A Pinch of Cultural Heritage
The holiday season is one filled with expectation and excitement. We look forward to the surprises it may bring, but we also find a comforting anticipation in the expected, the traditions. This may not be obvious in our youth. We haven’t accumulated enough Christmases yet, but as we begin to collect a few years' worth we have definite expectations like the lights, the gatherings of friends and family, and the food. Many of these expectations are commonly shared, but some can be personal, or come from our heritage. In the Lake Champlain Region of the Adirondacks there is a strong cultural heritage element that permeates the holiday season and goes back to an explorer in the early 1600s. We may not recognize it, but it’s there. In the early 1600s a French navigator, mariner, and cartographer happened to travel to our vast lake, name it after himself, and encourage French settlement in this region of North America. That was Samuel de Champlain of course.
Yes, once explorer Cartier made it to Canada, followed a bit later by Champlain, immigrants from France were encouraged to come, settle, and prosper in a region that held great riches - fertile soil, abundant wildlife - all engulfed in a gorgeous landscape. After the Revolutionary War, once all the battles and gunfire subsided, many from the settlements in “New France” began to migrate south from Canada into the Champlain Valley and settle along the Adirondack Coast. There are lingering legacies from those early French settlers. The names of our rivers: the Ausable, Boquet, and LaChute, attest to that. If you are, or have been, a student of early American history this is all very obvious. But, if you’re like me, you wouldn’t necessarily see how this history stuff would seep into your family’s annual Christmas celebration, but your holiday menu might help you connect the dots. I simply visualize one of those dots as a Christmas pie!
Numerous local residents today can link their heritage to French-Canadian ancestry. I am among them. If there were any givens during the holiday season it would be that tourtiére would be on the table Christmas Eve. It only showed up once a year, but it never failed to make an appearance that evening.
The Christmas Pie
Tourtiére is a flavorful French-Canadian meat pie typically served at Christmastime -- particularly Christmas Eve. It is said to date back to the 1600s. Family recipes for this pie vary and are highly coveted. Some use only ground pork. Others substitute wild game, like venison, for the beef. The combination of spices gives it a unique flavor. I enjoy it immensely and looked forward to it every year. So much so, that my mother would always bake an extra and tuck it in the freezer as a Christmas gift for me. It freezes very well. I will share her recipe as a holiday gift to you.
Pastry for a two crust pie
½ lb each lean ground beef and ground pork
1 medium onion, diced and sautéed in butter
3 medium potatoes, diced
2 cups chicken broth, or water
2-3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
¼ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp allspice
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp cinnamon
1 tsp poultry seasoning
In a large skillet cook meat until most of the red color is gone. Drain off all but a little fat. Add the onions and all other ingredients. Simmer on medium heat about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mash some of the diced potato once soft. Pour in pie shell, top with crust and bake at 400 degrees for about 35 minutes.
This pie would be the center of attention at our Christmas Eve buffet or dining table Dad and I both enjoyed it with cold slices of a crisp tart apple, like a Granny Smith, and a chunk of sharp cheddar cheese served at room temperature. Mom liked hers with a cranberry relish or chutney, and I think one brother would even top his piece with ketchup. I can tell you that though she would make several for our fairly large family on this special occasion, there were never any leftovers -- other than the one hiding in the freezer.
Cruise the Coast this winter and be sure to try some of our local regional delicacies while you are here! Happy Holidays.
This week in related ADK traditions: