Written by Sophie Ginoux, food writer
For 2022 Rendez-vous de la Francophonie
Canada is unique in many ways and its cuisine is no exception! On this vast territory of nearly 10 million square kilometres bordered by three oceans, 20,000 years ago, the first humans discovered a lush fishery. They also enjoyed an impressive food supply in its boreal and coastal forests, thousands of lakes, warm valleys, magnificent grassy plains and arctic tundra.
These individuals formed the First Nations, with 108 different languages and as many different culinary cultures. Then, from 1000 to 1600 A.D., they were visited by Viking and European sailors, before the French and English decided to make this their adopted land and brought their own traditions, products and culinary techniques. This major cultural mix has influenced and continues to influence the cuisine in all Canadian provinces.
But Canada has also become a home for many immigrants from Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. So much so that today, Canadian gastronomy is characterized by its multicultural nature. It includes specialties dating back several centuries or millennia, others from the four corners of the earth and cooked with local ingredients, and others still inspired by the creativity of our cooks or the meeting of multiple culinary cultures.
According to historian Michel Lambert, this epicurean oeuvre resembles a giant bouquet made up of both common flowers and flowers that bloom only in certain soils. It is this giant bouquet, from its roots to its petals, that we invite you to discover today across five major geographical areas. Bon appétit!
British Columbia and Yukon
Did you know that it was a Francophone man named François-Xavier Ladéroute who first introduced agriculture to Yukon? This little anecdote reminds us that the stars of this Canadian region are not Yukon Gold potatoes, created in Ontario, but rather its fishery products. Here, fish and shellfish are caught in large quantities and grilled, pan-fried, poached, breaded, marinated, smoked, dried, frozen and canned for export.
Among all these products, salmon plays a pivotal role, both in terms of production and symbolism. It was once considered the reincarnation of a kind spirit that returned each year in solid form to feed the people of the Coast. This is why this species is so important to First Nations in British Columbia and Yukon, as Joella Lynn explains. But salmon is also very much enjoyed by non-Indigenous communities, who consume it raw in sashimi and sushi, barbecued or pan-fried, smoked or marinated in salads, pasta or sandwiches, braised in chowders and casseroles, blended into puff pastry sauce, canned in pâtés, or fried as sausages and fish cakes. The possibilities are endless!
In addition to its marine pantry, British Columbia is known for its fruits (cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, apples, pears, plums, blueberries, hazelnuts and cranberries, etc.) and its Okanagan Valley vineyards. The large Asian and Indian communities in the Vancouver area have also influenced the local cuisine, which includes many fried and spicy dishes.
Yukon is a territory that combines traditional and mining activities with tourism. Although many products are imported today, fishing (Arctic char, lake trout, rainbow trout, northern pike, whitefish, burbot, salmon, etc.) and game hunting (moose, caribou, bear, hare, beaver, wild goose, partridge, etc.) remain very popular and this is reflected in many recipes. Mushrooms and berries such as haskap berries, which are similar to blueberries, are also grown here.
To pay tribute to salmon, two Francophone restaurateurs from Whitehorse’s La Petite Maison explain how to make crêpes with smoked salmon and salted whipped cream.
Central Provinces, Northwest Territories and Nunavut
This is Canada’s largest and most geographically and climatically diverse region. The arctic cold of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut meet the mountains and desert lands of Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as the wetlands and plains of the Prairies (Saskatchewan and Manitoba), where the first people settled, thrilled to hunt bison in the thousands.
This very bison built the reputation of the central provinces, has been hailed by local populations and appreciated in all its forms (grilled, smoked, cured, stewed) by travellers. It has remained in people’s hearts—and stomachs—even though it is now a luxury meat, as opposed to beef, which has been successfully raised in the West for some sixty years. It is also worth noting that Alberta and Saskatchewan alone account for more than half of all beef farms in Canada! So it’s not surprising that beef is a staple on tables across this geographic area, featured in countless recipes.
The West also offers other gourmet treasures, such as some 15 different legumes (cooked as soups, all-in-one casseroles or desserts), wild rice and mustard seeds (Canada is the largest producer in the world). But it is most famous for its grains, especially wheat, which has become the country’s leading cereal. Barley, quinoa, rye, oats, buckwheat, soybeans, rapeseed and flax are also grown. This cornucopia of grains has produced some well-known flour brands, including Purity, Robin Hood and Five Roses, in addition to a wide range of pastries inspired by British, French or American culinary traditions or by those of the many different ethnic groups that have immigrated to this area over the last two centuries.
The bison remains a hallmark of the Canadian West. Here is a recipe to enjoy it to the fullest!
Historically, Ontario and Quebec have had a strong connection in terms of food, as the Iroquois based near the Great Lakes were already sending their neighbours parts of their corn, bean and squash crops before the arrival of European settlers. This strong relationship has not been diminished over time, as large companies such as Maple Leaf, Kraft or Olivieri still supply Quebec with their products.
Ontario’s culinary traditions are more English and American than French. Yet it is surprising to learn that, in addition to gravies, doughnuts, pies and puddings, every self-respecting Ontario housewife from the 1850s was making curries with spices imported from all over the world!
Was this a sign of the intermingling of cultures the province would later experience? Ontario’s major urban centres have indeed become popular places to enjoy traditional and fusion cuisines of all possible origins. However, they are more likely to use local products, which are particularly abundant in the province. In the south, Ontario produces grains, corn, fruits (apples, berries, cherries, peaches, etc.) and a wide variety of vegetables. Its mild southeastern climate is also conducive to growing table grapes and producing wines, including ice wines, in the Niagara Peninsula. The northern lakes teem with fish, including walleye, pike, trout and whitefish. Lastly, although often overlooked, the northwest is famous for manoomin, a popular Indigenous wild rice that was purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 19th century. Livestock, dairy and cheese farms round out this bountiful food supply.
As an integral part of Ontario’s culinary heritage, wild rice deserves to be honoured with a recipe!
Before it adopted the name we know today, Quebec’s land already abounded in marine and forest products: small and large game, mushrooms, herbs, berries, fish, seafood, etc. The 11 nomadic or sedentary Indigenous nations who welcomed the first French settlers already had their own recipes and cooking techniques, such as producing maple syrup, or curing and smoking fish or meat.
The newcomers blended this ancestral knowledge and local ingredients into their own culinary cultures, then infused it with flavours from their English-speaking neighbours and other waves of immigrants. Traditional Quebec family fare, also called Canadienne cuisine, includes everything from tourtière, sugar pie and pea soup to molasses beans, poor man’s pudding, burgers, shepherd’s pie and Bolognese sauce.
Some specialties that are considered to be typically Quebecois but which are not that old, such as the obligatory poutine, bagels or smoked meat, come from here or elsewhere. This fusion is also reflected in contemporary Quebec food culture, which has freed itself from the constraints of French cuisine in order to reclaim its roots and burst with boundless creativity, even if it means combining several culinary cultures in the same dish.
This openness, as well as Quebecers’ and new Quebecers’ natural love for food, is reflected in just about every aspect of food culture. The traditional maple (Quebec produces 70% of the world’s maple syrup), apple (think of the renowned ice cider) and corn-on-the-cob seasons are coupled with myriad agricultural crops, dairy farms, livestock farms, fisheries, food processors and food artisans. Fresh or aged cheeses, berries (think of blueberries, strawberries, cranberries and cherries), meats (beef, pork, chicken, lamb, etc.), beers, wines and spirits, fishery resources (salmonids, snow crab, lobster, shrimp, seaweed, etc.), all types of mushrooms, breads and desserts… It is impossible to list in full the impressive array of foods that restaurants and homes alike can enjoy on a daily basis.
Quebec’s rich culinary heritage inspires many local chefs like Simon Mathys, owner of Mastard restaurant, who invites us to discover his interpretation of braised rabbit with oysters.
Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland and Labrador
Francophones have a special connection to the Maritimes, which include Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The Acadians who live there are descendants of French settlers, which has not prevented them from creating a unique cuisine inspired by French, English and American cooking throughout their eventful history.
This part of Canada immediately calls to mind one product: lobster! It’s hard to miss, it’s on every menu, it’s the central attraction in the cozy wooden shacks in ports, and it can even be purchased at local airports.
But that’s not to say that the Maritimes don’t have more to offer! Seafood products, such as crab, herring, salmon, scallops, clams, cod, and oysters, are definitely spotlighted here. Newfoundland and Labrador is an all-around leader in fisheries and aquaculture, with offerings as diverse as haddock, eel, monkfish, capelin, swordfish, burbot, mackerel, skate, bluefin tuna, shark and sea bass, in addition to seafood.
It goes without saying that seafood-based dishes are a must in this geographical area, especially the fish or seafood pie or pâté, or the fricot, a fish (or chicken) stew, with potatoes, of course! This tuber vegetable, along with lobster, holds a special place in Maritimes culinary culture. Potatoes are in most dishes and are also the star ingredient in one of the most popular Acadian specialties, poutine râpée or rappie pie, which consists of shredded potato balls bound with mashed potatoes and bits of lard.
There’s nothing like a delicious cod stew to let your taste buds travel to the Maritimes. The chef from Fricot restaurant shares this recipe with us.