© Denzil Green
Tourtière is a meat pie made in Quebec.
It consists of a bottom layer of pie pastry, then a layer of meat filling, then a top covering layer of pie pastry. The pie is then baked in an oven.
Spices used in the meat filling can include cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and allspice, accompanied by herbs such as summer savoury.
Despite the spicing, it’s really meant to be a quite a plain, home-style meat pie, so to add interest at the table, slices of the pie are often served with tart or zippy such as a tomato ketchup, a homemade green relish sauce, or pickled beets.
Tourtière is made at any time of the year, but is particularly traditional on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
There are two main categories of Tourtière variations: a deep-dish one, and a shallow one.
Deep Dish Tourtière
Known as “Tourtière du Lac-Saint-Jean” or “Tourtière Saguenéenne”, Tourtière as made in these areas of Québec is made in deep casseroles, even in Dutch ovens, and consequently turn out large enough that one will feed a good-sized crowd.
The meat for the filling can be beef and pork, sometimes with game such as hare, rabbit, partridge, moose or deer added. Cooks today, though, tend to not tell children or big-city people about any game included in the meat.
The meat is diced into 1/2 inch (1 cm) cubes: butchers in the area will know how to prepare the meat like this when you tell them it is for Tourtière. To the meat is added potato in 1/2 inch (1 cm) cubes, and chopped onion. The ratio of potato to meat is 1 to 1. Additional vegetables such as celery and carrot may be used.
These ingredients are mixed, then seasoned as per the spices mentioned at the top of this page, then covered in a bowl or pot and let sit overnight in the refrigerator for the flavours to marry.
The next day, the next step varies: some people then cook the filling by simmering it in a pot on top of the stove before using it; others prefer to use the filling in the pie raw as is. Some recipes that call for a simmered filling call for the potato not to have been added to the mixture until after it has been simmered. If you simmer it, you add a liquid such as water, or chicken or beef broth, just enough so that the liquid comes up level with the solid ingredients, and then simmer it to a thick stew consistency.
Whether the filling is simmered or unsimmered, you then line with pie dough a deep casserole dish or pot, about the size of a Dutch oven, that has a cover, then put your filling in. If you skipped the pre-cooking part for your filling, you would add some liquid or broth at this stage.
Top with a top layer of pie dough into which you poke holes to allow steam out. Cover the cooking vessel, and bake very slowly at about 275 F to 325 F (135 to 160 C.)
Baking time will be about 3 hours if the filling was cooked first; about 6 to 7 hours if not.
Shallow Dish Tourtière
This type of Tourtière is the most commonly found in Québec.
Note: this shallow version of Tourtière is made in the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean region as well, though to them it is not Tourtière — it is merely “meat pie” (“pâté — or “pâte” — à la viande”.)
Shallow dish varieties of Tourtière are baked in shallow pie dishes. The texture is generally denser. The meat is usually ground pork, though it may contain ground veal and / or ground beef as well.
Given that Québec has a land mass three times greater than that of France, it is not surprising though that several regional, sub-variations of this shallow variety of Tourtière evolved.
The Tourtière filling is made from ground hare, pork fat, beef, veal, potatoes and egg. The beef, veal, pork fat and potato are diced.
Île d’Orléans Tourtière
The Tourtière filling is made from ground pork, pork fat, ground beef, veal, and egg.
The Tourtière filling is made from ground pork, seasoned with cinnamon and clove. The fat used in the crust traditionally was lard.
The Tourtière filling is made from cubed duck simmered in chicken stock
The Tourtière filling is made from ground pork, ground beef, and potatoes, seasoned with dry mustard
The Tourtière filling is made from ground hare, pork fat, cubed beef, chicken, chicken stock, cubed potato and egg.
Today’s lean pork is a challenge for cooks, because it makes the Tourtière filling drier, with less body, so cooks are trying to compensate with added ingredients such as actual pork fat (if you can get it), etc.
Literature & Lore
It’s a myth that Tourtière is called Tourtière because it used to be a Pigeon Pie.
A Tourtière in French is a word for an older type of cooking vessel not seen or used much anymore. A tourte is the dish, the recipe, cooked up in a Tourtière. Tourte is not a commonly used word anymore in France; nor, for that matter, is Tourtière, because the cooking vessel is outmoded.
A Tourtière cooking vessel was principally designed to cook relatively shallow food items that had a top and bottom crust. It was designed primarily with use on a hearth in mind.
This cooking vessel is usually round, 12 to 20 inches (30 to 50 cm) wide, with a flat bottom. The bottom may or may not have small feet on it for resting on a hearth. The sides are not very high. The vessel has a cover that has an indent in the top into which you might put hot coals for the heat, as you would with a genuine Dutch oven. Heat from the top and bottom then made it into a mini-oven.
Alternatively, a Tourtière could be used in an actual oven, if one had one then. Baking ovens were a bit more prevalent in Québec than they were in France, as laws restricting their private construction did not come over or were not enforced in Québec.  Rural, outside bread ovens are now a tourist attraction in some parts of Québec. Still, an oven was an expensive thing to build, and so they were a genuine luxury up until the 1900s.
In the twentieth-centruy, an urban myth, still prevalent, sprang up that Tourtière got its name from having pigeon as the main ingredient. It may have been designed principally to startle tourists after their second mouthful.
“Tourterelle” is a generic broad name in French for the pigeon species. The passenger pigeon was extremely common as a game meat in North America, up until the latter 1800s, when the bird first became scarce and then extinct. In France, the bird was called “tourtre”; in Québécois French, the last “r” was dropped and the bird was called a “tourte.”
When available, the passenger pigeon almost certainly often was one of the many game meats included in the meat mixture — mixed with rabbit or deer or meats from domestic animals, depending on what the cook had available and what the cook’s preferences for flavour or secret ingredient was.
But that’s no more reason to call this a “pigeon pie” than there is to call this a “hare pie” or “pig pie.”
The dish gets its name from the vessel it was cooked in, just as in English, casseroles are cooked in casseroles.
As a side point, the shallow nature of the traditional Tourtière cooking vessel could mean that the shallow dish varieties of Tourtière are more authentic than the deep dish Lac-St-Jean variety.
 “We should point out that we eliminated all possibility of the existence of seigneurial ovens by consulting authors who clearly state that this seigneurial right was never exercised in New France.” — Boily, Lise, and Jean-François Blanchette. 1979. The Bread Ovens of Quebec. Ottawa, Canada: National Museum of Man. Page 4.
Gzowski, Peter. The tourtière debate. Morningside Radio Show. 16 December 1991. Retrieved November 2009 from http://archives.cbc.ca/lifestyle/food/clips/8412/
Hovington, Lison & Cécile Bouchard. Tourtière, pâté à la viande ou cipaille? Radio Canada TV Programme: Reflets d’un pays. 23 June 1977. Retrieved November 2009 from: http://archives.radio-canada.ca/art_de_vivre/cuisine/clips/8786/