Moulton Farm's chef was inspired to develop a recipe for tourtière, a French-Canadian meat pie, after one of his co-workers was unable to buy one last year. For families whose roots extend to Quebec, the pies are an important part of the holidays. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — The earliest distinct memory Father Marc Drouin has of tourtière is of the the wee hours of Christmas morning when he was in third grade. He had just performed the altar service for the Christmas Eve midnight Mass at Sacred Heart Church, then returned home with the rest of his family to hold their family celebration of the holiday. While the children opened presents, the adults spooned coffee grounds into the percolator and put the tourtière – a meat pie of French-Canadian design – into the oven. By about 2:30 a.m., all the presents would have been opened and the pies would be on the table.
The tourtière is a dish of humble elements – ground meat encased in pie crust, often some potato, seasoned with a mix of spices that varies from cook to cook. For people who grew up in a household of French-Canadian heritage, though, the item carries a significance far greater than its ingredients. It's a connection to ethnicity, family, even to faith, and it wouldn't be a holiday without tourtière.
"The first time I had it, I was a kid. It was something my mom and my dad grew up with, so it was something I grew up with," said Drouin. When he was appointed to serve a parish in Exeter, his parents suggested that he bake a batch of tourtière to sell at the parish's holiday fair, which turned into an annual tradition. It turned out to be good practice, because when he was appointed to serve the parish in his own hometown, now known as St. André Bessette, he inherited a similar tradition started by his predecessor, Father Adrien Longchamps.
"One of the first things that they asked me when I came here was, 'Do you make pork pies?'" Yes, yes he does. And, it seems, there are many people who think he makes them rather well. Drouin, with help from a couple dozen volunteers, whips up a large batch of pies which are sold, frozen, at the parish's annual Nutcracker Christmas Fair, held this year on Nov. 4 and 5. Those looking for a tourtière need to get there early, as the frozen meat pies sell like hotcakes. Last year, he made 250, which were sold out within the first two hours of the two-day holiday fair. He and his helpers have prepared 323 this year, with the hopes that they will stay in stock a bit longer.
There's no definitive recipe for tourtière – each family has its own recipe and preferences, often passed down from generation to generation. Pork seems to be the most common protein, though beef often makes and appearance, and other regional variants will include veal, wild game, or even salmon. Seasonings are similarly variable.
Drouin's recipe is based on one that his second-cousin, a cook at a logging camp, made on a daily basis. He uses lean ground pork, carefully cooked so as not to burn or even brown, next the blend of seasonings are added – cinnamon, cloves, allspice, salt, pepper, Accent seasoning and garlic powder, and then he adds cubes of potato, allows the mixture to cool and then puts it into the crust-lined pie plates.
"It's really good," he confessed.
Ted Roy, who, along with his wife, Jennifer, owns the Water Street Café in Laconia, thinks his tourtière is pretty good, too, and he has made it a seasonal standard at their restaurant. In the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons, the pork pie outsells all of his other pies. He will sell about 300 of them each year, including slices to lunch customers and whole pies baked to go.
"My parents are all French-Canadian, it is a natural thing for us," said Roy. "It's been a staple of our diet since we were little kids." Yet, the pie that he serves now is not the same recipe that he ate as a child. Instead, he has adopted the tourtière that his mother-in-law serves at family gatherings. Roy won't share the details of the recipe, other than to say that it's the usual blend of ingredients, perfectly balanced.
Said Roy, "The flavors are just right, the moisture is just right ... I've got this recipe, in my opinion, down to a science."
Even cooks who didn't grow up with the tourtière tradition have learned the dish in order to serve their patrons. Annie Bridgeman, at Annie's Café and Catering in Laconia, said she added pork pies to her list of holiday offerings based on customer requests. The first year that she listed it on her holiday menu, she had 25 orders before she had figured out which recipe to use.
Bridgeman ended up with a recipe that is all about the meat. She uses a whopping three pounds of freshly-ground pork per pie – "cooked until it squeaks" – seasoned with just a little bit of clove and bay leaf. For each pie, she peels a potato, boils it whole, then piles the meat mixture on top and, with everything still hot, mashes it all together by hand.
The daily specials menu at Annie's often feature creative twists on familiar recipes, but she said her tourtière customers aren't looking for surprises.
"I don't dare mess with the pork pies," she said.
At Moulton Farm in Meredith, farm chef Jonathan Diola is a recent inductee into the tourtière world. Diola was raised Catholic in the Philippines, and his family's Christmas tradition was similar to Drouin's, but with noodle dishes and chicken adobo served after midnight mass. When he began working at Moulton Farm, he had a few customers request meat pies. Then, a co-worker, Michael Horne, complained last year that he had tried to get to Laconia in time to buy one of Drouin's tourtière but was told they were sold out.
Diola said, "His grandmother always did the meat pie... he always had a good memory of the meat pie." And, during a visit to Ottowa and Montreal last year, he got to experience the French-Canadian meat pie tradition close-up. "So, I told myself, this year I should try it."
Diola started working with the recipe published by King Arthur Flour, and ended up with a recipe that gained Horne's approval. He uses a combination of ground pork and ground beef, into which he mixes mashed potatoes, and seasons it with clove, nutmeg, allspice, sage, dried thyme and Bell's Seasoning. His original goal was to sell 200 of the meat pies through Thanksgiving, but is on pace to easily exceed that number.
"Hopefully, we will have good feedback from our customers," said Diola, though he has already received the review that counts to him. Horne said that Diola's tourtière reminded him of his grandmother's. "As long as Michael said, 'OK, good,' I'm happy."
Moulton Farm bakery employee Ranae Egbert rolls out pie dough for a tourtière. The farm's chef hoped to sell 200 meat pies in his first year of offering them; orders are well on their way to eclipse that figure. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Adam Drapcho)