By Timothy Fowler
Both Thanksgiving and Christmas deserve celebrating. Families of hunters get the bonus of adding game to special holiday menus. A traditional French Canadian centre-of-the-plate item is the classic meat pie: Tourtiere. This one is made with bear meat and the pastry is made with bear fat: a double whammy of celebratory goodness from the boreal forest.
Cherise Fowler, my daughter-in-law, takes her food preparation seriously. And since marrying my youngest son, Josh, she has upped her culinary game by focusing on wild harvest. Cherise’s relationship with game meat, bones, and fat has completely changed since getting tangled up with Josh. She makes a crazy-good French Canadian–inspired bear pie meat called tourtière. A light touch of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves seasons tourtière. What follows is a little background and a visual and written approach to making delicious Christmas Eve–worthy Bear Tourtière, including flaky pastry made with bear fat.
Before an invitation to dinner at our house more than a decade ago, Cherise had never eaten wild meat.
“The first dinner [at Josh’s parents’ home] we had deer. I had no idea what to expect because I had no experience with it. I think the only thing I’d heard was that it tasted gamey, which meant nothing. The tone of it meant it wasn’t good. It was delicious. I think it was a mule deer loin with a simple rub. I didn't grow up with a ton of red meat in the house so red meat wasn’t my preference. I also typically liked my steak more well done before getting used to medium rare–cooked game at the Fowlers’ home.”
That was more than a decade, a wedding, and two kids ago. And many, many notches on Josh’s Buck Vanguard’s leather sheath. Cherise has embraced game, and the year that Josh brought home two bears encouraged further exploration.
“I remember Josh bringing home the bear hides. And black bear Tasso ham––that was amazing. When we put that in cassoulet, I think that’s when bear registered for me, because it had a unique flavor you couldn’t get in regular ham. We use smoked bear shanks, in cassoulet and bear fat for pastry for regular meat pies.”
Josh and Cherise have done an excellent job as ambassadors for wild meat. It is sort of an outcome, not really a mission.
“Everyone we have over for dinner knows Josh hunts and probably knows in the back of their mind that it’s possible that game is on the menu,” said Cherise.
Even their two-year-old daughter is loving her wild meat. Sausage is among her favorites—whether elk, black bear, or mule deer. As parents, they encourage her to try a bit of everything.
“I like that Adeline is trying a variety of things,” said Cherise. “We want her to try everything. As much as we can, we like to expose her to different things. I think it’s fun to give Addy some stuff like that now because she is at that stage in childhood when she’s discovering everything. She talks along with her meal: ‘This is good. I’m eating bear. Daddy, I’m eating bear.’ That makes it fun as well.”
Addy certainly thinks mom’s black bear tourtière is a winner. I think you will too.
From a macro-planning perspective, acquire the bear, plan to grind with the bacon and pork in advance of preparing the tourtière. Purchase fresh whole spices, and a micro plane or fine grater, if you can. Have a good look at the recipe, make a list, and assemble all of the ingredients. This recipe makes two pies. Pick some high-bush cranberries (Viburnum edule) if you have them in your neighborhood.
Duchess Bakery in Edmonton, Alberta, is known locally for their French pastries. Cherise adapted the pastry recipe from the Duchess Bake Shop cookbook by Giselle Courteau by substituting 50 percent bear fat for the recipe’s butter amount. We doubled the batch, as tourtière is a big effort so we might as well make two.
Chill 2 cups of unsalted butter and 2 cups of bear fat. (Go ahead and use 100 percent bear fat if you like. I can tell you it works great.) Measure 8 cups of flour and 2 teaspoons of fine salt and sift into a large bowl. Cut the fat into playing dice–sized cubes and rub into the flour. Your goal is to have butter and bear fat about the size of corn kernels. Fill a four-cup measuring cup with ice cubes and water and stir to chill. Pour 2 cups of ice water over the flour mixture and mix just enough to bring the dough together in a ragged ball. Divide into four. Wrap in plastic wrap and return to the refrigerator.
The Meat Filling
Grind 25 ounces of black bear through the coarse holes, followed with 11 ounces of bacon ends and 11 ounces of fatty pork shoulder. Mix the coarsely ground meat and grind again through fine holes. (Note: this bear was a spring bear and very lean and therefore required the addition of bacon and pork.)
Heat a heavy cast iron pan, add the meat, and cook the meat over medium heat. Add two fresh bay leaves, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon of nutmeg, 1/4 teaspoon of cloves, 1 tablespoon of fresh thyme, ½ tablespoon of oregano, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Stir the meat to combine the spices. Remove the pan before the meat browns. In a separate sauté pan, add 2 tablespoons of oil, 2 cups of shredded carrot, 2 cups of shredded potato, 1 cup of finely diced onion, 1/2 cup of finely diced leek, and 1/4 cup of finely diced shallot. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables are just cooked. Then combine with the meat in a large bowl and drizzle in one or two tablespoons of maple syrup.
Because the bear meat was so lean, we mixed up a bit of gravy to moisten the meat mix. This mixture, even after the addition of gravy, was still just moistened, not wet like a shepherd’s pie. Make a roux by heating two tablespoons of butter with two tablespoons of flour, add 1 cup of chicken stock, and whisk to make a thin gravy. Add just enough to moisten the meat.
The Cranberry Sauce
Pick wild highbush cranberries if you can. I found highbush cranberries in the boreal forest. Wash, pick and bring 2 cups of wild cranberries to a simmer on medium heat, add the juice and grated skin of one medium orange, and 1/2 cup of honey. When the sauce begins to thicken, remove from heat, taste and add more honey if you like. Serve as a bright accompaniment. Commercially available cranberries are an acceptable substitute.
The Vinaigrette and Greens
Tourtière is a major kitchen effort and a big meal, so a bright side of greens with a sharp vinaigrette is a perfect accompaniment. I made a simple vinaigrette by whisking 1 cup (242 ml) of grapeseed oil into 1/3 cup of red wine vinegar, 2 tablespoons of Dijon mustard, and 1 tablespoon of anchovy paste and seasoned it with salt and coarse pepper. I mixed this up in advance of dinner service and poured it over the greens, tossed them, and carefully used tongs to place the salad beside the tourtière when plated.
Assemble and Bake
Remove one piece of dough at a time from the fridge and roll out, allowing two or three fingers wide beyond the edge of the baking dish. Push the crust into the bottom and edge of the pie plate. I was surprised to see how thick Cherise rolled her crust. It was nearly 1/4 of an inch thick. That turned out to be perfect. Don’t be afraid to leave a bit of crust on this pie. We used Emile Henry heavy ceramic pie plates that were 10 and 1/2 inches wide. Drape the pastry over the edges of the pie dish. Fill with half of the meat mixture. Level the filling and roll the top dough. Carefully place the pastry top over the bottom crust and pinch with your thumbs or push the edges down with a fork to seal. Repeat the same for the second pie. If you like a deeper colored crust, give the top crust of the pie a wash of 1 egg whisked with ¼ cup of 35% fat cream. This is optional.
Bake at 350 F for about an hour. This is something you will need to manage and make a call on doneness. The internal temperature of my Tourtière was 205 F when I took it from the oven, and the crust was deeply caramelized. I thought it was perfect. Let the pie rest 15 minutes or so before cutting.
Serve the Wild Feast
Besides being made with bear fat and bear protein, the flavor of the tourtière is unique because the combination of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg is rare in meat pies. The flavor is delightful. A side of greens and a garnish of the sharp-sweet-sour funk of ripe highbush cranberries were a perfect counterpoint to the rich black bear and flaky crust. It was even better reheated the next day after the spices were encouraged to further develop overnight in the fridge.
Like Addy says, “Daddy, I am eating bear.”
So are we, and it is delicious.
Weights and Measures: Gram Scales
As a hunter and a Red Seal chef, I can tell you that grams, kilograms, liters and milliliters are so much easier to manipulate mathematically than pounds, ounces, cups, quarts, and pints. My strong advice is to buy and use a scale—in fact, buy two. Buy a 5kg (11-pound) digital scale for the heavier ingredients and buy a gram scale (max 200 grams) accurate to 0.1 gram. An assortment of scales start at less than $20 and are available online. A scale will change your life in the kitchen. Resistors say scales are limiting, but in fact, they will free you to master repeat culinary performances because you have an accurate baseline to either make the same item again or make a well-informed change based on your records. Not enough cinnamon in the tourtière? When spices are measured accurately you have an informed baseline from which to build the next version.
A note about Notetaking
I take meticulous notes on recipes as I make them, weighing ingredients at each step. Even recipes given in cups and tablespoons are weighed, so I can correct something if required. Often my dinner guests want to know exactly how I did something, because I have good notes, I can share what was done in a repeatable format.