Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Quebec Part I: Cretons

These days the best-known food from Quebec is smoked-meat, bagels, and poutine. These are undeniably important parts of Montreal's food scene, but are not as relevant to the rest of the province. Montreal gets its unique bagels and delicatessens from the large Jewish populations of the older neighbourhoods like Mile-End. Over the past few weeks I've been thinking about the winter food of a Quebecois farmstead (rather than the metropolitan dishes of Montreal). While tinkering with this idea I'll forgo the poutine italienne and look instead at dry-stored root vegetables and legumes, all manner of dairy, craft beer, maple syrup, and pork.

In Quebec, the pig is king. This is partly their cultural heritage: "For centuries pork was the most commonly consumed meat in rural France. Rare was the small farm without its own pig." (Robuchon). Pork also has an entire craft dedicated to its preservation (charcuterie), which is useful for rural winter-dwellers.

With this in mind, the first dish I made was cretons. Cretons is a pork spread, usually served on toast. Most cretons is made by simmering pork shoulder and aromatics in milk. Once the meat is tender enough, it is mixed until creamy and spreadable. It is very similar to the French rillette, which is pork shoulder simmer in stock, then mixed until spreadable. Cretons are usually eaten for breakfast. In making my own cretons I combined a rillette recipe from Rhulman's Charcuterie, and a recipe by Ron Eade, a food writer for the Ottawa citizen. I spliced these recipes together, replacing the stock with milk. Rillettes are traditionally sealed in ramekins with rendered fat. This is not traditional for creton, but it makes for such a fantastic presentation that I couldn't resist. Especially in winter, as the fat looks like a skating rink once it sets, and because with the addition of a sprig of rosemary and some peppercorns, you can imitate holly. (Ron Eade's idea.) Here's my variation:

A holiday pork spread, in the style of Quebecois cretons

  • 3 lbs pork shoulder, diced to one inch pieces
  • 1/2 lb bacon
  • 1/2 lb smoked ham hock
  • 1 pork bone
  • 1 bundle thyme
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
  • 4 peppercorns, tied into a cheesecloth bundle
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves (I didn't have whole cloves on hand, though those are probably to be preferred...)
  • 1.25 L milk
First cover the diced shoulder with water and bring to a boil. This draws blood and impurities from the meat. Strain, discarding water. Place your purified shoulder and remaining ingredients in a large pot and cover with milk. Bring to a simmer, then place in 300F oven. Cook for 4 to 6 hours, until meat is falling-apart-tender.

Strain mixture, reserving liquid. Make sure you remove the bay leaves, peppercorn bundle, and pork bone. Place meat in standing mixer and mix on low speed, slowly adding reserve liquid until contents are moist and spreadable. This should take a couple of minutes.

Taste for seasoning. Since the dish will be served at room temperature, season assertively.

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