This prized Canadian dish - French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy - has a simplicity that belies the alchemy occurring beneath. As the gravy melts, the fresh cheese curds keep the chips warm, allowing everything to combine into a range of crisp and soft textures. Indeed, a 'poutine' really means a hot mess ... and a delicious one at that.
Its origin is disputed. In the most well-known version the mastermind was Eddy Lainesse, a regular patron of Le Lutin Qui Rit restaurant in rural Quebec in the 1950s. Upon ordering, Lainesse described a dish he wanted that wasn't on the menu. The proprietor's reply to his request was "Ca va faire une maudite poutine!" (that's going to make a dreadful mess!). It did, and the dish took off from there.
Elsewhere, they say poutine is a simple twist on the British pub staple of cheese, chips and gravy; elsewhere still, that a dish of fries and cheese curds was popularly known as 'mixte' before the addition of gravy pushed it to 'poutine'. But while it was finally registered as a trademark by restaurateur Jean-Paul Roy in 1964, credit for its creation extends to all corners of Quebec. It's very likely that it was just in the air at the time - it had to happen.
One of the best things about poutine is its adaptiveness. It's as comfortable as a side-dish in a Montreal fine-dining restaurant as it is a rink-side indulgence at an ice hockey game. It's also a platform from which adventurous chefs are thrilled to experiment. Double-fried french fries?Sauce brune? Veal gravy? Lobster? From the breadcrumbs, Worcestershire and savoury spice of Newfoundland to the foie gras poutine ofAu Pied de Cochon, the modifications are endless. "It definitely has a versatility," saysPapi Chulo'shead chef Patrick Friesen. "There's a new franchise in Canada calledSmoke's Poutineriethat is based entirely on this concept."
Experimentation aside, however, most Canadians agree that mozzarella instead of cheese curds is a bridge too far. "For me," says Friesen, "you have to have poutine sauce and cheese curd to call it poutine. You can switch it up with braised short-rib, or pulled pork or even chopped-up potato and cheddar perogies, but the base has to remain the same. I'm a traditionalist; it's a classic for good reason."
Alas, there are precious few places to get this bowl of savoury heaven in Sydney. But Friesen does know of a couple: "We make a traditional one every Canada Day [the first of July] at Papi Chulo. Besides that, you can get the out-there approach atHartsyard, or the simple version atThe Stuffed Beaver." It looks like it's a choice between one of these, or a red-eye to Montreal.
Presented by Destination Canada.