Most Quebeckers hate to admit it, but after Celine Dion, their most famous (and cheesiest) cultural export is likely poutine. The lumberjack snack, a gooey mélange of French fries, fresh cheese curds and gravy, was invented in Warwick, a small community south of Quebec City in the fifties. The name -- pronounced poo-teen -- is joual for mess or mishmash, which is exactly what it looks like (and what it will make of your health if you overindulge).
Poutine has been a popular staple for some time at such fast-food chains as Burger King, Harvey's and Chez Ashton's and McDonald's in Quebec. But now the ultimate junk food is moving up the food chain as high-end chefs add it to their menus.
"Why not?" says Chef Martin Picard, who is reinventing rustic Quebec cuisine at his new restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon, in Montreal. "This is a fast-food plate, but it could become a very good plate like pot-au-feu."
At $18, Picard's poutine is the most expensive order of fries I've ever eaten, but for good reason. Atop a plate of crisp French fries bathed in aromatic pork gravy, covered with fresh, cold cheese curds that squeak between my teeth, are two perfectly seared slices of that other homegrown Quebec specialty, the rich and unctuous liver of a fattened Canadian duck. Poutine au foie gras. It is the ultimate in 21st-century decadence -- a combination of the lowest and most exalted forms of fat, from the street to the salon on a single plate.
And Picard is not alone. Chef David McMillan says he was the first to create an upscale poutine at Montreal's Globe restaurant several years ago, topping his fries with such elegant ingredients as duck confit, Stilton cheese and a port-enriched bordelaise sauce.
"I'd have customers, mostly Americans, coming to Montreal and calling to ask, 'Where can we get a nice poo-teen,' " says McMillan, who is now behind the stoves at Montreal's new Rosalie restaurant. "I'd just say, 'Come in and I'll make it for you.' So that's what led to my own take on poutine."
In Toronto, at the newly opened bistro Bouchon, chef J. P. Challet is also serving this French-Canadian classic, topping plates of fries with a combination of unique cheeses and savoury sauces. Challet's eclectic poutines include one topped with a spicy lamb sausage, artisanal cheese and Moroccan harissa sauce; a second with shrimp, Quebec goat cheddar and lobster sauce; and the ultimate combo, fries with foie gras, goat cheese and a red-wine, port and veal jus that simmers for three days.
"I'm selling a lot of poutine because it's a meal and it's fun," says Challet, whose fries are made with organic Royal Gold potatoes from an Ontario farm. "The French fries are outstanding and we use very good, flavourful cheeses."
"We don't want to be pretentious, we've just upgraded a classic."
It's widely believed that poutine made its debut in 1957, when a trucker who stopped at Fernand Lachance's little restaurant in Warwick, Que., asked him to throw some curds into his take-out fries and gravy. The rest is history, as they say.
According to some Internet chat groups, Chez Ashton, the Quebec City-based burger chain, has the best "commercial" poutine in the province with a lot of interesting variations on the theme, from Galvaude (poutine topped with chicken, gravy and peas) to Dulton (poutine with ground beef) and poutine Italianne (with meat sauce).
In Montreal, foodies flock to Chez Clo, a simple east-end diner where classic poutine is made from scratch and costs a mere $3.75.
Purists would argue that serving poutine outside of la belle province is simply a waste of good gravy. Like Montreal smoked meat sandwiches or tourtière, poutine should be consumed in a classic Québécois casse-croute, where the gravy is already there for le hot chicken and the curds have just arrived from the dairy, pure white and fresh.
But now that the poutine secret is out of the bag, almost every Canadian purveyor of fast food has created its own version. Most of these are serious imposters, trying to pass off shredded mozzarella as cheese curds and drowning their chips in untenable brown glop.
New York Fries, a company based in Brantford, Ont., that has yet to sell a French fry in New York City (or anywhere in the United States), says it was the first to introduce poutine to the Canadian fast-food market, and last year sold 2.6 million orders.
I found its poutine far superior to the soupy poutines I had tried at other fast-food chains. The hand-cut fries were sturdy and crisp, artfully arranged in a paper tub, then topped with a hefty scoop of curds and a measured portion of dark, beefy gravy that melted the cheese into stretchy goo but didn't pool in the bottom of the cup.
I didn't ask what the damage was to the health of my heart, but the A&W version is definitely not on the Duchess diet. According to calorieking.com, a small (5.8-ounce) order of A&W poutine weighs in at 420 calories, 25 grams of fat and 1,272 milligrams of sodium, nearly as much as the basic Mamma Burger. Look out for the large poutine with its 728 calories and 44 grams of fat.
It's not just the chains that are dishing up curds with their fries. Alberta King of Subs, a Calgary sandwich shop owned by a Quebec expat, specializes in Montreal imports, from smoked meat sandwiches and steamed hot dogs to poutine.
Manager Roger Powers, an ex-Montrealer himself, says he makes his poutine with the original Kingsley cheese curds imported from Warwick. He offers all kinds of toppings from smoked meat or chicken to Italian meat sauce to deep-fried hot dogs.
"That's my favourite, the hot dog poutine," says his wife Cheryl, leaning over the small counter of their little take-out joint. "But really, they're all good."
Chez Ashton, Quebec City,
Au Pied de Cochon, Montreal,
Chez Clo, Montreal, 514-522-5348.
Bouchon, Toronto, 416-862-2675.
Alberta King of Subs, Calgary,