Being more retired than not affords me the time to concentrate on what I enjoy most, food and wine! Today was no exception, having spent a few hours in the kitchen preparing a dish that has a long traditional culinary history, passed down from grandmothers to the next generation, who will undoubtedly pass it down again to people like me interested in keeping the culinary history alive, whether it’s traditional or modern with nuanced variations.
The dish I am speaking of is Cretons, know also as gorton or corton. It is the quintessential Québécois delicacy served throughout the province as well as in some of the neighboring states, such as Maine. It is central to French-Canadian cuisine, has been compared to scrapple, but is comprised of better cuts of pork than the traditional scrapple preparations, and has been likened to the French pork rillettes, with a more crumbly texture.
What piqued my interest was feedback I received from my friend Marc after he read the piece I wrote about rillettes. As it turns out, Marc is one of those enthusiasts who keeps the traditions alive by preparing a creton recipe he learned from his grandmother many years ago. It has become a pantry staple for him and he enjoys eating it on toasted bread for breakfast—which, I discovered when researching the subject, is not an unusual practice.
In researching cretons, I started with my personal culinary library but did not come up with any references. Navigating around the Internet I found, not surprisingly, that there are almost as many approaches to the dish as there are French-Canadian families or chefs who prepare it. I finally settled on a recipe adapted by Chef de Cuisine Nate Nadeau of the restaurant Fore Street in Portland Maine, and a recipe shared by Michel Careau of the Canadian restaurant Le Ferme Enchantée, which was an adaptation of one passed down from his aunt Marie, published in the December 2000 issue of Saveur magazine.
Adapting each of the recipes I chose and keeping within the common threads found in all the recipes I read, here is my take on this rustic potted pork pate.
1-3/4 lb pork shoulder, pork butt, or Boston butt, coarsely ground
1/2 lb veal shoulder, coarsely ground
1/2 lb salt pork, skin removed, finely chopped (salt pork is salt-cured pork belly)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
2 large bay leaves (optional)
1 cup whole milk (or Half & Half)
1 cup water
1/4 teaspoon each ground cinnamon, clove, allspice (or more to taste)
1/2 cup bread crumbs (optional)
Black pepper to taste
Note: In this recipe I did not use the bay leaves, and did use Half & Half and the bread crumbs.
In a small sauce pan over medium heat, render the salt pork, stirring periodically until it is cooked down and browning, approximately 30 to 45 minutes. Keep warm.
In a large stockpot with a heavy bottom, or a Dutch oven, add the ground meat over medium heat, and mix with a wooden spoon, breaking it up to allow for the fat to begin to render and the meat to begin to brown. Stir and turn over occasionally, and after about 30 minutes add the onions and the liquids mixing to combine. Raise the heat, allowing the mixture to gently boil, and stir to keep the bottom from sticking.
Once the liquid appears to be reduced by half, add the garlic, the spices, the bread crumbs, and sprinkle with the black pepper, again mixing and turning over to combine. Next, add the rendered fat from the salt pork. Note: In this step I ran the remaining solids from the rendered salt pork in the food processor to make them smaller and more pastelike before I added them to the pot. Once again, stir to combine.
If you use the bay leaves, remove them from the pot and then let the cooked mixture cool before transferring it to containers for storage and later serving. Any liquid remaining in the pot should be spooned over the top of each container.
The flavor improves over a couple of days and it is best to serve at room temperature. It will keep for two weeks refrigerated and indefinitely if frozen.
Besides enjoyed as an accompaniment to breakfast, like rillettes, cretons pair well with sweet and savory accompaniments, various pickled vegetables, or simply Dijon mustard as part of an overall charcuterie offering.
Keep the tradition going and make a batch of this rustic pork pate. As an option, instead of placing the finished cretons in ramekins or small crocks, transfer the mixture to a small loaf pan lined with clear plastic wrap. Top the cretons with the remaining pan liquid and place another piece of clear plastic wrap directly on top. Refrigerate overnight, allow to return to room temperature before serving, remove the clear wrap cover, turn out the now formed loaf onto a platter or board and slice into individual serving portions.
I would enjoy hearing how your interpretation of this dish turns out and what accompaniments you served with it. Don’t forget a glass or two of pinot noir!