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Québec: a city of First Nations

Wendake, Québec: a flavour of First Nations cuisine

by Niamh Shields 08 December 2017

Niamh Shields visits Wendake in Québec and discovers a world of indigenous ingredients, First Nations cooking and a strong connection to nature.

I say Québec, and you would think French, and you would be right to think so. But to think of Québec as only French, or to think of Québec as just like France, would be two dimensional and an error. Québec is all of that and more, a melting pot with a fusion of cultures and cuisines from all over the world.

Québec is one of Canada’s largest provinces with a long coastline, arable land and rich native forest. Traditionally you would experience food like tourtiere meat pie and smoked meat, and in terms of produce Québec is home to many of Canada’s best cheeses and ice cider made from apples left to freeze in the orchards in the depths of the intense Québécois winter. Famously Québec is home to poutine, that miraculous trifecta of hot chips, squeaky cold cheese curds and gravy. You will also know Québec for its maple syrup; it produces seventy percent of the world’s total and a trip to a sugar shack in season is a perfect food lover’s adventure. All food is made with fresh seasonal maple syrup at a sugar shack including tire sur la neige, maple taffy made from pouring molten hot syrup directly onto snow where it solidifies.

In terms of food and culture, in Québec you will experience myriad European and international influences alongside confident and exciting modern Canadian cooking, expressing the local terroir and the terrific produce available. Québec is bubbling with creative culture and they have lots to play with. On my last visit I discovered Radoune gin made with four types of local wild mushrooms. The fun and delicious thing about a food trip to Québec is everything that is local combined with all of the points of difference and the passion with which they are expressed. Some of the best are even more local though – the restaurants expressing the food and culture of the First Nations.

The First Nations of Canada

Québec has a long and rich tradition of First Nations cultures, the First Nations being the descendants of the original Canadian people who lived there for thousands of years before European explorers arrived and settled. There are 617 First Nations communities in Canada and 3,100 reserves. First Nations people identify according to whichever of the 617 Nations that they belong to (e.g. Mohawk, Cree, Huron-Wendat).

Some of First Nations food culture you will already be familiar with, even if you are not aware. European settlers learned from the First Nations to tap the maple tree for sap to make syrup from them when they arrived. In broad strokes, traditionally the First Nations migrated seasonally for food that they hunted, foraged or fished for, although their cultures are diverse and adapted to where they were based, from the Canadian Arctic and Ontario to Nova Scotia and British Colombia. Their agricultural practices include the poetic 'Three Sisters', where corn, bean and squash have traditionally grown together, each plant supporting the others as they grow.

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Wendake – a Huron-Wendat First Nation in downtown Québec

In Québec alone there are thirty-nine First Nations. I visited the Huron-Wendat Nation, Wendake, in Québec City, just fifteen minutes from downtown Québec. In Wendake you will find a rich tapestry of indigenous ingredients and cooking styles from old school to contemporary. At Wendake there are several restaurants and also a hotel where you can stay, the beautifully presented and comfortable four-star property Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations. It was the hotel that first drew my attention with its gorgeous decor, First Nations museum and fine dining restaurant La Traite and nearby La Sagamité.

When asked what indigenous food is, chef Steve Bissonnette at La Sagamité in Wendake says it is straightforward, natural, simple food. There is no need to use overcomplicated words to explain what you are eating. It is respecting nature and understanding a culture that has lived on this land for so many years with an incredible knowledge of the forest.

In terms of cooking, indigenous chefs ensure that all animal parts are used and that nothing is wasted. They need to be creative to do interesting things with buffalo bones, deer noses, roots from the forest, boreal herbs and uncommon berries such as cloud berries and a need to be creative with limited ingredients. Indigenous cuisine is still new in gastronomy. There are cloud berries from the great north, Labrador tea (the leaves of low, slow-growing shrubs used as an infusion and a seasoning) and birch syrup. Personally at home, Steve has cooked moose, bear, beaver and Canada goose. To continually add to and develop this, Steve and his team are always seeking out producers and indigenous herb pickers in order to bring new flavours into their cooking.

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Bannock is the traditional bread of the First Nations people and can be cooked in all sorts of ways, including over an open fire
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More commonly, it is served as a short, round flatbread

Bannock

The traditional First Nations bread is called bannock, and like most recipes integral to a culture is adapted by every family who each have their own way of making it. I have had it fried, deep-fried, baked and, on this occasion, cooked in the embers of the fire with Samuel, a storyteller at Wendake. Following storytelling at the Wendake longhouse (a magical experience in itself) we proceeded to the fire outside where Samuel shared his family bannock recipe and cooked it with me. We made the dough and then wrapped it around the end of the stick which we placed in the embers of the fire to cook gently until golden and gorgeous. A perfect bite in the cooling evening air.

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Where to eat in Wendake

  • La Sagamité is an excellent start to any trip to Wendake with traditional foods and meats served with a modern twist. The aforementioned Three Sisters feature on the menu; you can try them in the traditional Huron Sagamité soup made of corn, squash, red beans and venison. Famous in particular for the potence (which translates as gallows), the meat is hung on a frame and grilled at the table over a small open fire, reminiscent of traditional cooking methods. Try the deer, elk and caribou which you can order together, or separately. Or try bison and elk as a burger.

  • La Traite in Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations presents indigenous ingredients creatively in an elegant fine dining setting, offering a fine dining view of the traditional Wendat cuisine. Cooking is excellent, and the ingredients will be new to many of you as they were to me. The room is beautiful with a fire in the centre of the room, but as I visited in early summer, I chose to sit by the river outside and enjoyed a diverse menu including smoked eel, salmon, deer, duck, bison and berries, all dishes matched with Canadian wines.

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