Food Facts & Lore

A Brief History of Tourtière

Tourtière – A mixture of cubed meat, onions, potatoes and seasonings baked in a pastry-lined casserole or dish and topped with a layer of pastry. A Tourtière is generally large enough to yield several portions and the crust is eaten along with its contents.

Mincemeat Pie – A mixture of chopped nuts, dried fruit, apples, suet and lemon juice or Brandy baked in a small, one-serving pastry-lined dish. The full-size version is a modern, North American adaptation. Meat may have been included but was not generally the centerpiece.

Meat Pie and Tourtière differ in that traditional meat pie included venison, pork, lamb, duck and various small game meats whereas the original Tourtière was typically made with a specific bird’s meat. Also, the traditional meat pie was a small pocket or pastry folded unto itself, whereas Tourtière has been a full-size pie from its very beginning. And this is all the clarification we need to bite into this tasty topic.

There are two possible origins to the name Tourtière. We owe the first one to a cousin of the raven called magpie in English, but also known as “toure” in Old France and in the early Canadian colonies. It was a staple dish in Medieval Europe and while beef and other conventional meats were used, it is magpie meat that most often found its way into the dish. The reason for this is simple. The magpie population was huge (in Europe as well as America) and the bird was so trusting of humans that it was an easy capture. The English called it “pye” for short. So, we suppose technically the dish should have been called “Pye pie!”

A new ingredient was often added to the recipe after Europeans settled in Canada, in Quebec City, specifically. According to the Food Timeline, “In 1836 in Quebec, a Tourtière was a pork pie. One local Tourtière became a favourite of Scottish and British soldiers posted to the citadel at Quebec City who then stayed on, buying outskirt farms and growing oats. Thus, in one Quebec City oatmeal thickens the ground pork filling instead of the traditional French potatoes.” You are probably familiar with this recipe if your family has roots in the province of Quebec.

A 16th century text gives a clue as to the second possible origin of the name Tourtière. The dish used to bake meat or fruit mixtures in a pastry shell was called a “Tourte.” Likewise, when fruit and cream were among the ingredients to make a dessert pie, this was also called a “Tourte.”

But this is thousands of years beyond the first meat pies; somewhere around 11,000 years to be precise. The Ancient Egyptians made small pastry shells filled with honey. The Greeks innovated by adding meat. They are believed to be the first to do this. Back then, however, the pastry was the vessel for baking and cooking its contents. It was thick, inedible and thrown away. The Romans added a twist of their own with such fillings as fish, mussels and oysters. But the pastry vessel remained virtually inedible for centuries.

The Romans had one further impact on the history of the meat pie and the subsequent birth of the Tourtière. As road builders, they opened much territory to conquest and exploration, and conquerors and explorers always bring their traditional culinary traditions along for the journey. The meat pie was soon introduced across Europe and no doubt modified along the way depending on the ingredients at hand and the ingenuity of the cooks.

Missionaries and the first Pilgrims are said to have introduced the Meat Pie and Tourtière to the New World as, unlike other explorers who did not settle, they had long-term relationships with the native people and with the land. In fact, the meat pie was in part responsible for the success of the first colonies as the thick crust used at the time helped preserve the contents during the long winter months. Incidentally, there is another name for Meat Pie or Tourtière we rarely hear anymore though it was most fitting at some time: Survival Pie.

Tourtière’s popularity in New England can be traced to 19th century immigration. Flourishing saw mills, paper mills and logging camps invited workers from around the world to seek new opportunities in this part of America. French Canadian immigrants outnumbered all others. They brought along traditions from the table and beyond.