This article originally appeared in the first issue of Boundless Magazine in November 2020.
Writer | Amy Rosen
Forged centuries ago as cuisine based on simple ingredients that could feed large, hungry families, the frugal Québécois kitchens brought us iconic dishes such as pea soup and pouding chômeur (the best-ever maple dessert). Today, you can meet countless chefs and artisans who bring these ingredients to life, as you taste your way around la belle province.
CHEESE FOR THE SEASON
Winter is when Québec shines brightest, and there’s no better way to enjoy the bounty of the Eastern Townships than while sitting beside a crackling fire. After a great day on the slopes, I head down a winding road and meet a herd of Holstein cattle. Across the road is Fromagerie La Station, a family-run farmstead cheese company (all the milk comes from a single herd of cattle). Once mid-May rolls around, the Holsteins step outside of their winter shelter to graze on clover and alfalfa. The resulting raw, organic milk is made into semi-firm and firm cheeses, part of a new wave of local farmstead cheeses. During a fun, educational tour and tasting, I sampled cheeses that ranged from smooth and creamy to crumbly and nutty. I was so impressed that I bought three pounds of cheese, including their internationally award-winning Alfred Le Fermier and some wintry raclette, and a fondue set for good measure.
SMOKED TO PERFECTION
“Welcome! Welcome!” shouts Benoît “Ben” Arseneau, as we arrive at his smokehouse, Le Fumoir d’Antan, on Québec’s Les Îles de-la-Madeleine deep within the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. As far back as the ’40s, smoked herring was a big industry on the island. “There were many smokehouses back then,” Arseneau says. But in the ’60s and ’70s, overfishing collapsed the industry, taking most of Les Îles-de-la Madeleine’s 40 smokehouses with it, including Arseneau’s grandfather's. “We lost our spirit, because there were no herring left. Our family treasure was gone,” he sighs. But then, the herring came back in a big way, and Arseneau and his brother renovated and reopened their grandfather’s smokehouse in 1996. Today, mackerel, herring, salmon, and scallops are smoked in the smoke room, where fires built on the hard floor smoulder, smoke rising to the fish hanging on skewers across the smokehouse rafters. About 20,000 herring can be smoked at a time, for anywhere from 60 to 90 days. I eat some mackerel— delicious! Naturally oily and smoky, and you can sense the freshness of the fish. Little wonder, since one of the island’s many wharfs is just steps away.
CARAMEL ON A MOUNTAINTOP
At a resort and country inn nestled in the crown of Montagne Coupée in Saint-Jean-de-Matha, I enjoy dinner that includes a greatest hits list of local ingredients, every dish flavored with French charm. Think duck magret sauced with Miel de Chez-Nous honey and wild ginger, a wintry root vegetable mousse, and squab amandine from La Courgerie in Sainte-Élisabeth. Co-owner Marie Préfontaine casually points out a striking modernist building through the window while I’m tucking into my Québec leg of lamb with sea asparagus. “It’s the Abbaye Val NotreDame,” she nods. “And they make wonderful chocolates filled with a caramel sauce they’re famous for.” It takes everything for me to not leap from the table, strap on a pair of snowshoes, and hightail it to the Abbaye before dessert. Instead, I finish my coffee with Ms. Prefontaine before heading down the mountain to the Abbey Shop, where about two dozen monks live within the wood and glass structure of Abbaye Val Notre-Dame. Gregorian chants can be heard on high from the gift shop that features local cheeses, charcuterie, and seasonal jams, as well as that famous caramel sauce, of which I buy two jars. The taste? As good as sin
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