Canadian cuisine.

Carb Diva's tourtière

Carb Diva's tourtière

Carb Diva's Tourtière

Butter and sour cream make this crust very rich and flaky; I find this recipe a bit easier to work with than traditional pie crust recipes that use only shortening or lard.


For the pastry:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 12 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 3 tablespoons milk

For the filling:

  • 1 1/2 pounds ground turkey (93/7 ratio of lean to fat)
  • 1/2 pound ground pork
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cups onion, finely minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 carrot, peeled and finely diced
  • 1/4cup red bell pepper, finely diced
  • 1 large russet potato, shredded
  • 1 cup beef broth
  • 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
  • 1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water to make an egg wash

Step 1: Make the Pastry

  1. Place flour, salt, and butter in the bowl of a food processor. Cut in butter using on/off pulses. The mixture will resemble coarse crumbs.
  2. Add sour cream and pulse until blended.
  3. Add milk and process until dough forms. Gather dough into a ball. Cut the ball of dough in half.
  4. Place a sheet of waxed paper on a work surface and flour lightly. Place one piece of dough in the center of the floured waxed paper, turn over to coat both sides with flour. Place the second sheet of waxed paper over the top of the dough. (You now have a "sandwich" of waxed paper, floured dough, and waxed paper).
  5. Using a rolling pin, gently roll dough to 1/8-inch thickness
  6. Remove the top layer of waxed paper and then gently drape back on the dough. You are doing this to release the dough so that it no longer adheres to the waxed paper. Quickly flip the dough/waxed paper sandwich over and remove the other sheet of waxed paper.

Step 2: Make the Filling

  1. Place ground meats in a large mixing bowl. Combine baking soda and water and drizzle over the meat. Toss to combine and set aside. According to America’s Test Kitchen, the baking soda solution alters the pH of the meat proteins so that they will brown more quickly and release less liquid (your meat will not taste or feel dry when cooked).
  2. Next, heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over low heat. Add onion and sauté 15-20 minutes, until onion is tender and beginning to brown. Add garlic, carrot, bell pepper, potatoes, broth, and seasonings. Simmer, uncovered about 20 minutes or until most liquid is absorbed. Stir a few times to keep from stitching or scorching.
  3. Add the ground meat to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, until no longer pink, about 10-15 minutes. Break up the meat with a spoon into small crumbles.
  4. Remove from heat and set aside to cool to room temperature. (Don’t forget to remove the bay leaf).

Step 3: Assemble and Bake

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. While the filling cools prepare pastry and line a deep 9-inch baking dish with about 2/3 of the dough. Spoon in the filling (level it with your spoon), and then add the top crust. Cut a few decorative slits to allow steam to escape.
  3. Brush the top crust with egg wash.
  4. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F. and continue to bake until the pie is golden brown, about 30 minutes more.
  5. Let cool for 30 minutes before serving.

Yield: 8 servings

Savory tourtière

Savory tourtière

Savory Tourtière

The traditional seasoning for a Quebec tourtière is cinnamon,cloves, nutmeg and allspice. Denise Pare-Watson's mom makes a more savory tourtière with sage and poultry seasoning.

Vegan tourtière

Vegan tourtière

Vegan Tourtière

By definition, a tourtière is full to the max with juicy meat, often several types of meat. How could it possibly be made as a vegetarian meal? Sam Turnbull is a cookbook author living in Toronto, Canada. She grew up in a meat-eating family; they raised chickens, went hunting and fishing, and ate what they believed was a healthy protein-rich diet.

In 2012 she had an epiphany. A documentary caused her to re-evaluate her philosophy on animals and food. She knew in her heart that she wanted to be a vegan, but hated the foods she found at her local health-food store. However, Sam was an experienced cook and realized that with her skills she could probably make real-food, not fake food that looks and tastes satisfying.

Sam solved the problem of filling her vegan tourtière with juicy meat—the meaty part is tofu crumbles (which she makes herself) and the juicy part is mushroom. Humans experience five tastes—sweet, sour, salt, bitter, and umami. Umami means "meaty/satisfying" and that is the flavor profile for tofu and mushrooms.


© 2020 Linda Lum

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