French Canadians eat more or less the same kinds of foods that other Canadians do all year round. There’s a couple of well-known exceptions, like poutine and pea soup. and of course pretty much anything which is made with maple syrup originally comes from Quebec, but otherwise modern daily Quebecois food’s not really all that different from what you’d find in Ontario, New Brunswick, or other parts of Canada. However, when it comes to New Year’s Day, Quebec kitchens draw on their French roots to make all kinds of traditional foods specially for Le Reveillon du St Sylvestre.
New Year’s Eve is the Roman Catholic feast day of St. Sylvester, an early pope of the Catholic Church. In most strongly Roman Catholic regions of the world, St. Sylvester’s name has become a popular synonym for New Year’s Eve celebrations. Even though France is no longer among those countries and the Catholic Church has lost nearly all of its original power in French Canada, most French Canadians still retain the cultural roots that came along with the religion.
The New Year’s celebration is called Le Réveillon du St. Sylvestre, to separate it from the other “réveillon” on Christmas Eve. “Le Réveillon du St. Sylvestre” literally means “the waking of St. Sylvester’s (Day).” It’s called that because it starts on New Year’s Eve, continues until around 11 pm, and then the partying starts right on into New Year’s Day. It’s a grand party with friends and a lot of good food. You’ll be stuffed but good by the time it’s done!
The food for “Le Sylvestre” is always exceptional, and there’s always lots of it. You’ll be stuffed but good by the time it’s done!
A traditional New Year’s dinner begins with pea soup. There’s also a lot of other regional appetizers that can be served. Lobster’s particularly popular, especially on the coast.
The main dish is a tourtière, or French-Canadian-style meat pie. It’s called a tourtière after the kind of pot it’s traditionally made in, which makes a meat pie big enough to feed eighteen people! You can really put any kind of meat inside a tourtière, even fish in coastal places. However, when you’re making “authentic” French-Canadian tourtière, there’s three main regional ways of making it.
style tourtière is always made with finely ground pork, so fine that it almost dissolves in your mouth. It’s seasoned with cinnamon and cloves. Some people like it savory, with ketchup. Others eat it with maple syrup or even mango chutney. You can find this kind of tourtière at many excellent Montreal restaurants.
Tourtière du Lac-Saint-Jean is the recipe used in Eastern Quebec. It’s made with potatoes and meat cubes from many different meats, even wild game meats. Some people use a combination of the Montreal and the Lac-Saint-Jean recipe by adding potatoes to the ground pork.
Manitoba-style tourtière usually uses steak, chicken, or even bison. (Yes, there’s French Canadians in Manitoba. Many of them are Metis, descended from the voyageurs and the Native Canadians of the region. They’re the reason Manitoba became a province!) It’s seasoned with dry mustard, along with celery salt, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, savory, and salt and pepper. It’s served with mustard and relish.
Believe it or not, some French Canadians don’t use this as the main dish. Sometimes the second main dish is a classic turkey with gravy and cranberries, although sometimes the turkey is served with chestnuts for a twist. Sometimes it’s a stew made with pork hocks (ragoût de patte de cochon). Some people make the same stew with straight meatballs instead of pork hocks, to make the cooking and serving a little easier. Traditionally, the second dish is used as the main dish, and the tourtière is brought out later, with the dessert.
There’s two traditional French Canadian desserts, sugar pie and the Yule log (bûche de Noël). As if you haven’t already eaten enough, lots of French Canadians serve both of them at the end of the Le Sylvestre dinner.
The best-known traditional French Canadian dessert is sugar pie, made with brown sugar, maple syrup, or both. Besides the pie crust, the original recipe only uses three ingredients, flour, cream (or milk), and brown sugar. You can substitute grated maple sugar if you want. It’s fast to put together and bake, but it does come out of the oven still runny. A sugar pie can take an hour or more to set properly, so allow lots of time after baking before you plan to serve it.
The Yule log has become a regular staple of Christmas feasts everywhere, but it came originally from Quebec, and from France before that. It’s basically a flat layer of sponge cake, covered in chocolate icing or jam and rolled up until it’s a “log.” Most people cut off one end of the cake and stick it on the side to look like a lopped branch. The whole thing’s then covered with chocolate frosting. You can drag a fork through the frosting before it sets to make it look a bit like bark, and sprinkle powder sugar on top to look like snow.
No serious celebratory French Canadian meal is complete without wine, and Le Sylvester is no exception. When it’s time to bring in the New Year after the dessert, only champagne will do!