Montreal·Recipe

Tourtière for the holidays: The everlasting appeal of Madame Benoît's famous Quebec recipe

If the internet had existed in the 1960s, Jehane Benoît’s meat pie would have broken it.

'Foolproof' recipe has enduring appeal, says Canadian cuisine expert

Jehane Benoît introduced traditional Québécois dishes, such as tourtière, to English Canadians. (Joanne Bayly/CBC)

If the internet had existed in the 1960s, Jehane Benoît's meat pie would have broken it.

It would have been called "The Tourtière" on Instagram, and bloggers would have flooded social media with their own versions of the pie.

That's how popular the Quebec cook was at the time.

"When you think about Quebec cuisine, she is the name that comes to mind," explained Nathalie Cooke, a professor of English Literature at McGill University, who studies the literature of Canadian cuisine.

"She was incredibly charming and dynamic, and I think people warmed to her in lots of ways. She was also fully bilingual."

A 60s phenomenon

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Benoît was Canada's cook. In both French and charmingly accented English, she was on radio and television, trying to improve how Canadians ate and how they cooked.

She was a phenomenon.

Jehane Benoît demonstrates cutting up a raw chicken, on the 1958 program Bonjour Madame. (Andre Le Coz/Radio-Canada)

A Maclean's article in 1955 stated: "She has drawn 3,000 women a day to a Montreal theatre for her cooking school."

The writer, Scott Young, describes the extent of her popularity.

"[She] has been booked into the Montreal Forum for a one-day cooking class that may draw as many as 10,000 people to see and hear [her]."

The Tourtière

Benoît revolutionized cooking in Canada by teaching classic techniques and suggesting new menus and cuisine.

She also introduced traditional Québécois dishes to English Canadians, such as tourtière.

Because of her, tourtière is a recipe many Canadian families have made their own, especially at Christmas time.

Cooke says it's easy to understand the recipe's popularity.

Nathalie Cooke, a professor at McGill University who studies the literature of Canadian cuisine, carefully opens an old edition of Jehane Benoit Encyclopedia of Canadian Cooking. The book is out of print. (Joanne Bayly/CBC)

"It's a relatively simple recipe. It's easy to make. It's foolproof. It tastes wonderful, and because it belongs to Madame Benoît, it is her iconic dish."

Canada's Julia Child

Benoît grew up in a wealthy household in Westmount and her grandfather was a connoisseur of food.

"He used to drive 20 miles by sleigh in the country to get bread that he considered superior to the local product," the Maclean's profile on Benoît said. 

The CBC cooking coach brings her recipe for champ, an Irish potato dish to CBC's Open House. 0:55

Her father, a businessman, was just as fastidious about what he and the family ate.

As a young woman, Benoît rejected pressures to marry young and instead opted to learn about food.

She studied at the Sorbonne and the Cordon Bleu in Paris. 

Once she had gleaned everything she could from French experts, Benoît returned home to open her own cooking school in Montreal.

A salad bar pioneer

Her school became very popular.

"After the Second World War, housewives were looking for ways to understand how to create interesting meals," Cooke said.

"Food tastes were evolving and they were looking for additional information about how to produce foods that they might not have learned at their mother's side."

Mme. Benoît appeared regularly on CBC's Take 30. Here she's seen with co-hosts Paul Soles and Adrienne Clarkson. (CBC Still Photo Collection)

The school's popularity led to Benoît opening her own restaurant in 1935 called The Salad Bar — it was both vegetarian and a buffet.

"She had the brilliant business idea to feed all the students who came to her school," Cooke said.

"And so, at that point, she created The Salad Bar, using a buffet-style concept which itself was innovative. And that way she was able to make money from her students."

Encyclopedia of Cooking

Used copies of Benoît's encyclopedia can be bought online. (Joanne Bayly/CBC)
After the restaurant was destroyed by fire, Benoît decided she was too busy with her other commitments to continue it. She went on to focus on radio, television and, eventually, on her cookbooks.

Her masterpiece,"The New and Complete Encyclopedia of Cooking," was published in 1963 and reprinted in 1972.

"Suddenly, a thousand-page encyclopedia of cuisine was very attractive, because it gave specific directions that were absolutely foolproof," Cooke said.

In 2012, Quebec food blogger and TV host Camélia Desrosiers was given the chance to cook some of Benoît's recipes for a new Quebec audience.

Jehane et moi

This was shortly after the popularity of the book and film Julie & Julia, about Julia Child's life and a young cook working her way through all her famous recipes.

Food blogger Camélia Desrosiers took up the Jehane Benoît challenge. (Submitted by Camélia Desrosiers)

Desrosiers says she had, of course, known about Benoît's work. But the series was a chance for her to get acquainted with the actual recipes and to learn more about Benoît's legacy. 

"I think she was someone who was more cultivated. She taught women they could make a coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon, and it's actually easy."

As part of the TV series, Desrosiers dabbled with shrimp cocktails and pineapple upside-down cake. But there was one recipe she avoided.

Squirrel, anyone?

"The one recipe that scares me the most is a squirrel recipe," she remembered.

In the recipe for Ecureuil au Vin Blanc (squirrel in white wine), Benoît suggests boiling a cut-up squirrel in broth, then battering it with eggs and flour, and finally serving it with a brown sauce. 

Benoit's squirrel in white wine recipe was a bit of a miss with the public. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Desrosiers believes Madame Benoît's legacy, in the end, is simple.

She showed Quebecers that "cooking is not that difficult. You don't have to be a chef to do it. She was bringing you recipes that seemed really fancy but that weren't really that bad. She was very modern."

The tourtière before it goes into the oven. (Joanne Bayly/CBC)

Quebec Tourtière, by Jehane Benoît

  • 1 pound minced pork
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon savory
  • ¼ teaspoon celery pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • ½ cup water
  • ¼ to ½ cup bread crumbs

Place all the ingredients in a saucepan except the bread crumbs. Bring to a boil and cook 20 minutes, uncovered, over medium heat. Remove from heat.

Add a few spoonfuls bread crumbs, let stand 10 minutes. If the fat is sufficiently absorbed by the bread crumbs, do not add more. If not, continue in the same manner.

Cool and pour into a pastry-lined pie pan. Cover with pastry. Bake in a 400 F oven until the top is well browned. Serve hot.

About the Author

Joanne Bayly

CBC Journalist

Joanne Bayly is a senior editor in the CBC Montreal newsroom. She remembers her mother slowly putting together a binder of Jehane Benoît recipes, by collecting a chapter every month from the Steinberg grocery store. And, although she is a long-time vegetarian, she still makes the tourtière for members of her family during the holiday season.

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