All aboard for the Sparks Street PoutineFest in Ottawa! An annual event celebrating the unofficial and super popular national Canadian dish, poutine. Not just a celebration of that most wonderful trifecta of fries, gravy and squeaky cheese curds, Sparks Street PoutineFest reaches beyond the plate. It is a superb reflection of Ottawa’s rich immigrant history and diverse food culture and all things Ottawa and Canada in terms of craft drinks and music.
Let me count the ways I love poutine
Originally from Quebec, poutine has been embraced coast to coast. We can even get it here in London! Indeed, I have served my Irish take on it here. I have had lobster poutine on the east coast, complete with a gorgeous lobster gravy and poutine with slow-cooked ox cheek ragu in place of gravy on the west coast. I have been to Quebec and Montreal and had many poutines there, including, of course, the original. Sparks Street PoutineFest was about to blow my mind.
Show me the curds
To get under the literal skin of poutine I visited St-Albert Cheese Factory Co-Op, one of the oldest cheese cooperatives in Canada, celebrating their 125th anniversary this year. Known as the Curd Capital, they make more cheddar cheese curds here than anywhere else in the world. It is a favourite curd supplier of many of the vendors at the PoutineFest and home to a restaurant, museum and their own Poutine Week in February and Curd Festival in the summer.
I caught up with Business Development Director Eric Lavelle. Unpressed, cheese curds are the cheddar cheese before it is pressed and shaped. Curds retain more moisture, or squeak (the cheese does almost squeak as you eat it!). 200,000 litres of milk are processed here every single day the old fashioned way using just milk, rennet, salt and cultures, making 8-12 tonnes of cheese curds. Many of these will make their way to poutine, but you can buy them even in hardware stores and people also eat them like a snack as you would potato chips or crisps.
What makes a great poutine?
What is the secret was to a great poutine? Eric’s answer was simple. Very very fresh cheese, very very hot sauce and very very crispy fries. He means very very hot sauce (gravy) too, almost to boiling. There is a poutine restaurant at St-Albert Co-Op featuring many different poutines like chicken pot pie poutine and smoked meat poutine. I opted for the classic and would have tried a second had I room. The curds were fabulous, shiny and irregular with a marvellous squeak, tasting milky and salty, and very moist. Gorgeous gravy but the potatoes also really stood out for me. The devil is always in the detail and you can taste that here.
Sparks Street PoutineFest
Back then to Sparks Street PoutineFest which is lined with poutine trucks. There is live music and djs, and local craft beers, ciders and spirits on offer. I loved the hard cider from Flying Canoe. It is immediately clear that poutine is a competitive business. There are tables next to trucks with trophies from poutine competitions on proud display and vendors tell me all about their takes on poutine with immense pride.
I am immediately drawn to the fabulous surf and turf lobster & bacon poutine from Golden Fries. They also have a pulled pork which is pulling many punters in and you can get a small portion of this and the lobster and bacon poutine in one order. So I do, and while the pulled pork one is a fine thing, how can you look beyond lobster and bacon?
Thai curry poutine with the curry acting as gravy from Green Papaya is a hit, as is the big and bolshy bacon double cheeseburger poutine from Fat Les Chip Stand. Fadi’s Fabulous Foods served up a terrific chicken shawarma poutine.
Deep-fried curd poutine from Lou Fast Food was wonderful (who doesn’t love deep-fried cheese?!) and hold tight for my upcoming podcast on the festival featuring them. Lou Fast Food is a family run business with rich history that is very much a modern Canadian story.
I loved it and went back every day but even at that, there was still so much more that I wanted to try. If you love poutine you will love it, and if you haven’t had poutine yet, you absolutely must. The next Sparks Street Poutine Fest is on April 23 to 26, 2020.
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