La Vieille Capitale
We’re having a party and there’s food!
In 1759, when General Wolfe’s troops scrambled up the vertiginous cliffs to the Plains of Abraham, the poor performance of the opposing army, led by Marquis de Montcalm, was, according to my guide, due to their late-night carousing the night before. Apocryphal or not, during my visit, Quebec City is in full-on party mode for its annual 10-day summer festival.
Sidewalk cafes have blossomed everywhere, roads are pedestrianized and open-air stages can be found throughout the city, with this year’s major performers Neil Young, the Foo Fighters, America and Air Supply making headlines.
I check into my “room with a view” at the iconic Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, which has recently undergone a tasteful restoration. This gracious, grand old lady has witnessed history and pomp aplenty over her 125 years.
Understandably, the château’s gilded baronial lobby appears to be on the tourist trail. It’s as if boisterous relatives have come to visit an elderly aunt with a priceless collection of Limoges. But somehow the concierge and bell captain, together with their affable canine ambassador Santol, a bouvier bernois, keep everything unobtrusively under control.
Me, myself and I
To kick-start my personal festivities I find my way to Le Sam, a playful allusion to Samuel Champlain, the so-called “Father of Quebec” whose statue sits on the boardwalk outside. A fine glass of chilled rosé, locally sourced artisanal charcuterie and cheese, and truffle oil popcorn fit the bill quite nicely.
After a while, I wander into the adjacent 1608 Wine & Cheese Bar. Its striking design appears to represent a clock exploding in time. There’s a message here somewhere, but after another glass of rosé I’m too relaxed to figure it out.
Next door to 1608, Champlain, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, has a glass-fronted cold room in the entranceway that displays a mouth-watering selection of Charlevoix cheeses and dry aged meats. Its ceiling hosts a huge wooden serpentine sculpture, a three-dimensional model of the St. Lawrence River flowing below. Four vertical glass-encased wine racks rise to the ceiling, accessed from a set of library steps on rails. Mischievously, I think of ordering a bottle from the very top just to see the sommelier on a climb.
The following morning I’m eager to see the Île d’Orléans, a short jaunt to the east near the Montmorency Falls (also worth a visit) and across a bridge that first connected the island to the mainland in 1935. It’s a picturesque place of colourful clapboard homes, farms and summer residences. Not a place to be rushed.
Jamming at Tigidou
My first stop, the self-proclaimed “only jam bar in the world.” Vincent Paris, who has a wry sense of humour and effervescent enthusiasm for all things jam, and his wife Catherine have lovingly converted an abandoned cattle and tractor barn into their “jam makery,” Tigidou.
I’m in luck…Not only is it strawberry and raspberry season, but just down the road are some of the largest strawberry farms in Canada. Between them they grow 30 varieties.
Striding up to the tasting bar, I’m suddenly a kid again. The jams are masterful. Tigidou uses only organic cane sugar sparingly to enhance the fruit, but never overpower it. I sample an apple butter and caramel maple jam with Canadian Club whisky, a blackberry jam with sea buckthorn and an orange jelly with dandelion from an old French recipe. Raspberry with jalapeno has a spicy touch. I even persuade Vincent to let me taste his experimental strawberry with wasabi. Now that’s got a kick! My resulting sugar rush requires a little exercise.
Cassis Monna & Filles
On the other side of the island, French artist, potter and asparagus grower Bernard Monna has turned back to his roots and become the fifth-generation producer of wines and spirits in his family. In 1992, Monna imported cold-resistant blackcurrant plants from northern France to produce his own special cassis. Now he’s retired, his daughters Anne and Catherine have taken over and expanded the business.
Train to Charlevoix
After a few days it’s time to see yet another side of “la belle province,” so I board the morning train to Charlevoix for a trip back in time. We chug past cornfields framed by the Laurentian Mountains on one side and the St. Lawrence River on the other. Ancient farm buildings and small, neat-as-pins communities come and go until we eventually pull into Baie-Saint-Paul station.
Le Germain—farm hotel
Conveniently, the station is a step away from Le Germain. Billing itself as a “farm hotel,” my comfortable room in the Clos building is decorated in spare Scandinavian style with echoes of whitewashed barn. There’s a sweet little patio with views of the farm’s shaggy highland cattle, alpacas, ducks, sheep, chickens and beehives. Gentle aromas of lavender float on the intensely quiet air. All that’s missing is an orchestra playing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.
Exploring, I run into André Bilodeau, the head gardener. He’s charged with growing all of the organic vegetables and herbs that are served in the site’s casually elegant fine restaurant, Les Labours, which is presided over by Chef Alexis Jegou. For such a northerly garden, it’s surprisingly in full summer abundance already.
The Flavour Trail
In the pretty town of Baie-Saint-Paul, I discover a spot to sample a collection of fine local ciders: La Cidrerie et Vergers Pedneault. Yes, I’m taking home an exceptional iced cider, the Pommes Gelées.
Baie-Saint-Paul is the start of the Flavour Trail, a route that’s made up of an eclectic mixture of accredited artisanal producers, shops and restaurants. The trail winds its way up the Gaspé Peninsula toward my final stop at La Malbaie.
Before setting out, however, I lunch on the rustic riverside patio of Le Mouton Noir, which is run by owner–chef Thierry Ferré. Like many chefs from France, Ferré found that he could afford both a restaurant and a farm on which to grow his produce in this region. A delicious lunch of terrine maison and tartare de salmon with a glass of rosé sets the tone for the rest of my foodie adventure.
My first stop is the Laiterie Charlevoix, which produces prize-winning cheeses including the gold medal Le 1608 Cheddar. The laiterie sources all of its milk from local farms that conform to strict guidelines: Silo or dry hay cannot be used to feed the cows (it degrades the taste of the milk, apparently). A guided tour of the eco-friendly dairy that recycles virtually everything is recommended—as, of course, is a cheese sampling.
Producing and eating foie gras is controversial. My scruples are sorely tested, however, by the sublime delicacy of the products at La Ferme Basque de Charlevoix in Saint-Urbain. Boutique producers Isabelle and Jean- Jacques Etcheberrigaray are committed to the most humane treatment of their free-range ducks. It’s gourmet heaven to sample their products, which include a mousse, sausage, terrine and even a whole duck. Isabelle shares a recipe for foie gras stuffed duck. How indulgent can you get? I make a note to order more than the large jar I’m taking with me, to use at Christmas time.
Winding my way along the scenic Mountain Route, I pass pristine flower-bedecked villages until I come across Champignon Charlevoix, one of the oldest farms in Quebec. Growing nearly 10 tons of mushrooms a year, this small farm started with but a single original batch of cloned oyster mushroom culture. In their rustic shop I sample a range of homemade chutneys, from mild Le Pleurote du Verger to the spicy Le Pleurote Delicieux Piquante. I’m taking my wife a package of dried mushrooms. Marinate overnight in white wine and then use the marinade for jus, I’m told.
Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu
My final stop is the imposing Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu. Another iconic Canadian hotel, it commands truly unique views over the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where Beluga whales cavort as salt water meets fresh. It too has a canine ambassador—Roux, a golden labrador retriever who is snoozing in a patch of sunshine outside the main entrance. The hotel dates from 1899, when steamers brought the wealthy up from the central Great Lakes. Local residents gathered to greet them, and this imbued the ongoing tradition of welcoming visitors.
Le Manoir is a family-focused resort hotel in the grand style. There’s tennis, volleyball and one of the most spectacular golf courses you will see anywhere.
Every hole has a view over the water. There’s also a spa, indoor and outdoor pools and even a first-class casino. Come l’Hiver, there’s a robust winter program that includes guided snowmobiling on trails through the forested wilderness.
I manage to snag one of the few remaining G7 beers with ingredients from all seven member countries. It was produced in honour of the recent meeting here.
Later, on the terrace of the informal gastronomic Table & Terroir restaurant, an appetiser of foie gras topped with finely chopped nuts and fruit follows. I can’t get enough duck, so I follow with thinly sliced breast with a lovely purée. Perfect.
As the sun sets over the St. Lawrence, painting the sky with delicate striations of pink, I can’t help reflecting on the pristine nature and bounty of this region, and the monumental efforts and investment the province and its people have made in preserving it. It’s certainly worth celebrating!