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The heart-stopping combination of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy went from being a Québécois sensation to a well-loved dish all over Canada.
Text: Charlotte Mountford
Country: Canada

rench fries, cheese curds and hot gravy all mixed together – it may sound disgusting, but many Canadians are passionate about their poutine.

The ultimate “comfort food,” poutine originated in Canada’s Quebec Province in the 1950’s as a solid working-class meal. Today it still warms the Québécois during their long harsh winters, where temperatures can reach -15°C. Although it began as lowly grub in French speaking Quebec, poutine is now popular all over the country, and considered by many to be the national dish of Canada.

Many Canadians specify the importance of eating poutine from a disposable container, and preferably polystyrene for maximum insulation – if it’s served on a china plate it’s “just not the same.”

“Poutine reminds me of university, when at 2 a.m. nothing compares to lining up in the snow, waiting for a warm plastic container filled with the most delicious morsels of gravy covered fries. Oh and the gooey cheese.…” sighs Kim, 27, from Vancouver, Canada. “You always have to save a piece of cheese for the last gravy-soaked French fry!!”

Some prefer their “disco snack” a bit drier: “I love poutine….” says Amy, 24, from Toronto, Canada, “the thing is, I don’t eat it much because its reeeeally fatty! But I love the cheese and gravy – but not too much gravy or it gets soggy, gross!”

So how do you make this Canadian fast food treat? First, you take freshly cut potatoes and fry them to make the French fries. Some experts insist they must be fried in pure lard as vegetable oil – and other arguably healthier options – spoil the unique taste of this junk-food feast.

Then comes the cheese – “the most important part of a good poutine,” say those who know. Only fresh white cheddar cheese curds should be used – these curds have a taste and texture very different to actual cheddar cheese. And there’s a test: if they are fresh, the cheese curds should actually squeak in your teeth as you bite them.

Lastly, the hot gravy or “velouté,” poured all over the fries to melt the cheese curds and complete the treat. The gravy should be very thick and dark, with a rich flavour enhanced by secret ingredients like pepper and vinegar. Canadians like to buy the powdered St-Hubert BBQ Ltd brand from local Quebec supermarkets. “If you can stand the spoon straight up in the gravy, that’s a good sign,” one poutine dedicated website claims.

There are many such websites, poutine facebook groups with membership in the hundred thousands and entire annual festivals held in honour of it, t-shirts printed with it. “J’aime la poutine! I love poutine!” Christine, 50, from Montreal, Canada, exclaims. As a dish, it couldn’t be more loved.

Yet poutine wasn’t always so popular: many French Canadians, proud of their haute cuisine, were embarrassed by the cheap workers’ food. In 1991 the Quebec Premier was too ashamed to admit to press that he had ever eaten poutine. And Christine from Montreal agrees that it was “not really on the menu when I was growing up.” But rising global demand for fast food, and an increased interest in local, rustic dishes by travelling food lovers, has put poutine firmly back on the table.

In the recent global recession poutine came back into its own, with people lining up outside restaurants in Quebec City to get their share – an economic and satisfying way to fill your stomach.

One young Canadian, Teddy, 27, dislikes the dish for health and taste reasons. “I personally would rather we have no national dish than claim poutine as it,” he says. Poutine has even been called a “heart attack in a bowl.”

Despite this, poutine has claimed a hopefully non-fatal place in the hearts of most Canadians. “It is pretty greasy but very delicious – believe me,” says Christine.

And I do: one winter’s holiday in Whistler ski resort, Canada, I sampled my first poutine. It was late at night and freezing as I skidded over ice on my way back from the nightclub. One mouthful of the gooey goodness, and I was converted: if only they sold it in London.… Or maybe you need the biting Canadian cold to make this Québécois specialty taste so good, enjoyed after the wintery pursuits of skiing, ice skating, ringette, or ice hockey.

No longer viewed as poor-man’s fodder from small-town Quebec, today poutine has fans across Canada and beyond: sweet, warming, and hearty, a bit like the Canadians themselves.

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