LA BELLE PROVINCE (originally published in FT Weekend 2008)
Canada may not spring instantly to mind if your mind is on food and drink. Quebec is different. One of the most striking things about La Belle Province – at least to this Brit living in France – is how French it feels. Wherever you go, the cafés and restaurants are full of people who seem to be taking a frank, uncomplicated, unhurried delight in the pleasures of the table.
There’s also, as food writer Anne Desjardins points out in her book Québec, Capitale Gastronomique*, a unique and delicious complicity between chefs and food producers. “In Montreal, cooking is multi-ethnic, more influenced by New York or even California”, she notes, adding “the chefs have to work with big distribution systems. Here in Quebec you see producers at the back door of the kitchen nursing a box of special beans or a new variety of potato grown to order by the chef – it’s much more like in France.”
In a whistle-stop tour of four Quebec restaurants, whose chefs are all champions of this complicity, Desjardins introduces us first to François Blais, executive chef at Panache, the Auberge Saint-Antoine’s in-house restaurant in the Vieux-Port area of the city.
Blais describes his cooking as rooted in old Quebec but with a light touch, and inspired by local produce. When he waxes lyrical about the Atlantic salmon that’s cold-smoked for him in Charlevoix, or the vegetables grown on the Île d’Orléans (“our market garden, just across the St Lawrence”), he’s not rehearsing the usual clichés about terroir. It’s just a quiet pride in the fine raw materials he has at his disposal in a part of the world where such things are rare – and where the growing season is achingly short.
We taste Blais’ scallops from the icy waters of the Côte-Nord, which he smacks into a hot pan and serves with a sweet-sour emulsion conjured up from the caramelised pan juices and a shot of La Part des Anges (a Quebec-grown, Banyuls-like sweet wine). A nugget of wild salmon comes next, sitting astride brilliant green asparagus spears and fresh morels from the Île d’Orléans. And the chef has a wicked way with calves’ sweetbreads: they’re blanched, sliced and dusted lightly with polenta flour, then plunged in hot oil so they emerge lightly crusted without, melting within, to be paired with wild mushrooms and crushed Yukon Gold potatoes.
Up at the Restaurant St Amour in Quebec’s old town, we meet award-winning chefs Jean-Luc Boulay and his son Frédéric. Together they have made this expansive restaurant with its elegant conservatory-dining room into one of Quebec’s most celebrated watering holes with their virtuoso cooking and extraordinary wine list.
Foie gras is what the Boulays are famous for, locally raised (Quebec is a significant producer) and interpreted half a dozen ways from pan-fried to poached, and served with a luscious smudge of blueberry chutney. Boulay urges the tasting menu “so you can get a feel for what we do”. For this, everything comes in threes: a glass tray of miniature soups (pea and morels, a tiny lobster bisque with mango, a chilled glass of tomato and feta), followed by a trilogy of venison (stroganoff, pinkly roasted loin and a tiny cutlet). Of the trio of desserts the standout is a sinfully rich, smooth dark chocolate castle.
Next we head out to Charlevoix, a beautiful and fertile region a couple of hours east of Quebec City along the St Lawrence, home to fishermen, cheesemakers, market gardeners and foie gras producers. Here is raised much of the finest produce that reaches the city’s top restaurants.
In the tiny hamlet of Les Eboulements we come to a halt in front of what looks from the outside like a roadside shack. Inside it turns out to be a delicious, sunny little gem of a restaurant, Les Saveurs Oubliées. Owned and run by chef Régis Hervé (originally from Touraine in the Loire region of France) and partner Guy Thibodeau, the cooking here is full of the kind of long-forgotten flavours that come from food that’s lovingly grown and well treated.
The restaurant’s succinct menu features lamb from their own home farm and duck from the Etcheberrigaray family at La Ferme Basque in nearby Saint-Urbain. Lunch includes sweetbread nuggets and chanterelles set on a soupspoon followed by a sweet and succulent navarin with infant carrots, beans and spring onions from the organic garden across the road. The chef’s latest coup de coeur is a salad with duck rillons, a terrine-like confection of tender, slow-cooked cubes of boned duck (‘it takes me back home to Touraine’, he smiles, a little wistfully), and a soothing pain perdu (bread and butter pudding) prepared to his mother’s recipe.
Our final stop is at L’Auberge des Trois Canards in La Malbaie, a serenely beautiful corner powerfully reminiscent of Scotland or Sweden with grandstand views out over the ever-widening St Lawrence.
Canadian-born Mario Chabot (whose youthful looks belie his recent promotion to the ranks of proud papa) worked for a while in Brittany before returning here to take up his post as chef. For his wide-ranging menu anchored on local produce (“c’est l’orgueuil de Charlevoix – the pride of Charlevoix!”), he’s perfected his smoking technique. “I do all our salmon, as well as duck breasts from La Ferme Basque, which we serve with my salt-cured foie gras.”
Another seasonal signature dish is quail, painstakingly boned and stuffed with wild mushrooms. “It’s been a great mushroom year”, he enthuses – “in the spring we had morels, now it’s ceps and chanterelles – I always get out mushroom-hunting on my days off, and sometimes early in the morning before starting work.” New on Chabot’s menu is the trilogie d’agneau de Charlevoix: rack and gigot of lamb, and ravioli stuffed with sweetly braised lamb shanks.
To finish our feast there’s apple and almond tart and a brandysnap creation cradling home-made ice cream, accompanied by a thimbleful of ambrosial ice cider from Verger Pedneault on the Isle aux Coudres in the St Lawrence.
It’s the now-familiar story of high-quality, small-scale local produce prepared with old-world French flair, new-found Canadian confidence – and a typically Quebecois accent.
*Québec capitale gastronomique by Anne Desjardins, published July 2008, Les éditions La Presse
Panache, 10 rue St Antoine, Quebec, (418) 693 1022, http://www.saint-antoine.com
Restaurant St Amour, 48 rue Ste. Ursule, Quebec, (418) 694 0667, http://www.saint-amour.com
Les Saveurs Oubliées, 350 Rang St. Godefroy, Les Eboulements, (418) 635 9888, http://www.agneausaveurscharlevoix.com
L’Auberge des Trois Canards, 115 Côte Bellevue, La Malbaie, (418) 665 3761, http://www.auberge3canards.com
Quebec’s artisan producers
Much of Quebec City’s local produce comes from the Île d’Orléans, an island in the St Lawrence within sight of the city, reached by a bridge which sweeps over the river and catapults you into a deliciously bucolic landscape of small farms, orchards, vineyards and whitewashed, blue-shuttered, slate-roofed houses.
At St Pierre, rubicund, silver-haired fisherman Joseph Paquet (2705 Chemin Royal, St Pierre de l’Île d’Orléans, (418) 828 2670) checks his nets daily for sturgeon and eel which he fillets and marinates before smoking them to a deep mahogany hue in his blackened smoker.
Next door is L’Isle Ensorceleuse (723 Chemin Royal, St Pierre, Île d’Orleans, (418) 828 1057), a family-owned blackcurrant farm, where Dijon-born Bernard Monna makes fruity vinegars and fragrant crème de cassis for partnering with the local nervy white wine.
Some of the finest of these, made from Vandal-Cliché hybrid vines specially bred to withstand Quebec’s bitter winters, come from Domaine Royarnois (146 chemin du Cap-Tourmente, St-Joachim du Cap-Tourmente, (418) 827-4465, http://www.royarnois.com) just across the river. Here they put on a spectacular déjeuner sur l’herbe for us, complete with checked tablecloth, fresh wild flowers and distant views of the mighty St Lawrence.
Cidrerie Bilodeau (2200 Chemin Royal, St Pierre, Île d’Orléans, (418) 828 9316, http://www.cidreriebilodeau.qc.ca) is famous for its ice cider, made from perfectly ripe apples harvested in midwinter, pressed to extract a super-concentrated juice and allowed to ferment over several months to make a superb golden elixir.
Our last stop was way out along the St Lawrence in Charlevoix at La Ferme Basque (813 rue St Edouard, Saint-Urbain, (418) 639 2246, http://www.lafermebasque.ca), Isabelle and Jean-Jacques Etcheberrigaray, émigrés from France’s Pays Basque, have a small-scale production of all kinds of duck specialities, from foie gras to terrines, confits and pâtés.