The Christmas season and the Winter Solstice are in many cultures a time for feasting and conviviality. In French Canada, this was called “Le temps des Fêtes” and covered what is commonly known as the Twelve Days of Christmas, that is to say Christmas Day to Epiphany.
The celebrations started with the traditional Réveillon, after Midnight Mass, and lasted until January 6th. My childhood memories of this time are wonderful food (and wonderful leftovers). The highlights were the traditional Tourtière, the roasted turkey, the Ragoût de Pattes and the Ragoût de Boulettes. During those 12 days there was also roast ham and roast beef too. The meals were usually festive occasions with relatives coming to visit. This was just about the only time of the year that my father would buy liquor: port, sherry (usually South African) some brandy, a bottle ofrye and a case of beer. Wine was only in the form of port or sherry and usually consumed as an apéritif. I was in my late teens, I think, when table wine, both red and white, became part of these meals.
While tourtière traces its origins to ancient Mesopotamia, in Québec it evolved from European variants, but used “tourtes” a passenger pigeon once abundant but now extinct. As a result other meats came to be used, most notably pork, veal or beef, and often some wild game… hare, venison, moose, etc. The game was not the dominant ingredient (usually pork) but enhanced the flavour and perhaps subtly honoured the memory of the tourte. My partner Merv learned to make tourtières from my mother, and tourtières are obligatory at this time of the year.
The traditional ragoût was made from pork trotters although my mother preferred to make hers with pork hocks, to which she would add a couple of token trotters. The spices used in the ragoût were similar to those used in tourtière… allspice, cloves, cinnamon maybe, and some dried sage and dried savory. A ragoût of meatballs was similarly flavoured, although meatballs were sometimes simply added to the Ragoût de pattes. I vaguely remember the addition of dumplings to these ragoûts… bigger ones called “grand-pères” and smaller ones called “grand-mères,” but these were generally omitted by my mother.
There were ordinary fruit pies too, especially raisin pies, maybe some apple pies, fruit cake, date squares, fancy cookies. We freely adopted other traditions of cranberry sauce, and mincemeat pies.
Nowadays, however, we still have a couple of tourtières, but I make the ragoûts every two or three years because they are so rich, and we just don’t eat like that anymore. This year for Christmas we made a turkey gallantine, stuffed with layered vegetables. Today, in preparation for the New Year’s Day dinner, I am making Carbonnades de Boeuf (Julia Child’s recipe) always better the next day. But the memory of the feasts of Christmas-past are savoured with a grateful smile.