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ST. PIERRE-JOLYS – It’s beginning to taste a lot like Christmas.
Forget roasted chestnuts and figgy pudding; a surer culinary sign the holiday season is nigh is the vast uptick in production of tourtière at Boulangerie St-Pierre Bakery, a St. Pierre-Jolys mainstay that’s been turning out the spiced meat pie dish, a favourite among French-Canadians, for close to a century.
Output is typically in the neighbourhood of 300 tourtières every second week. That number jumps noticeably from mid-November to the end of December, according to 40-year-old owner Joe Gagné.
The current count is around 1,500 pies, per week, but that doesn’t include special orders for as many as 100 tourtières, for individual parties and church groups, Gagné reports, seated in his second-floor office across from his father Pierre, 65, who he succeeded as owner in 2017, and Norm Rochon, 87, who sold the operation to the elder Gagné in 1992, following 27 years at the helm.
Since we’re fortunate enough to have three authorities in the room, here’s a question: is it or is it not considered sacrilegious to serve tourtière, which in Boulangerie St-Pierre Bakery’s case is based on a recipe Rochon’s mother perfected over 80 years ago, with a large gob of ketchup?
To each their own, they say almost in unison, with Pierre listing gravy as another acceptable accompaniment.
“One of my employees is originally from Quebec and he told me he pours maple syrup over his meat pie,” Joe says, sporting a black T-shirt with his livelihood’s name splashed across the chest.
“That didn’t sound very appetizing but I gave it a try — you know, in the name of research — and the mix of salty and sweet was surprisingly good.”
Short of carbon-dating a puffed wheat square, it is difficult to determine precisely how long Boulangerie St-Pierre Bakery has been a cornerstone of the largely Francophone community.
One of Pierre’s uncles, George Fréchette, owned it from 1945 to 1948. Another family, the Fontaines, was in charge for at least 20 years prior to that. Also, it was originally on the opposite side of the street from its present site at 530 Hebert Ave., Rochon points out.
“There was a town well just outside the door and people used to stop in for sweets or whatever, on their way to getting their water,” Rochon says, adding it was his direct predecessor, a fellow named Léon Fontaine, who relocated the growing enterprise in the mid-1950s or thereabouts.
The bakery was a fraction of its current, 10,000-square-foot self when Rochon, who, like the Gagnés, was born and raised in St. Pierre Jolys, caught on there as a teenager.
While 90 per cent of present-day sales comes from stocking retail stores and specialty shops throughout southeastern Manitoba, including a dozen or so outlets in Winnipeg, if you were craving a cinnamon bun or butter tart back in the day, you had to drop by in person.
OK, that’s not entirely true.
Rochon recalls a period after he bought the bakery in 1965 at age 29 when he or one of his employees would load a station wagon with as many fresh-baked loaves of bread and trays of cookies as would fit, then hit the road for hours on end, to deliver the lot to individual households as far south as Dominion City and as far north as St. Andrews.
(Those days aren’t completely extinct, Joe interjects. There is a long-time, elderly customer living in La Salle who they continue to visit in person, whenever one of three company vehicles is in the vicinity.)
Pierre was 12 years old when Rochon gave him a weekend job packaging hotdog and hamburger buns. Four years later, he informed his parents he was quitting school, to work at the bakery full-time.
The only way his mother would allow that to happen was if he signed up for a commercial baking course, so that he would have something to fall back on, he says. He did as she wished, except a few months after enrolling at Red River College, Rochon called him to say his head baker had quit and was he interested in the job?
“My thinking was why the heck not?” Pierre says, patting his old boss on the shoulder.
“At the end of the day, I already knew most of what they were teaching me at college from having worked at the bakery already, so I convinced my mom that it was a waste of money for me to go (to Red River), and that was that.”
Pierre approached Rochon in 1989, to let him know if he ever was contemplating selling the bakery, he’d love to have first dibs on it.
Rochon mulled the proposal over for a few days before informing Pierre that if he still felt the same way three years hence — a number he pulled out of a hat, he says with a wink — then it was a deal.
The pair shook hands and true to his word, Rochon turned the keys over to his underling in 1992.
Joe began assisting his father when he was a Grade 5 student at Réal-Bérard Community School. He credits his dad for popularizing the bakery’s long line of goods outside the town of 1,200 residents.
He accomplished that the old-fashioned way, his son continues, by hitting the road and offering store managers in Winnipeg and beyond free samples of this or that.
Chelsey Sandberg runs Miller’s Meats St. Mary’s Road location together with her husband Andrew. Her father Cameron Miller, whose parents Ken and Cathy Miller founded their namesake biz in 1971, was the one who added St-Pierre products to their four stores, she says.
“I can’t say for sure how long we’ve carried their stuff. I only know I don’t remember it ever not being here,” says Sandberg, listing bread, dainties, frozen pizzas and tourtières as some of what’s ordinarily on hand. (Going back to holiday demand; by itself, the Miller’s on St. Mary’s Road sells 250 of the St-Pierre meat pies weekly this time of year.)
Being that theirs is a family-run operation, Sandberg, whose brother Shawn manages the Headmaster Row location, feels it’s important to support others that fall into that category.
“The quality has to be there, of course, but that’s never been a concern with St-Pierre Bakery; their stuff literally sells itself,” she says, mentioning her store has a fair number of regular customers whose weekly standing orders include St-Pierre products, paired with Miller’s steaks and cold cuts.
Back in St. Pierre-Jolys, Joe chuckles, remembering how his dad assured him he could throw away their contractor’s contact information when he took over six years ago, thanks to a 3,000-square-foot expansion his father oversaw in the early 2000s.
Owing to ever-increasing demand – present capability is around 1,800 loaves of bread per hour and 150 dozen buns every 20 minutes, six days a week — the bakery grew by another 5,000 square feet in the spring of 2021.
“The thing is, even though the bakery’s been around forever, we can’t rely on our reputation,” says the married father of four, who extends his weekend hours every June, July and August, to service the throngs of campers and cottagers that find their way there from nearby St. Malo Provincial Park.
“I’m always thinking of new things we can make to keep things fresh, no pun intended.”
One more thing; although Joe has been led to believe he is the bakery’s seventh owner (his eldest, 11, has already expressed an interest in becoming No. 8), he often feels more like a caretaker, than a proprietor.
“After this long, it probably belongs as much to the town, as it does to our family,” he says, reaching for a framed photo of his wife and kids.
“There’s definitely a sense of responsibility, not just to remain successful, but to make the people of St. Pierre proud that we’re one of them, and, knock on wood, always will be.”