Rebecca Nicholson, The Guardian, September 8, 2014
There’s no denying it: when seen for the first time, poutine looks like a culinary catastrophe. But at least this Canadian concoction has the decency to acknowledge that in its name, which translates, according to one etymological theory at least, as “hot mess”. The thick, gloopy pile of chips, meat gravy and squeaky cheese curd (the solid product from the beginning stages of making cheese), which originated in Quebec in the early 1980s, is having a moment. It has moved away from its origins as a local late-night drinking snack, for which it is so perfectly suited – that salty sauce, fatty cheese and stodgy chips are perfect for mopping up both booze and its less pleasant aftereffects – and is becoming so popular that Canadian McDonald’s branches have put it on the menu. It’s also moving out of its home nation.
In the States, poutine is being made over, with fancy adornments and increasingly inventive twists on the curd and gravy topping. Littlefork in Hollywood, LA has “duck confit, gravy, cheddar mornay and fried rosemary” poutine, while The Gorbals in Williamsburg, NYC, is offering “banh mi poutine” with “thrice-cooked fries, hoisin gravy”. It’s far from the cheap, easy and life-saving slopped-together heap that I was presented with by proud Canadians in a 24-hour diner in Toronto at the end of an evening of dedicated drinking with new friends. But, as happened with the explosion in popularity of ramen, perhaps the gourmet spin is a sign of poutine’s success.
Given that British people tend to enjoy both alcohol and subsequently sloshing cheese and/or sauce all over their chips at the end of the night, the only surprise is that it’s taken poutine so long to get to the UK. Glasgow’s Bread Meets Bread features a sweet poutine and a “Glaspoutine: with extra Scottish cheddar cheese. Hawksmoor in Spitalfields has had a posh (and not very tasty) pig’s head poutine on its bar menu for a while now, Gordon Ramsay flirted with one at Foxtrot Oscar a while back. But two serious contenders have appeared in London in the last 12 months. The Poutinerie stall, which lives on Brick Lane, has been open for almost a year, while poutine-centric pop-up Stacks took up residency in the Dalston bar Birthdays in July, on Canada Day. It turns out that both are run by the same chef – Paul Dunits, a Toronto native who came to the UK to visit his brother eight years ago, and never quite managed to move back again. “We went home last August for a vacation and it was just everywhere,” he recalls. “They were selling cheese curds at the side of the road near my parents’ house. I took it as a sign.”
Dunits says Brits did not take much convincing of its value. “Once they taste it, it makes sense,” he explains. “It’s the saltiness of the cheese curd and the starchy stuff that fills the void.” While Stacks flips the fast food model on its head and sells burgers as side dishes to various versions of its chip-based main, the Poutinerie stall keeps it simple with just two versions: original, and ‘coq au vin’, which adds chicken and bacon into the mix. “I tell people when they have it for the first time to have it in its original form, then if they like it, to try the other.”
But the idea of tweaking poutine at all seems like an affront to French-Canadians in particular, who guard the purity of their deliciously savoury invention with ferocity. Dunits says he’s even had French-Canadians visiting his stall who are angry at him because he’s not Quebecois. He does, however, concede that they know how to do it properly: keep it basic. “Canadians go for the original,” he says. “The French-Canadians, for sure. They’re the purists.”
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Rebecca Nicholson from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.