I Went Hunting for a Partridge in a Tree
The traditional Lac St-Jean tourtière is a succulent combination of potatoes and game (usually a mix of hare, partridge, and moose) baked into a rich, savory pie. And the best way to find your filling is by hunting it yourself.
Poutine and maple syrup might be the most emblematic food from Quebec, but nothing represents the Christmas spirit in La Belle Province quite like tourtière, a traditional French-Canadian meat pie that comes in loads of different shapes, sizes, and fillings.
Much like the highly controversial origin of poutine, there is a big debate surrounding the definition of a "real" tourtière. There exists a great rivalry between what are know as the Montreal and the Lac-St-Jean tourtières. (Lac-St-Jean is a region in Northern-Quebec, a good five hour drive from Montreal.) The former is, in my honest opinion, a travesty, a shame to the term tourtière. It consists of ground beef or pork with browned onions, which is basically like any regular garbage supermarket meat pie. The Lac St-Jean version, on the other hand, is considered by a vast majority of the Quebec population to be the real deal. Not only is it a noble dish, but its succulent combination of potatoes and game (usually a mix of hare, partridge, and moose) completely justifies eating it every single day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner from December 24th until there is absolutely none left.
I had my first real tourtière after my dad started dating his current girlfriend, who is from Lac-St-Jean. I was about 7 years old, and even though I had had my fair share of meat pies before then, I realized I hadn't truly lived until the first bite of my stepmom's warm tourtière touched my lips that Christmas.
To get into the holiday spirit, I called up chef Marc Cohen from Lawrence Restaurant and Boucherie Lawrence in Montreal to see if he'd be interested in making me a special tourtière. The man might not be from Quebec (he hails from the UK originally), but he knows how to make a mean pie. On top of that, the philosophy at the heart of Lawrence is one I can easily stand by. With his partners, Cohen supports local farmers that raise animals with compassion. The team goes to great lengths, visiting each farm to ensure that the meat they serve at the restaurant and sell at the shop comes from producers who work in sustainable ways.
But in order to make things a bit more exciting and really make an effort to reconnect with the roots of my favorite holiday dish, we decided we would have to make tourtière with meat that we'd hunted ourselves.
On the following Friday, we met up at around 6:30 AM, which is more of a bedtime than a wakeup time for me. But we were determined to catch as many partridges and hares as we could carry. Considering that none of us knew how to use a gun or had been hunting before, we asked local food enthusiast and avid hunter Erick Chamberland and his friend Fabrice Gaëtan to accompany us in our quest.
Chamberland quickly proceeded to crush our spirits even before we set out to head up north near Bronsburg-Chatham. "I don't think we are going to catch anything," he told us, adding he hadn't had any luck himself in the past few weeks. The possibility of us returning empty-handed hadn't even crossed my mind until then. I had pictured us setting traps and watching as droves of hares happily hopped directly into them. I could see flocks of fat partridges patiently waiting on branches for us to aim and shoot.
A lot of men in my family hunt, as they have for as long as I can remember. I recall being a toddler and seeing my uncle's pickup truck pulling in the driveway with a moose strapped to the roof; my grandfather's freezer was constantly packed with deer meat. I guess these early childhood memories made me believe that hunting was was easy, and that a single day out in the woods would guarantee enough meat to feed ten children.
After two hours of walking in the woods and getting our boots stuck in sneaky, snow-covered swamps, it dawned on me that Chamberland might be right after all. There is a very high possibility of us not catching anything. As we continued to look up and down for any sign of wildlife, Chamberland taught us how to differentiate old tracks from fresh ones. (Fresh tracks will easily disappear if your brush them with the tip of your fingers, while old ones have had time to harden.) Unfortunately, all the tracks we seemed to encounter were a few days old, which only discouraged us even more.
Just as I started to come to terms with the idea of failing my ancestors who, unlike us, couldn't resort to buying meat from a store to make tourtière, Chamberland pointed to fresh partridge tracks. Our rookie hunter excitement (we started giggling and cheering) got the best of us and quickly caused the partridge who was hiding in a nearby pine tree to fly away. Chamberland's eagle eye spotted the bird perched a few pine trees ahead, but after scaring it away for a second time with a missed gunshot, he told us it would be very unlikely for us to find it again.
Gaëtan, on the other hand, seemed convinced that if we ventured to the nearby pond we'd be able to spot the partridge. As we were coming down a small hill, making our way through branches while Chamberland and Gaëtan went in opposite directions to find the bird, we heard three gunshots.
There it was. The partridge had fallen to the ground. It was a Christmas miracle!
Holding the still-warm bird in my arms felt strange. Even though I wasn't the one who killed it, I had never experienced such a close connection with an animal I intended on eating in the near future. The three or so hours it took to catch one bird felt a lot more rewarding and natural than going to the supermarket to get prepackaged chicken.
Back at the Lawrence butcher shop, Marc plucked and gutted the partridge, revealing tiny breasts. It would make for a small tourtière, but at least we respected our agreement. The following day, I invited a bunch of friends to Lawrence, where we hosted a special Christmas dinner featuring Marc's take on a traditional tourtière. With all due respect to my stepmom's cooking, Marc's pie was succulent and simply spectacular-looking. Filled with partridge, beef, prunes, bacon, onions, and topped with our prey's intact head and talons, I couldn't have asked for more. Maybe it's because I witnessed the whole making of that pie, from branch to the table, but it was by far one of the best tourtière I've had in my life. And to have the pleasure of sharing the fruit of our labour with close friends was an even better reward.