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Redefining Quebec's Cuisine

Canadian province's regional foods are being revitalized - with a nod to today's palates

WHEN French settlers first came to Quebec, they faced a culinary challenge: how to adapt to this cold region with its vast wilderness and put something hearty and tasty on the table.

Not that they came without any ideas. Much of the early Quebec cuisine can be traced to French country cooking. It was - as it is called in many countries - "peasant cuisine."

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The New World provided lots of game: venison, hare, birds, moose. Pork and legumes became staples, because they were easy to keep. There was an abundance of fish, such as salmon, from the surrounding waters. The warmer months brought fruit - especially berries - and vegetables. Maple syrup sweetened many dough concoctions. Because meals were so seasonally dictated, the early mainstays included tourtiere (meat pie), ragout (stew), pea soup, pork and beans, and sugar pie.

As people from different cultures - notably Scots and Irish - arrived, so did different ingredients. Cities and towns developed and cooking became more elaborate. "With more wealth, you started having milk, butter, and you started buying imports," explains Hne-Andree Bizier, a food historian based in Montreal.

As lifestyles changed, so did cuisine. "What we used to call 'Quebec cuisine' gradually became 'folkloric cuisine,' " says Rene-Luc Blaquiere, spokesman for the Institut de Tourisme et dtellerie du Quebec, the chef training school in Montreal. People started to work in offices rather than on farms; women went to work outside the home. Fast food started to seep through all of North America. Old-time dishes became out-of-date and reserved for holidays. And although fine French restaurants still did very we ll, ethnic restaurants sprouted everywhere, especially in the larger cities. Barbecue, Asian, and especially Italian spaghetti-and-pizza places be- came commonplace and popular, said Mr. Blaquiere in a Monitor interview. Julian Armstrong, food editor for the Montreal Gazette, says that at one point, pasta was cited as the most popular food. "Pasta!" she says with amazement.

To many people in the food-and-tourism industry - as well as proud Quebeckers - the erosion of traditional cuisine was a distress signal. So Quebec's tourism institute sent out groups of culinary students to comb the province's senior-citizen homes to talk to people and gather up early re- cipes, many of which had never been written down. The recipes were documented and preserved in cookbook form. (The institute's library contains about 8,000 recipes.)

With the same pride, the government-funded institute began another mission in the late 1970s: to establish a newly defined Quebec regional cuisine. The goal of the project is to emphasize Quebec's regional specialties. Indeed, it has revitalized Quebec's old cuisine, adjusting it to today's palates. The project is another effort to preserve Quebec's identity while homogenization beckons at its borders.

Called La Cuisine Regionale au Quebec, the program not only looks at the state of regional cuisine, it encourages Quebec chefs to help define it, even create it. If chefs buy into the philosophy, they use time-honored French techniques to prepare regional specialties, with a nod to lightness (in other words: Easy does it with the fat). Now the institute is compiling recipes that have been accepted as "new classics" or bona-fide regional dishes. They also accredit restaurants that serve the new classic fa re.

The acceptance has been painstaking, says the tourism institute's Blaquiere, who has found himself traveling Quebec, restaurant by restaurant. "To create a new Quebec cuisine, everybody has to work on it," he says. Many things must be considered for a dish to be declared "classical." But it's well worth the effort, he says: "It gives chefs opportunity to take tradition and use Quebec products. We'll always keep the traditional and the new."

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