(james benedict brown) on the road

Greater than the sum of its poutine

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 19 October, 2006

Back in Québec, there is a strong social culture around poutine. It’s the glorious post-pub pile of grease that consists of the magical merging of french fries, squeaky cheese curds and gravy. Additional ingredients can be mixed in to disguise this brilliantly unhealthy dish as a rounded meal. Many of my cold mid-winter nights in Montréal were warmed by this glorious dish.

Outside Canada, poutine is a rarity, an urban myth recalled by those who have sampled this rare delicacy while on their travels. If you ask for it in a chippy here, you’ll be met with stares of confusion and then blind disbelief.

However, last night, I discovered Sheffield’s secret culinary treat: we have our own poutine. And blow me, it’s chuffing gorgeous.

While bouncing down Division Street after a long day in the studio, I decided to stop off at a small chip shop that has resisted eviction from the ongoing gentrification of the Devonshire ‘Quarter’. The friendly proprietor was behind the sixties stainless steel counter serving a slightly drunk customer (it was only about seven o’clock). While I waited, I perused the large sign that listed the take-away’s bill of fayre. As the moments passed, I began to pick out the words on the sign, and I realised that Sheffo (that’s what the trendy kids call it these days) has been nuturing it’s very own poutine all this time. I knew exactly what to order… an open polystyrene dish of chips, topped with grated ‘cheddar’ cheese and just a splash of gravy. The Québecois purists will be bawling at this point: these chips were chunky English chip shop hunks, not spindly crispy french fries. The cheese was most certainly not correct either: pale grains of non-descript grated cheese of indeterminant origin. And the gravy was far from right: a big metal pot had kept this thickening Bisto sauce warm all day. The dish was constructed to my special instructions (no ready-melted cheese please…) and I exchanged some small change for it.

As I walked down Division Street, with the open take away package in my hands, I felt a warm glow of South Yorkshire love. This is not poutine. This is Sheffield’s own concoction, and it was lovely. Every mouthful reminded me of Montréal, but also reminded me of why I love this place just as much. And maybe I could get this simple snack from a chippy in any northern English city, but somehow I had the ‘Sheffo’ vibe… there’s no culture around this meal. It is what it is: chips, cheese and gravy, and not a eulogised meal that is famous around the world. Somehow it was more than the sum of its parts, just by being the same, but different.

I shall have to watch my waistline. This city could be bad for me.

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