Christmas on the river

A storm had blown down the St. Lawrence River into Quebec City. In the small dark hours before dawn, we waited, watery coffees in hand, in the Coast Guard’s riverside hangar to board the BO-105 helicopter. At 8 a.m., the winds shifted and we stuffed ourselves into the chopper and took off, blasting down river.

For me, this was a continuation of a journey that began over a decade ago thousands of miles away on the wild coast of British Columbia when I visited all the manned lighthouses of the Pacific region. My transportation then was a pair of new Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers, the George R. Pearkes and the Martha L. Black. We made several runs as far north as Langara Island at the top of the Queen Charlotte Islands.

But this time, I was flying with a francophone crew out to the Gulf of St. Lawrence to take part in what these same great ships were really made for — breaking ice and keeping Eastern Canada in business. At the same time, I was in search of the foods of old Quebec.

The 1,600-kilometre expanse of river from Montreal to the Atlantic is kept open 365 days a year. The Coast Guard is responsible for the task from its command base in Quebec City, whe a state-of-the-art control centre monitors the 6,500 kilometres of shoreline from Beauharnois near Montreal to Blanc Sablons on the southern reaches of Labrador. Every year, 20,000 ships are monitored through this system along with 55,000 pleasure craft. Roughly 1,300 distress calls are answered, and 2,000 buoys are serviced. Added to that is the constant need to be at the ready for the inevitable 20 to 30 yearly groundings.

We were on one of the twice-weekly ice patrols, heading swiftly out over the frozen island and the river to the Pearkes, which was resting in ice near the port of Cacouna a few miles from Rivière-du-Loup. Below was ice of every description, from “brash” piled thickly along the shore to the elegant round patterns of “pancake” ice. Swooping lower, we could see the newly built ice roads; further out, there was ridging when the ice collided and finally, miles of “finger-rafting,” four-inch thick patterns that occur when the surface freezes overnight. The textures of silver and pewter stretched out to where the horizon melted into the water.

A shipshape feast
Touching down on the flight deck of the Pearkes, we met Captain Denis Vaillancourt. Almost instantly, a culinary conversation began. It soon became apparent that Quebec’s appreciation of home cooking had overflowed onto these ships. Meals incorporated foods of the old days — heritage dishes all made on board. In the galley was a library of regional Quebec food books. For breakfast, there were cretons, pork spread seasoned with allspice. For lunch, there was real poutine, blazing hot fries lashed with gravy and fresh cheese curds melting on top.

Also in the cooks’ repertoire were boulli, a soup of salt pork, a bit of beef and lots of root vegetables, and a variety of desserts that included tarte au sucre, the traditional sugar pie of Quebec; galettes à la mélasse, or molasses cookies; and pouding aux chomeur, a cake-topped pudding that has variations all over the province.

Dinner for us was an ancient dish, ragout de pattes et boulettes. The pork hocks had been simmered until tender and the gravy made with browned flour, a technique that one can only find elsewhere in the Cajun food of southern Louisiana. Pork meatballs had been tossed in, and the whole mixture baked for several hours before being served with pickled beets, boiled potatoes and cabbage salad.  

Christmas on the river
Even at Christmas, life on the river continues with no respite so the icebreakers are out working. The celebration begins with réveillon late on the evening of Dec.24 when, if the ship is in port, crew members who are not on watch can attend mass. On Christmas Day, the cooks show off. There’s always ship-baked bread, and some of the crew who are hunters frequently donate a snow goose. While turkey and stuffing is de rigueur, they also bake tourtière du lac, a recipe that harks to the wilds of the Lac St. Jean region and takes several days to prepare. It is as authentic as can be particularly if a hunter supplies venison, moose or even partridge. Baked slowly till perfectly golden, there are few dishes that symbolize Quebec the way this one does.

Desserts range from the traditional Christmas cake, a pie or two or perhaps grand pères à sirop (maple syrup-poached dumplings) guaranteed to fuel the crew for their freezing tasks on deck for even on Christmas Day, the noise of splitting ice fills the ship from galley to bridge, opening the river for freighters heading to ports all over the globe.

Next page: recipe for Tourtière du lac

Tourtiere du Lac
According to Quebec author Micheline Mongrain-Dontigny, this is the real tourtière. As it browns and bubbles, it perfumes the entire house — or galley. The absolute best baking dish is a cast-iron Dutch oven but failing that, make sure whatever casserole you use is at least 4 inches (8 cm) deep and will hold 12 to 14 cups (3 to 3.5 l) of filling. Use lard pastry for three 9-inch (23 cm) pie shells. Roll two-thirds of it for the bottom crust; use remaining pastry and trimmings for the top.

1 lb lean pork shoulder 500 g
1 lb beef, venison or boned wild fowl meat 500 g
1 lb veal shoulder or boneless chicken 500 g
6 onions, chopped 6
1 tsp each salt and pepper 5 ml
4 large potatoes, peeled and diced 4
1 egg 1
  Lard pastry for three 9-inch (23 cm) pie shells  

• Chop meat into 1/2-inch (1 cm) cubes. In large bowl, combine meats with onions, salt and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
• Dice potatoes and transfer to a bowl. Add 4 cups (1 l) cold water. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
• Roll out 2/3 of the pastry and line baking dish. Drain potatoes, reserving the water, and combine with meat mixture. Transfer to baking dish; add enough reserved potato water to almost cover the meat mixture. Add additional cold water if needed. 
• Beat egg with 2 tbsp (25 ml) cold water. Brush over outer edge of pastry. Roll out remaining pastry and place over pie. Seal and crimp edges tightly. Cut a 2-inch (5 cm) hole in centre and insert a small “chimney” of foil. Seal the chimney base  with egg wash and a few of the pastry trimmings. Brush entire top with egg wash. 
• Bake in 350 F (180 C) oven for 1 hour. Reduce heat to 250 F (120 C) and continue to bake for 6 to 8 hours or until richly golden, checking occasionally that juices are visible through the vent. If not, add a little extra water through the chimney. Makes 14 servings. 

Per-serving nutritional information (without pastry): calories: 182; protein: 21 g; fat: 5 g; saturated fat: 2 g; carbohydrate: 11 g; dietary fibre: 2 g; sodium: 198 mg.


Traditional Québec Cooking: A Treasure of Heirloom Recipes, Micheline Mongrain-Dontigny (Les Éditions La Bonne Recette)

La Cuisine Traditionelle de Charlevoix, Micheline Mongrain-Dontigny (Les Éditions La Bonne Recette)