UPDATE: Blue Caribou are no longer at Arndale Market.
Any Canadian who has moved from their home country, like me, will invariably succumb to nostalgia and start missing their favourite foods. I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started missing poutine so much but it probably coincided with my move from London to Cambridgeshire 10 years ago, when I finally felt settled in the UK. It took several more years for poutine to become well-known and it eventually made its way onto Cambridge menus – but without the all-important squeaky cheese curds. Although the combo of cheese, chips and gravy can only be a good thing, there is a specific way to make poutine and I have found very few places in the UK that are able to make proper poutine. Manchester’s Blue Caribou is one of those traders who have poutine down pat. They understand the holy trinity of fries, gravy and cheese curds and how to strike the right balance of flavours and textures.
Blue Caribou first started popping up in Manchester in 2016. It’s the creation of British-Québécois married couple Graham Gartside-Bernier and Vincent Bernier. They lived in Canada and now live in Manchester. They have eaten some of the best poutine in Québec, where it originated back in the 1950s. If their names seem familiar it’s because they recently appeared on BBC Two’s My Million Pound Menu with Fred Sirieix.
As a born and bred Montrealer, I can wholeheartedly state these guys know what they are doing when it comes to authentic poutine, plus they have the culinary skills to create delicious variations with ingredients like pastrami (La Reuben), kimchi (La Coréenne), roast chicken and peas (La Galvaude) and vegan doner (La Doner). Now that Blue Caribou have a permanent home at Arndale Market, they are able to expand their menu to other Canadian/Québec casse-croûte (snack bar) classics like pogos (corn dogs), hot chicken sandwiches and steamés (steamed hot dogs) that crop up occasionally on the menu.
But back to poutine… because what might just sound like a posh version of “cheese, chips and gravy” from the local chippy is actually quite different. Firstly, the cheddar is never grated and the gravy shouldn’t completely melt the cheese. Poutine is all about crisp exterior/soft interior fries, succulent gravy and squeaky cheese curds, which are difficult to source here in the UK and the reason we rarely see authentic poutines on more menus. Cheese curds are effectively solid pieces of curdled milk (it’s much more appetising than it sounds, honestly) with a mild, slightly salty flavour and a springy, rubbery texture. They are made from young cheddar that hasn’t been formed into blocks and aged. Cheese curds are meant to be eaten straight away, within the first 12 hours, so that “squeak against the teeth” is really a sign of freshness. It’s the trapped air that gives the curds their squeakiness. Moisture makes them lose it, making it tricky for restaurants outside of North America (where cheese curds are readily available) to coordinate the sourcing, use and storage of the curds, so they use hard mozzarella instead, which is still better than melted cheddar – a real no-no because then there’s nothing to differentiate it from “cheese, chips and gravy”. Confusing I know, because cheese curds are made from cheddar but it’s yet another reason why a good squeak is crucial to proper poutine.
Blue Caribou specialise in poutine and they have found their own cheesemaker, based in the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire. Their Québec-style cheese curds are 100% organic and made to an authentic Canadian recipe. They are as close to the real deal in the UK!
Paulo and I had the pleasure of visiting Blue Caribou on two trips to Manchester. The first time was in May 2019 shortly after they opened their permanent spot in Manchester’s Arndale Market, with a return visit a few months later in October. It’s a long drive from Cambridge to Manchester so we made the most of out of these two “poutine pilgrimages”, although we wouldn’t normally eat that much poutine two days in a row.
Blue Caribou are tucked away on the south side of Arndale Market (use the High Street entrance – don’t try to find it by walking through the massive Arndale Centre). They share the area with two other excellent traders (Holy Crab and Wholesome Junkies) and there is lots of seating. On our return visit, we noticed a colourful and cheerful mural had been painted.
I had the honour of meeting Vincent and Graham in person, after years of communicating through social media, who took the time to chat even though they were very busy. They kindly gifted me my first Blue Caribou meal. I first went for the traditional poutine (La Classique) so I could get a clear look and taste of their three base ingredients – skin-on fries, squeaky Québec-style cheese curds and rich meat gravy. Paulo captured the moment I gave it my seal of approval.
It is evident that Blue Caribou focus on quality ingredients. We already know about the vital cheese curds but they also make their own gravy (meat as well as wild mushroom for vegetarian/vegan dishes). Their veal & chicken gravy is velvety and shiny. It’s thick enough to slightly melt the curds yet runny enough to coat the fries. They also chip their own potatoes (Maris Piper) for their fries – I caught Vincent in action at Arndale Market.
We were lucky that some of my very favourite Québec foods were on the menu in May. The hot chicken sandwich (Le Hot Chicken) was spot on – shredded roast chicken in soft white bread, drenched in poutine gravy and topped with peas. A sandwich that can only be eaten with a knife and fork.
Their Montreal-style steamed hot dog (Le Steamé) was pretty authentic too. It came with traditional cabbage ‘choux’ (made in-house), pickles and mustard. I never thought I’d find steamés/steamies outside of Montreal. They too are made in a very particular way and Blue Caribou totally pulled it off. They even used the expression “all dressed” (if you know, you know).
The hot chicken sandwich and steamed hot dog weren’t on the menu on our return visit to Arndale Market but we once again enjoyed their pogos (corn dogs) – homemade polenta-battered hot dog sausages on sticks with French’s mustard as my condiment of choice.
La Reuben’s, inspired by the classic Reuben sandwich, might just be my favourite Blue Caribou poutine. Their skin-on fries, cheese curds and gravy are served with artisan pastrami, French’s mustard and a dill pickle. My father and uncle owned a kosher-style deli from 1962 to 2007 in Côte-St-Luc, a suburb west of downtown Montreal, so I grew up eating dry-cured, smoked meats. Naturally I associate my cravings for this dish with not only Montreal but my family too!
As luck would have it, our October visit coincided with Blue Caribou’s 2-week residency at Stretford Foodhall, a few miles south of Manchester. On the drive back to Cambridge, we stopped by Stretford Mall and popped into the Foodhall, which is just outside the shopping centre in a refitted Argos store. The Foodhall’s owner also owns Ancoats General Store and has replicated its concept to a certain degree. There are three food vendors that rotate on a regular basis as well as a permanent bar selling local craft beer, gin, organic wines, coffee, tea, and soft drinks. There’s a convenience store with a focus on sustainability as well as a plant shop that invigorates the entire space with lovely plants and flowers.
We got to feast on Blue Caribou’s latest creation, La PFK. This poutine, inspired by KFC (known as PFK in Québec – Poulet Frit Kentucky), is a proper down-and-dirty poutine. It’s a real mess, exactly as it should be. And besides, the word poutine is Québec slang for “mess”. Add fried chicken pieces to the fries, cheese curds and gravy, serve with fèves au lard (10-hour baked beans with cold smoked salt pork and maple sugar) and maple slaw… and voilà – La PFK. C’est bon en tabarnak!
We don’t know when we’ll be making our next “poutine pilgrimage” to Manchester but we know we can count on Blue Caribou to keep making their fantastic poutine with quality produce and those requisite cheese curds. Graham and Vincent’s poutine-inspired dishes and their take on Canadian/Québec classics definitely keep us coming back for more… and it’s a much shorter journey to Manchester than Canada!
My meals at Blue Caribou are based on my experience at my own cost, except my first lunch in May which was kindly gifted to me as a valued supporter. All views are my own. I did not receive compensation for my review.
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