Hailing from Quebec, poutine is taking off in Pittsburgh

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

It's no accident that the word “gourmet” is a French word. Historically, the French are synonymous with good food.

Most of the cold, northerly regions of the world — Russia, Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, Canada — are not.

So when a bunch of French people ended up in the cold, northerly province of Quebec for a few hundred years, what happened? Well, unsurprisingly, the French-Canadians developed a rich culinary tradition drawing upon both their ethnic heritage and the fertile fields of North-Atlantic Canada.

Still, their most famous dish is poutine. No getting around that.

No, it's not health food. It's not upscale, gourmet or haute cuisine, and requires zero years of training in classical French cooking. It could even be described as “junk food.” It may be one of the best junk foods ever created.

“It's cheese and gravy and French fries,” explains Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis, who grew up in Laval, Quebec.

“But not that thick Thanksgiving gravy — it's lighter,” notes Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, originally from Sorel-Tracy, Quebec.

It's not totally clear where the name poutine (pronounced poo-TEEN) came from. It may have evolved from Acadian slang for “pudding.” Another popular explanation comes from Fernand Lachance, who claims to have invented the dish in 1957, exclaiming, “Ca va faire une maudite poutine!” Translation: “It will make one hell of a mess!”

Pittsburghers in particular shouldn't be too skeptical.

“For people who don't know what it is, it's gravy fries,” says chef/restaurateur Kevin Sousa, whose Station Street in East Liberty features the dish. “Pittsburghers love gravy fries, because of the Potato Patch at Kennywood.”

Added to the gravy fries is one extra, crucial ingredient: cheese curds. Unless you grew up in Wisconsin, Minnesota or on a dairy farm, cheese curds probably don't mean anything to you.

Just think of them as little, oddly shaped, springy chunks of (usually cheddar) cheese — that happen to squeak when you bite into them. Cheese curds are porous, and the squeak is because of the air trapped inside. They tend to lose this fresh squeakiness quickly. That's part of the reason that they're often hard to find outside big dairy-producing areas.

Fresh cheese curds have a typically mild flavor and slightly springy texture. Combined with the saltiness of the French fries and savory richness of the gravy, poutine practically demands to be accompanied by a beer, or two. It also pairs nicely with a hockey game, televised or otherwise.

Franktuary, a gourmet hot dog shop (among other things) that recently expanded to Lawrenceville, was an early adopter of poutine in Pittsburgh.

“I heard the word for a long time before I knew what it was,” says Franktuary co-owner Tim Tobitsch. “I grew up in a big hockey family (in New Jersey), so I was more attuned to Canadian culture than most. I was up at a Leafs game in Toronto, and I asked the guy next to me where I could get poutine. He told me to go to Poutini's on Queen Street West. At 1 a.m. on a Thursday, we were just amazed at the (number of) hockey fans pouring in. ... It was delicious.”

Poutini's House of Poutine is one of the best-known poutine sources, but you can get it anywhere in Canada — including McDonald's and Burger King.

Franktuary's customers frequently requested fries. Tobitsch saw an opening to do something different.

“I thought, ‘How can we distinguish ourselves in Pittsburgh, which is so saturated with French fries — on sandwiches, salads, everything?' ” Tobitsch says. “We thought it was something Pittsburgh would like.”

The main problem with making poutine here is finding a source for fresh cheese curds.

For a brief time, a local enthusiast, Jonathan Gaugler, ran Arsenal Cheese Curds in Lawrenceville. He supplied several local restaurants, including Franktuary, and sold them in local grocery stores.

“They had trouble scaling production up to meet demand,” Tobitsch says. “It wasn't cost-effective to make the curds in a basement in Lawrenceville. Maybe they'll come back. Right now, we're getting them from Penn Mac (Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., Strip District), who gets them from an Amish farm in Ohio.”

“We started sourcing (cheese curds) from Miller Farms by Grove City, an Amish farm,” Sousa says. “We buy everything they produce. If they could produce more, we'd buy it. We're buying 40 to 50 pounds a week. I understand why Arsenal was such a hard business model to maintain. You need a lot of milk and a lot of equipment, which doesn't produce a lot of curds.”

For Sousa, the dish began with a need to use some gravy.

“We started to notice at Union (Pig & Chicken, Sousa's barbecue restaurant in East Liberty) as a by-product of slow-cooking our meat, we had this incredible smoked meat stock,” he says. “It's just the juice from the slow-cooked brisket, and we made a gravy out of it.

“The gravy's rich. It's bordering on salty. I think with fries, you should be toeing that line a bit. I like raw scallions, so we throw a bit of those on there. Oniony, cheesy goodness.”

So far, the reaction has been good.

“We've had a lot of people who are either of Canadian descent, or have been there a lot, and say it's spot-on — ‘But it has your signature (they say), so smoky and has that barbecue richness.' ”

Though the French can be a bit strict about doing things the right way, the Canadian attitude toward poutine could be described as laissez-faire. As long as you have fries, gravy and cheese curds, you can add other things to your heart's content.

Park Bruges in Highland Park has been experimenting with the dish for awhile.

“We do one with shortribs, and one at brunch with sausage gravy and two fried eggs and curds,” says Kevin Hunninen, Park Bruges' executive chef. “That started out as an omelette — a poutine omelette, cheese curds and fries in the middle.

“We've definitely done them with more Mexican style, with carnitas pulled pork. That was pretty good, but it didn't quite catch on as much. When researching different flavors, a lot of places in Toronto did turkey and peas. One uses tomato sauce.”

Poutine is an easy thing to like, especially when the weather's cold. Just don't overdo it.

“If you're trying to eat healthy, like a hockey player, it's not the way to go,” Dupuis says.

“You can't beat poutine,” Fleury says. “It's not very healthy. Not at all. But … delicious.”

Staff writer Rob Rossi contributed to this report. Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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