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Chasing Poutine


In Quebec, cuisines old and new meld together—beneath gravy

Ubiquitous French language and architecture lend an Old World feel to every corner of Montreal, where food, too, is laden with a deep sense of tradition. I wouldn’t have visited without sampling an impossibly flaky almond croissant or open flame-baked bagel; to do so would mean missing out on a belly-based understanding of Québécois comfort food. Yet I also found evidence of a city that skews youthful: In warm weather, hipsters and young families flock to food trucks. In recent years, that very modern food trend has exploded here, culminating in a massive annual food truck festival.

One of the most popular trucks—a curd-centric operation known as Le Cheese Truck—took the brick-and-mortar leap recently, opening a petite shop in the quaint Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighborhood. Three cheesy classics are served here, with a twist: Poutine subs tater tots for fries, mac and cheese is loaded with peas and smoky bacon, and grilled cheese options squeeze both of those dishes into sandwiches.

But just a few hours from Montreal’s bustling food truck scene, I uncovered something much more old-school: what may be the most ancient cheese in North America. Beginning in the 1630s, French settlers of Île d’Orléans made a farmer’s cheese that was aged several days on a mat of woven reeds. A version of that cheese—Fromage de l’Isle d’Orléans, now called Paillasson—is mild and slightly nutty. Firm enough to grill, it oozes wonderfully once heated. Inspired by the contrasts I discovered between old and new Quebec, I dreamed up a play on the most Québécois of all native foods: poutine. Like Le Cheese Truck, I use tater tots in place of fries and, in an ode to the colonial period of New France, sub Paillasson for generic cheese curds. Bon appétit!


Tater Tot-Paillasson Poutine

If you’re unable to find Paillasson in the US (it can be elusive sans a Canadian connection), use a similarly textured grilling cheese such as queso fresco, halloumi, or juustoleipä instead. These cheeses melt only slightly, and should squeak when eaten—a critical element of true poutine.
Servings 4


  • GRAVY:
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 shallot finely chopped
  • 1 small clove garlic finely chopped
  • 4 cups beef stock
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon whole peppercorns optional
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • Kosher salt to taste
  • Freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 40 to 48 frozen tater tots cooked according to package directions
  • 2 cups diced Paillasson cheese or a similar variety, see headnote
  • 2 tablespoons chopped chives or parsley optional


  • Heat olive oil in a quart-size saucepan over medium. Add shallot and garlic and cook until translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in stock, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, and peppercorns (if using). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer.
  • In another quart-size saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add flour and whisk to form a roux, stirring constantly to avoid lumps. Cook roux until it begins to brown and turn fragrant, about 3 minutes. Slowly add stock mixture, whisking constantly. Lower heat and simmer about 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until gravy reduces by half. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Divide cooked tater tots equally among four bowls. Sprinkle with cheese. Pour gravy over top, distributing evenly. Garnish with parsley or chives, if desired. Serve hot.

Featured image: Paillasson cheese on the griddle at Les Fromages de l’Isle d’Orléans.

Heather Kapplow

Heather Kapplow is a freelance writer, editor, researcher, project manager and multimedia content producer. Her main areas of interest are experimental art and film, but she’ll rarely turn down an opportunity to travel, or to think, eat, or write about food. Ms. Kapplow has spent more of her life in Boston than anywhere else in the world, but loves Finland most. She was once nominated for an Emmy.

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