HALIFAX, N.S. – Journalist, writer and producer Simon Thibault lives in Halifax now, but his French-Acadian roots are solidly planted in Digby County and the lovingly named French Shore.
It’s no surprise then that his latest cookbook, Pantry and Palate: Remembering and Rediscovering Acadia Food, is focused squarely on the savoury and comforting foods of his past and his culture.
“After years of having my mother make Christmas dinner for an extended family, about 10 or more years ago I started making Christmas Dinner myself for the family,” Thibault said. “One of the things that has become a tradition itself is a cider-brined turkey, which is very 21st century, very modern.”
“I also make a maple-pumpkin crème brûlée, for dessert, which my mom is now like ‘please make this’ every year now,” he said with a laugh. “Tradition is great, but there’s always room for bits of change too.”
Thibault says almost every Acadian or Franco-Canadian household will usually have some form of meat pie for the holidays, from tourtiere to wild game, as long as there’s some kind of meat involved – it fits the mould.
With his new book, Thibault scoured through old cookbooks and recipies and said the feedback he’s received from other Acadian families has been eye-opening.
“They’ll write to me and say ‘oh my God, you put this in that?’ People, especially around the holidays, have very specific relationships to foods, it has to be done the same way year after year,” he said. “I respect and admire that, but at the same time, people have to realize that people also eat other things.”
Growing up in Church Point, or Pointe-de-l’Église in Digby County until he moved to Halifax, Thibault has a strong connection with Acadian cuisine and says he’s noticed a growing awareness and fondness for it.
“What I’ve really learned about this book is that people are starting to look at their own food as a manifestation of their own culture and that’s kind of exciting to see,” he said. “I grew up with a very specific meat pie recipe, made up of wild rabbit in a tea biscuit dough, which was very particular to my home, but other parts of the Maritimes have differences that are very specific to each home and each family.”
Thibault said he had to be careful with this project, as some of the recipes are considered sacrosanct to so many people.
But Thibault says in the end, no matter what you make, cooking together is the most important part.
“If you’re worried about cooking or not super comfortable with it, the best time to do it is over the holidays because you’re doing it together,” he said. “The actual taste experience is secondary to actually making it together. I think that’s really kind of wonderful.”
Simon Thibault’s favourite holiday recipe –
½ cup (115 g) butter
1 cup (200 g) sugar
½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) nutmeg, or more to taste
1 tablespoon (15 ml) milk
1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla
2½ cups (325 g) flour, sifted
¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) salt
1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking soda
2 teaspoons (10 ml) cream of tartar
1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking powder
1. Preheat oven to 350 F (175 C).
2. Cream the butter, sugar and nutmeg together until pale white.*
3. Add eggs, milk and vanilla, and stir until smooth.
4. Sift together the flour and other dry ingredients.
5. Incorporate dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, creating a dough.
6. Roll the dough into two logs, wrap in plastic film and chill for one hour.
7. On a floured surface, roll the dough until it is a little more than an ⅛ of an inch thick.
8. Cut into desired shapes, using cookie cutters. If you don’t have a cookie cutter, even a small water glass will do the trick.
9. Place in oven and bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until the edges turn golden brown.
* The original recipe stated to add the nutmeg with the rest of the dry ingredients. Adding it earlier during the creaming stage allows the flavour to bloom in the dough much better.
TOURTIÈRE – from Pantry and Palate: Remembering and Rediscovering Acadia Food by Simon Thibault
Tourtiere is another of those dishes that is eaten in many French-Canadian households, whether you’re an Acadian, Quebecois, or Franco-Ontarian. It’s just another of those wonderfully filling and festive dishes made with pork as the star of the show; it is also supported by other meats such as beef or veal, which help contribute to a moist pie filling. I wanted to include a few versions of tourtiere, from a very humble recipe to more elaborate versions.
LES DAMES PATRONESSES TOURTIÈRE MAKES 1 PIE, SERVES 4– 6
The first recipe is another of those I found in the Les Dames Patronesses collection. It is attributed to Mrs. Robert Belliveau and is a no-nonsense recipe. I’ve changed a little bit of the wording to make the directions a bit more clear. I’m somewhat surprised that it asks for veal, which isn’t always the easiest meat to gain access to—let alone in 1960s rural Nova Scotia—but it adds much in terms of lusciousness to the finished pie.
For the filling:
1 pound diced pork shoulder
1/4 pound ground veal (or diced)
3 tablespoons chopped onion
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup warm water
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cloves
pinch of summer savoury
pinch of thyme
• In a skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the pork, veal, and onions and cook about 25 minutes, stirring often.
• Season the mixture with with cloves, thyme, summer savoury, salt, and cinnamon. Taste for seasoning, and adjust if necessary. Allow to cool completely—preferably overnight—in the fridge before preparing the dough.
For the pastry:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup shortening
4 tablespoons ice-cold water
• To make the pastry, measure the flour into a large bowl, then sift in the salt.
• Cut in shortening finely until pea-sized.
• Blend in cold water and mix with fork until the dough comes together.
• Wrap the dough in wax paper and refrigerate for 20 minutes. Divide the dough in two and roll each portion to 1/8-inch thickness.
• Place 1 layer on a 9-inch pie plate, fill with meat mixture, then cover with other layer of dough with cut eyelets.
• Cook 10 minutes at 450˚F and then for 25 minutes at 350˚F.
• Allow to cool slightly, about 30 minutes, before serving.