Everyone knows Quebec’s most famous dish is Pork Chops Hochelaga. Since its fine dining debut at the ’67 Expo, this classic combination of herbs, spices, pickles and mushrooms has sauced pork chops around the world. At least, that’s what was supposed to happen.
Of course, no one today has ever heard of Pork Chops Hochelaga, nor the vaunted place it once held on the menu of Canada’s most expensive restaurant, La Toundra, at the biggest event in Canada’s history, the 1967 International and Universal Exposition. This unfortunate omission needs correcting: the untold story of Pork Chops Hochelaga tell us much of how a young Canada once presented itself to the world, and what it means to be Canadian.
It’s also a fun and easy recipe that’s historical, adaptable, and delicious.
The Expo and Food
Expo 67 opened 50 years ago to fanfare and hope. Dozens of nations were proud to show off their newest fashions, technologies, and ideas to over 50 million attendees from around the world. There were few opportunities for competing nations to parade their cultural best in a peaceful setting. Each national pavilion promised to be a microcosm of the best of what each country had to offer.
Every pavilion was different, but they all had one thing in common: food. Perhaps it’s the universal nature of eating, or that certain dishes come to define a national heritage. Maybe there’s just money to be made- attendees spent over $85 million on food. Whatever the reason, eating at the Expo meant a lot more than merely satisfying hunger.
The Expo was Canada’s chance to present itself to the world, but this proved a more daunting task than expected. The large, diverse, and still young nation had yet to define itself, and had little coherent reputation globally. Of course the Soviet pavilion featured a display on its many recent achievements in the Space Race, while America highlighted its contributions in film and culture. But for Canada’s national, provincial, and regions pavilions, it seemed much of the imagery presented to the world was up to the planners.
The menu at the Canadian pavilion’s finest restaurant was no exception. It diverse offerings and creative, if not unusual, headings reflect many of the still simmering ideas about how exactly Canada related to the world. Modernity, diversity, tradition, and plenty were all themes La Toundra tried to capture- often at the same time.
The Cold Entrée War
Food at the ’67 Expo presented a real chance to send a message. At a time when the Soviet Union and other Communist countries were asserting the appeal of their way of life, there was no better chance than through that most daily act of eating. And so when the largest restaurant in the Expo- 1,100 seat communal hall- serves Beluga caviar and Tashkent mutton to startlingly positive reviews, it adds a certain weight to their claim. This Communist propaganda piece on a plate also earned the second most money of any restaurant, a fact not lost on the Capitalist press.
It was West Germany’s Bavarian Beer Hall, which earned over $2.6 million, that proved the most popular. At least the caviar-sampling public still had NATO-aligned countries at heart. This victory could also be attributed to the appeal of cold beer: Canada’s own Brewer’s Pavilion, out to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Montreal’s Breweries, had dozens of beers and items like Tourtière with Beer and Yukon Trout à la Biere. It took the 5th spot. The Czechoslovakian restaurant took 4th, having sent a delegation the previous year to prepare the kitchen.
It was in this national and regional jostling of identities that La Toundra, Canada’s gourmet restaurant, opened on the southern end of the Île Notre Dame. At its height, tables were booked weeks in advance, with even celebrities and dignitaries giving up on the chance to experience this new cuisine. It would go on to be the 3rd highest earning restaurant at the Expo.
The menu had three parts: Canadian, International, and La Toundra. La Toundra presented interpretations of Inuit food: Beluga whale meat, buffalo steaks, and trout “prepared in the ultimate manner,” replete with drawings of a hunting party adorning the menu. The Canadian Section represented the natural abundance of each region, more or less accurately: Tourtière, Atlantic oysters, and one Prairie dish called “Stampede Favourite.”
These two oddly organized sections presented a wide, almost eclectic, range of dishes, few of which would be recognizable to Canadians today. But, as Rhona Richman Kenneally and Johane Sloan argue in their book on the cultural meanings behind the Expo, the very hodgepodge of new, old, native, European, Asian, and other recipes was meant to highlight the patchwork of diversity that many Canadians saw as the nation’s true strength. This was the cultural mosaic La Toundra’s chefs and planners wanted to show the international community.
So why did the menu at the Canadian restaurant of the Canadian pavilion have an International Section? And how did this section come to have a dish called Pork Chops Hochelaga?
It’s hard to say exactly what they meant by “International.” Dishes like Black Forest Omelette and Seafood Vol-au-Vent seem to suggest internationally-inspired dishes, while Cream of Mushroom soup and Grilled Sirloin Steak might suggest these were dishes that would appeal to an international crowd. But Canadian Lobster a la Nage is certainly not a purely international affair, nor is Snails Bourguignonne internationally appealing. Perhaps the chefs were suggesting these dishes considered international in Canada, or that they should be known to international diners?
This last conjecture might best explain the most mysterious entry on the menu: Pork Chops Hochelaga, described as a “Modern adaptation of a century old recipe where braised pork chops are enhanced by cinnamon and cloves.” Did the proud chefs behind this enigmatic main hope it would be discovered, adored, and exported the world over?
Despite the abundance of French at La Toundra, this is the only dish that makes reference to Quebec, never mind history, or really anything uniquely Canadian in the International Section. And we do know from interviews in the Montreal Gazette and Expo Digest that hopeful restauranteurs believed international diners would return to their native countries with a newfound respect for Canadian food. This dish may have been their shot at making Quebec cuisine a household name.
Luckily for the historian tracing the roots of this menu item, it is described as a “century old recipe.” This would place its origin exactly one generation after Louis Perrault’s foundational cookbook, La Cuisinière Canadienne, generally regarded as the first explicitly Canadian, or certainly Quebecois, cookbook. It remains one of the most authoritative volumes on Quebec food, and was reprinted (sometimes under other names) for decades. As it was intended for home cooks, its influence on Quebec’s everyday cooking cannot be overstated.
Of course no dish named after Hochelaga appears in the book (the dish is, after all, a “modern adaptation), but the spices listed on La Toundra’s menu provide a useful signpost. One braised pork chop recipe calls for herbs, a good dose of pepper, and clove. If Pork Chops Hochelaga was not directly inspired by Perrault’s recipe, it was almost certainly influenced by it. It’s little surprise that, 100 years later, a more open and prosperous Quebec saw fit to add cinnamon. After all, the world was coming to dine.
Pork Chops Hochelaga may have been a beautiful representation of a Quebecois desire to assert its traditional culture in a modern setting to the rest of the world, but unfortunately the rest of the world did not see it that way. It was not a popular dish- in fact, no mention of its taste, either positive or negative, could be found.
People liked the seafood. La Toundra’s Seafood Vol-au-Vent was by far the most revered dish, even if the whale meat received much of the fanfare. What’s more, the Quebec Pavilion’s Seafood Curry received positive reviews, which only buttressed the Atlantic Pavilion’s claims that Canadian seafood was second to none. But few, if any, came away from the Expo with a newfound respect for Canadian pork. The same could be said for spices.
And so, in the spirit of enhancing Canada’s reputation abroad by contributing to international cuisine, we present our modern adaptation of a modern adaptation of a century old dish.
Today’s pork is much more tender than that of the 1960’s, and certainly the 1840’s, so we’ve simplified much of the meat preparation. The bouquet garni has also been simplified. Feel free to substitute fresh herbs for the dried ones listed if available. And please, serve it with Dijon mustard. Who knows how we’ll update it 50 years from now!
We would like to thank Dr. Rhona Richman Kenneally for her consultation on this piece.
What is so darned appealing about whole cinnamon sticks? We’re not talking about the red-hot, brown colored powder you find littering coffee condiment counters, or the mysterious throat-burning flavor that haunts candies, drinks, and ready-to-eat pastries. No, this is an investigation of the true spice, the classic spice, the flaky, copper quills that have fueled global culinary desire for thousands of years. There’s a reason, or rather many reasons, the cinnamon stick keeps popping up: etched in Greek amphora, featured in Renaissance paintings, and adorning every pastry on Instagram.
The case for whole cinnamon sticks is not a hard one to make. First is the obvious advantage to keeping spices whole: increasing shelf life. Cinnamon sticks can be used differently than ground cinnamon, but can still be ground if you just need a pinch. Beyond the practicalities, a true cinnamon stick is a historical lesson, study in craftsmanship, and sensory delight all rolled into one. Ground or not, it’s a spice that’s bound to stick around.
Before we talk about cinnamon, we should first discuss the sticky subject of “cinnamon.” The word cinnamon is used to describe two different spices: true cinnamon, or Ceylon cinnamon, and cassia, or Vietnamese cinnamon (also called Chinese cinnamon). The technical details are here, but suffice it to say that cassia is a larger and less delicate spice. A few legal loopholes allow the cheaper cassia cinnamon to be sold as true, or Ceylon, cinnamon. You can differentiate the two in a number of ways.
Cassia is a visusally very different creature, with a single thick layer of bark curling in on itself. Cassia trees contain a lot of flavor at full maturity, and can actually improve with age. A 30-year-old cassia tree packs a powerful, long-lasting bite. Cinnamon trees, on the other hand, are harvested very early when their shoots are still supple and young, with concentrated flavor. From the outset, you’re starting with a much thinner bark.
The process of turning a cinnamon tree shoot into a cinnamon stick (technically, a cinnamon stick is called a quill) is highly specialized task. Shoots are first harvested, then the outer bark is removed. Artisans then scrape the length of the shoots to make the inner bark pliable and encourage oil to come to the surface. After being soaked in water, the cinnamon shoots are split down the middle and left in climate controlled rooms to allow the inner bark to separate from the wood.
After a few hours or days, the soon-to-be sticks are rolled onto thin, 42-inch long metal canes and hung to dry for several days. Finally, the finished quills are stored under lock and key: their great value and light weight makes them prime targets for thieves (yeah, cinnamon rustlers are a thing).
The rolling process itself has a profound impact on the quality of the cinnamon and deserves its own section with a pun and everything (I am on a roll after all). Higher grade quills require thin, uniform layers, which can only come from a single, long layer of bark. Any knots or defects in the tree, as well as error by the craftsperson, translate to a short piece of bark, which will in turn become a wide, warped, and lower quality cinnamon stick.
So, as you might imagine, the role of roller is an exclusive one in Sri Lanka. The services of cinnamon harvesters, peelers, and rollers are so in demand that few (if any) plantations are able to keep any on staff. Most cinnamon today is processed by a roving guild of hereditary artisans, who arrive at the end of the rainy season and work for days or weeks straight until they’ve dried as much cinnamon as possible.
What happens with cinnamon shoots that don’t become cinnamon sticks? You may recall that true cinnamon comes from recently grown shoots, so it is possible that an unharvested tree may not yield any cinnamon for years to come. The crop is simply lost.
Hidden inside every tiny quill lies this unspeakable craft. From the first harvest to the exhaustive peeling to the precise rolling, a chain of meticulous care transforms an everyday tree into one of the most sought after commodities in history. Behind all this is the threat of error: slice it wrong, roll it too loosely, work too slowly, or come too late in the season and all that effort might as well be compost. It is compost.
A cinnamon bark-thin line separates the most beautiful spice from a pile of compost.
I told them the only thing I wanted to do in Sri Lanka was see a cinnamon tree. Even after years as a Spice Trekker, the idea still blows my mind: this is the edible tree, the one tree of all trees, whose bark we eat. We couldn’t care less about its fruit or seeds! Sure, you could point to a few other examples of strange tree uses: Greek mastic, for example, comes from a kind of pistachio sap, and no Canadian company can forget maple syrup (we love it in chai). But I knew I had to see the bizarre tree-turned-shoot firsthand if I was ever going to believe it happens.
So when they asked what I wanted out of our first spice sourcing trip to Sri Lanka, I simply said, “see a real cinnamon tree.” We had the great fortune of being hosted by longtime family friends and suppliers, Deepa and Sanath, who wanted nothing more than to show us around Sri Lanka and help me make this absurd abstraction a reality.
Where Does Cinnamon Come From?
Let’s remember I’m talking about Ceylon cinnamon, or true cinnamon, which is more delicate and flavorful than its cousin, Vietnamese cinnamon, or cassia. You can read more about this subtle but important distinction here. Ceylon cinnamon has been the darling cash crop of Sri Lanka for millennia, its origins shrouded in mystery. Spice traders put such effort into keeping its provenance secret that Europeans didn’t know it came from a tree for centuries!
I thought I knew a lot about cinnamon (it is, after all, my job) when I pressed Sanath for details on its cultivation. I quickly realized I had stumbled into an ancient and complex world, not unlike a child wandering midway into an adult conversation asking, “where does cinnamon come from?”
“Well, son, it all starts with a tree.”
Baby Cinnamon Tree
Like a child learning the facts of life for the first time, I listened with enraptured disgust at the great manipulation this living thing is exposed to before it becomes useful to us.
The cinnamon tree grows up differently from the trees you know. It starts like any other, happy in its natural environment: hot and humid, well-watered, well drained, and with plenty of sun. Its first 3 or 4 years are like any other tree, until one day, a year before it is to be harvested, it is coppiced and discarded.
The process is described as “pruning,” but it seemed more like “cutting down” to me. I mean, they cut the whole tree down to the stump and cover it with dirt. It looks dead. We’ll never know what madman first thought to linger for a few months and see whether or not this dead tree comes back to life, but whoever it was would have been delighted to see the little cinnamon shoots popping out of the stump, supple and full of flavor.
Adult Cinnamon Tree
It is these shoots, young, tender, but packed with the chemical content of a fully-matured tree, that will become the sought after spice. Let’s be clear: cinnamon sticks can only come from meticulously cultivated trees. This is quite unlike cousin cassia, whose thick bark can actually improve with age. A mature cassia tree in Indonesia can fetch a high price on the fine spice market. But who even wants to see a fully-grown cinnamon tree?
Sri Lanka, and much of South Asia in fact, is littered with mature cinnamon trees, growing as would an elm or maple in North America. Of course the sight of a 50- year-old cinnamon tree is interesting to me, but it was almost an eyesore to the locals. This plant is beyond commercial use, even for its leaves, which are now too bitter to eat (quality cinnamon leaves come from a much younger tree).
We grow it to cut it down, only to cut it down again. If that isn’t weird enough for you, you should see what happens to the poor shoots after they’re collected!
The Bark You Bite
It was impressive seeing row after row of those plucky young cinnamon shoots at the cinnamon plantation. My first thoughts were for the deranged ancestors who once buried a young cinnamon stump, and to the artisans who continue to obsess over mere millimeters of tree bark for my benefit. Sanath was so casual about mastering an arcane technique that was known to so few, and so generous with his knowledge. And the trees, the lovely trees, working so hard to produce the volatile oils we know and love.
Did I get what I wanted? Better still, I got something I didn’t even know I wanted. I didn’t just make the bizarre process a reality, I came to love the process. I came to love the tree. I might even grow my own decorative cinnamon tree! There’s something about seeing a fellow living thing endure such torment, emerging as something entirely different and undeniably beneficial to others. If only people were more open to such weirdness.
One of the most common questions we encounter in customer service is the real meaning of white pepper vs black pepper. While we agree they come from the same peppercorn plant, how different whole peppercorns come to be is not as clear: especially for white varieties. Black peppercorns, like Tellicherry pepper or Malabar pepper, are perhaps the most popular fruits of all pepper plants, and white peppercorns remain a source of mystery for plenty of cooks. We know they are different, but how are they different?
Where Do Peppercorns Come from?
Begin at the beginning: the pepper plant, growing from India to Indonesia to Madagascar, into long pepper vines wrapped around trees, trellises, the sides of homes. The fruit of these vines ripens to a bright, fragrant red, and from there they are dried to either black peppercorns or the mysterious white pepper. Continue reading →
Our trip to Kashgar in Northwestern China, near the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, was the first that was deliberately ”not spice specific.” Our daughter Marika was living in The People’s Republic and, after completing a particularly arduous season in Montreal, we decided that rest, recreation —no spice hunting— and a strong dose of our much-missed offspring, had the making of a bona fide vacation.
References to Zinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region mentioned the blandness of the local Muslim food and made no allusion to spices whatsoever. Despite our ”no spice hunting” itinerary, we planned to explore the legendary Silk Route used by ancient merchant caravans to circumvent the Taklamakan desert on their way to oasis towns as Kashgar.
We kicked off our arrival in Kashgar by asking Nelli, the hotel receptionist, for directions to the local market. He obliged, making it clear that he was available, should we require an interpreter. The first market stall we encountered was dedicated to spices from all over Asia. Kashgar was a crossroad of the Middle East, India, China, Persia, Russia and even Greece —for art, jewellery, culture, fashion, and also for a large and impressive variety of spices. Continue reading →
Cabbage is markedly associated with traditional Quebec cuisine, never mind fall and winter food. It is adored the world over, not just because it’s available year round, but also because it’s cheap and versatile. Cabbage can mean anything from kale to Brussel sprouts or even bok choy, so it shows up in just about every cuisine in the world. It is, of course, an excellent base for all manner of spice dishes.
We met Sanath and Deepa… via fax! The memory of having made the acquaintance of this wonderful Sri Lankan couple using such old-school technology is amusing and nostalgic.
We knew that Mexicans are the biggest consumers of true cinnamon in the world. We also knew that the best terroir—or growing conditions for the grade we wanted in our spice shop—is the southwestern coast of the island country of Sri Lanka. Having never been to Sri Lanka, however, and as we didn’t know anyone who lived there, we decided to get our cinnamon from Mexico where we had loyal and ”resourceful” friends who were soon sending us gunny sacks of 4-foot Sri Lankan cinnamon quills, by mail.
It was a relief whenever our cinnamon arrived from Mexico. The arrangement we had with our ”supplier” (a friend’s brother and sometimes travel agent whose real calling was living ”the good life”) was not suitable for us. Our goal was to establish a supply chain headed by someone reliable. We were anxious to introduce real cinnamon to our clients, many of whom had been led to believe that the cassia bark they consumed, which has only one of the four volatile oils found in true cinnamon, was the real deal (more on cinnamon vs. cassia in this video). Continue reading →