Journey To Quebec
It was many years ago that I first heard the word ‘provenance’ applied to food. I was traveling in Australia and I came across an article in the Sydney Herald about the new movement in food – brought on by the consumer‘s desire to know where their food came from – concerned with traceability. Of course, the whole notion of origin was very familiar to me because of my love, and studies, of wine making. The French ‘appellation controlée’ regulations for wine-growing regions was already centuries old. The idea of ‘terroir’ was central to the world of wines. Experts often spoke of the "sense of place” that a great wine displayed…especially from good vintages. So it was intriguing for me to start thinking about food in the same way, and specifically in Canada. The thought started to loom largely in my mind like a nascent cloud signaling a change in weather. I was anticipating things yet to happen. Then I heard about the Charlevoix region!
Part One – "Getting There”
The drive to Charlevoix from the Toronto area is roughly a nine hour journey. My wife Sue and I decided to simply get past Montreal on our first day. The traffic was light and we easily made it through the city, avoiding rush hour, by mid-afternoon. We decided to take the north shore route along the beautiful St. Lawrence River.Instead of taking the major highway (#40) we decided, as is our habit, to take a more scenic, and peaceful, route (#138) along the shores of the river. Before long we were following the ‘Chemin du Roy’ –the road of the King – and stumbled upon the lovely village of Sainte-Anne-de-la Pérade. There we found the Auberge du Manoir Dauth. It was a fine stone building that had been constructed in 1842 on the ruins of a much older building. Originally it was a fur trading post owned by Lord Jean Lemoyne who set up his business in 1669.
The Auberge was actually situated on land that was once an island where artifacts from indigenous tribes have been found (dating back to the 12th century). While in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade be sure to visit the local church. It was originally built as a potential cathedral but lost out to the larger town Trois-Rivieres. Nevertheless, it is stunning. Back at the Auberge we settled into our room which was located in an adjacent lodging with a lovely balcony. We dined on cheese and fruit, and a fine bottle of Niagara Pinot Noir.An early night and early breakfast, a reasonable $70 room expense, saw us on our way to Quebec City as we thanked our hosts, Lise and Yvan.
To prepare ourselves for the gastronomic delicacies of the Charlevoix we decided to warm up our palates in Vieux-Quebec – the old part of Quebec City which stands as a marvelous testament to French settlers. Of all the cities I’ve visited in North America only New Orleans holds a candle to Quebec City. Somehow the residents and various town councils have managed to preserve the integrity of its ancient architecture (ancient for Canada and the U.S. is measured in 100’s of years, not millennia as in Europe!). Once inside the walls of the old city one is transported backwards in time. Of main interest to us was the best of the best restaurants…a difficult proposition, as there are so many fine establishments to choose from. In the past we had experienced some of the tourist favourites like Aux Anciens Canadiens, which is always worth a visit, but we decided to try two restaurants considered the ‘crème de la crème’ by many connoisseurs.
The first day in the city started with a few hours in the main art gallery Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec. There was a special exhibit which looked at the influence that Japanese art had had on the Impressionists – it was very interesting. However, we spent most of our time viewing the works of Quebec artists, in particular Jean Paul Riopelle and Jean Paul Lemieux. Both artists represent the modernist movement in the evolution of painting in La Belle Provence. Riopelle, the more famous of the two, was a leading abstract expressionist painter during his years in Europe.
Our first destination was Restaurant Initiale located near the old port area.We both chose the 5-course tasting menu which included dried salmon, halibut, fois gras, duckling and chocolate Zephir with blackcurrent sorbet. Each plate was a masterpiece, visually and tastewise. Portions were small, which was perfect for a multi-course meal. At the end of the evening we were satiated and walked through the still busy streets of the old city back to our hotel. We reflected on the meaning of ‘haute cuisine’, having just experienced a gourmet meal of the highest standards. Of course, the cost matched that standard, but once in a while….why not?!
The second evening was at one of the hottest bistros in Quebec. Chez Boulay got its name from superstar Chef Boulay who also founded the landmark Le Saint Amour – an iconic Canadian restaurant and winner of many awards. We were looking forward to trying his more approachable and trendy bistro. The theme was ”inventive cuisine of Nordic inspiration” which was right up my alley, as they say. The menu even included a manifesto proclaiming the importance of local and sustainable farming. I was hooked before I even tasted my dish of bison cheeks and local vegetables – a kind of ‘pot au feu’ –and after the first few morsels I was sold.I always loved Boulay’s Saint Amour, where Sue and I once celebrated an anniversary, but Chez Boulay is on my permanent list for all future visits to Quebec City.
We met a young poet from Maine, Kristen, who, like us, was equally impressed and took notes for her husband who was unable to make the trip. Note: the food was not only approachable and full of flavour, it was also very affordable.
Part Two- Exploring "Charlevoix!”
Charlevoix Village & St. Lawrence River
Just over an hour east of Quebec City lies the Charlevoix region. Our first stop was our ‘Gite’ (Bed and Breakfast) called ‘Nature et Pinceaux.’ I was tantalized by a small plaque on the balcony door, which we passed as we deposited our luggage in our room, which said "Certfié Terroir & Saveurs du Quebec”. Wow! Looks like we were on the right track! A quick note on our gite accommodations…the room had a gorgeous view of the St. Lawrence river; the beds were comfortable; the place was impeccably clean; the balcony was perfect for imbibing before bed; our hosts, Mariette and Pierre, were gracious and helpful and the breakfasts (!) were amazing – they featured local smoked trout one morning, cheddar and bacon crepes another morning and a lovely omelette the next…all accompanied by local fresh fruits, homemade granola, yogurt and different local cheeses each day – it was a great way to start our search for authentic regional foods and beverages.
We spent two full days exploring the whole region. Here are the highlights:
. Laiterie Charlevoix - This fromagerie (why can’t the English language come up with something better than "cheese factory”…OMG!) has been in the hands of the Labbe family for generations – mainly raising cows. Now they are also master cheesemakers. I recommend their ‘Le 1608’ made from endangered ‘Canadienne’ cows. Mild tasting with a nice creamy aftertaste.
Le Moulin de la Remy – An old flour mill, which dates back to 1827, making baked goods in the traditional way using their own flour. Excellent brioche and bread rolls. A leader in the Charlevoix local food movement.
Les Viandes Biologiques de Charlevoix – The brochure claimed that the "chickens and pigs are part of the family.” Owners Natasha and Damien are described as organic to the core…luckily they also know how to make delicious meats.Try their smoked ham, you won’t be disappointed. The sausages are also very good!
Maison Maurice Dufour - Famous for Le Migneron cheese this fromagerie was critical in the renaissance of the artisanal food producing movement in the region. The cheesemaker, Maurice Dufour, is an affable fellow with one of the best smiles this side of the Rockies. And, don’t forget the cheese! His Le Migneron made a name for his business but don’t miss out on his blues, or the delicious almost decadent, Le Secret de Maurice. C’est tres bon!
La Ferme Basque de Charlevoix - Some people object to the making of foie gras.Having visited a farm in Belgium many years ago I was persuaded to move over to the ‘thumbs up’ side of the story.The animals are raised in fields, versus our factory raised birds, and only near the end are they given an over- abundance of corn which causes their livers to grow quickly – soon becoming more like butter than meat – creating a delicacy, for some. The objectors say that the birds (in this case ducks) are "force fed”… well that’s true but it isn’t as bad as it sounds. A funnel tube was used in the farm I visited in Belgium and was inserted in the throat of the bird as the corn is ‘poured’ into them (the process is called ‘gavage’). It’s probably uncomfortable the first few times however that soon dissipates. When the farmer brought out the funnel when I was there the birds came rushing towards him to get more corn…it was a feeding frenzy.
Evidently, the story of foie gras dates back to Egyptian times when people noticed ducks and geese virtually force feeding themselves just before migrations – when killed for eating (before they took flight) it was noticed that their livers were larger than normal, and delicious. The human assisted over-feeding is an extension of that pre-migration phenomenon. Sound convincing? You decide.Anyway, at La Ferme Basque they too let their ducks roam free in fields … no cages stacked one on top of another for McDonald’s poultry products. I met with owner Isabelle Mihura who hails from the Basque region of France. She was delightful…and the foie gras tasted like….well…butter. They also sell nice mousses, magrets, confits and terrines. All of the duck is used.
Volièeres Baie-Saint-Paul – Another family-run farm home to rabbits, guinea fowls, quails and pheasants. I loved their guinea fowl rillettes. Our visit was short here as we arrived near closing time…next visit we’ll be there much earlier.
Note:Believe it or not, my wife Sue and I were able to visit all the above places in just one day…without rushing!
We decided to head out to the nearby Isle-aux-Coudres. This island is easily reached by a free ferry that departs every 20 minutes from Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive. It’s well known as one of the first stopping points for Jacques Cartier in 1535. He and his men erected a cross and were said to have conducted the very first mass held on Canadian soil. Our interests were more secular.
Cidrerie et Vergers Pedneault – Another family run business dating back to 1918 when an apple orchard was first planted.Now there are ciders, mistelles, aperitifs and sparkling offerings from mainly apples and pears. They also make vinegars (buy the Saskatoon berry and apple cider variety), honeys and jams. I was intrigued with the apple cider with ‘chicoutai’ which turned out to be ‘cloudberry’ in English. I first came across this fruit in Newfoundland in a pie. It grows in northerly alpine regions and there is only one fruit per plant – the taste is similar to raspberry and blackberry with a sourish finish on your palate. In the cider it added a nice complexity and ensured a drier taste (which I prefer in all ciders).
Boulangerie Bouchard – Still on the island, this intimate bakery is perched on the shores of the St. Lawrence River and well worth a visit. We tried their smoked salmon wraps while sitting on picnic tables overlooking the water.Before leaving we indulged and enjoyed an assortment of pastries.
Domaine de la Vallée du Bras – Returning to the main land in the afternoon we immediately headed off to what may be the most unusual winery in the world. That’s right, in the world. Owner Pascal Miche is making tomato-based aperitif wine. He is a passionate man who is happy to tell you the story of his great grandfather`s innovative beverage. The recipe of this elixir had remained a secret for generations but it is now available in Quebec. Using only heirloom tomatoes, the wines are 16% alcohol and reveal an interesting mix of flavours. I preferred the Omerto Moelleux which has aromas of orange, honey melon and apricot.On the palate it provides a nice balance of sweetness and acidity with an earthy taste…I bought six bottles!
Pascal’s Tomato Wine!
While in the Baie-Saint-Paul area we dined at two good restaurants, Chez Bouquet and Mouton Noir (which has a lovely patio on the river). We also stopped daily at the Le Saint-Pub which brews its own beers and does a good job of it…after each visit I felt a little more saintly having my thirst quenched and spirits lifted. Overall, the Charlevoix region did not disappoint…my expectations were high but my experience soared above them. Next year, a return visit with the whole family may be required.
Lodgings (places we have enjoyed)
www.manoir-victoria.com (in Quebec City)
www.HVQ.com (Hotel du Vieux- in Quebec City)*a leader in sustainability
www.lhotel.ca (Chateau Fleur de Lys –in Quebec City)
www.quebecweb.com/rca (Hotel Relais Charles-Alexandre –in Quebec City)
www.natureetpinceaux.qc.ca (Baie-Saint-Paul – in Charlevoix)
www.restaurantinitiale.com (in Quebec City)
www.chezboulay.com (in Quebec City)
www.portofino.ca (in Quebec City)
www.saint-amour.com (in Quebec City)