Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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Back to the land in Charlevoix

Quebec's local producers put flavour back on the map

"Are you here to eat lamb?" Guy Thibodeau asked when he appeared beside my table at Les Saveurs Oubliées. I'd been looking out the window of the sunny restaurant at a silo which proclaims "La Ferme Éboulmontaise," and across fields dotted with daisies and grazing sheep. He followed my gaze out the window before stating: "It doesn't get any fresher than this." No kidding - the restaurant is set smack in the middle of a farm.

The lamb parade at this farm-to-table restaurant began with an amuse-bouche of lamb tongue and heart in tomato sauce followed by an appetizer of lovely lamb tartare complements of chef/owner Régis Harvé. Thibodeau laid out a selection of homemade condiments including jellies made from cedar, pine and crab apple as well as an onion confit and fruit ketchup. By the time the main course of noisettes d'agneau in a light tarragon sauce arrived, I was in lamb heaven.

Charlevoix is a landscape of wooded hills dropping steeply towards the St-Lawrence. Roller-coaster roads wind past fieldstone farmhouses and silver-spired churches in hamlets named for a roll call of saints. Stretching from Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré, 50 kilometres east of Quebec City towards the Saguenay River near Tadoussac, the region is known for its art and culture (including past sojourns by Canadian art icons, the Group of Seven) and especially its food.

Within Quebec it is renowned for its "forgotten flavours" - the name of the lamb restaurant where I dined - where fresh, local products are enjoyed in farm-to-table meals or bought from a producer and served in the café, restaurant or inn down the street.

"Agro tourism" is particularly strong in Charlevoix where it has been promoted heavily since 1995. That's when a group of local chefs and specialty food producers got together with the regional tourism folks to showcase their products by creating a bilingual culinary guide called La Route des Saveurs (The Flavour Trail).

Explained in a handy map and guide, it is a culinary circuit that includes 14 specialty producers of everything from cider to foie gras, where visitors can drop in for a tour and buy the goodies. It also includes 22 inns, hotels and restaurants where the local products are served à la table. The establishments are identified along the way with a wooden sign bearing the symbol of an orange chef's hat.

Certified organic is less important in Quebec than in other provinces, as chefs and diners are more concerned with fresh, local products. As Thibodeau pointed out, he knows the people who supply their venison well; it's the same with the folks at La Ferme Basque where he gets his duck and foie gras. "I already know they don't use chemicals or antibiotics, plus certification is expensive," he explained. "We don't feel it's necessary."


Seek And Ye Shall Eat
If restaurateurs have one complaint about local products, it's that producers are too small. "Often they can't supply the quantity this restaurant requires," said André Authier of La Pinsonnière, a Relais & Châteaux property at Cap-à-l'Aigle. He told me this over a plate of Québec cheeses which are, happily, available in quantity.

Two of those cheeses were from Charlevoix and the cheesemaker was my first stop on the Flavour Trail. On a country road outside the town of Baie-St-Paul, La Maison d'Affinage Maurice Dufour produces Le Migneron, one of Québec's favourite soft cheeses which has won national and international awards. Recently, they've also begun producing a smooth blue cheese called Le Ciel de Charlevoix.

Like the other cheese producers in the region, Dufour offers tours to visitors, as well as tables for a light lunch that includes a cheese sampling plate with salad as well as a port menu. A dinner restaurant attached to the tasting room is where Italian chef Patrick Fregni creates a soufflé made with Migneron and perfumed with Calvados. His menu, like many in this area, credits the local producers he uses.

Baie-Saint-Paul is the main town in Charlevoix. Its narrow streets are lined with old shops and houses. Le Saint-Pub is a brew-pub that serves five of its excellent beers on tap at a time. It also offers simple bistro food using regional products in their pastas and smoked fish dishes. At Le Mouton Noir restaurant, which serves hearty country cooking, I had wonderful smoked sausages with maple syrup.

Further up the road from Maurice Dufour's ripening cheeses are fields with rustic barns, grazing dairy cows and - emus. For five years, the Centre de l'Émeu, Québec's biggest emu farm, has been producing a vast array of products from the low-fat, tasty Aussie birds. The cooler at the farm shop is stuffed with ground emu, emu kebabs and chateaubriand, even smoked emu and a pink pepper terrine. There is also a line of skin- and hair-care products made from the bird's rich oil.


Kids in the Country
Visiting farms and producers can be a treat for kids, too. La Ferme Éboulmontaise offers a visit into the sheep barn where children can hold baby lambs. You can pop in to a handmade chocolate maker in Baie-Saint-Paul called Chocolaterie Cynthia.

The tour through a 1790 mill in Les Éboulements explains how flour was once ground; they still bake bread in the old, stone, outdoor ovens which you still sometimes see in these parts.

Nearby is you'll find the Jardins du Centre, the region's premier organic veggie grower. Within the mild micro-climate near the St.-Lawrence River, the farm grows crops of exotic yellow carrots, golden beets, mini-turnips and blue potatoes.

You can pick your own apples from September 20th to late October at the Cidrerie et Verger Pedneault, a third-generation cider maker which is a free 15-minute ferry ride away on Isle-aux-Coudres. The family grows 26 varieties of apples which go into a wide range of ciders, including sparking, still, light and strong ciders. Pedneault also produces an iced apple mistelle - with alcohol added to bring it to 20 percent. Served frosty, it is Quebec's version of ice wine, and I spotted it often on restaurant menus as an accompaniment for foie gras. They are also the only makers of a lovely plum mistelle and ciders from cherries and Saskatoon berries.

Le Relais des Saveurs de Charlevoix, a boutique and bistro, brings many of the diverse regional products together under one roof, including a variety of smoked fish from the on-site Fumoir Charlevoix, and Mulard duck products from La Ferme Gourmande.


Old Time Style
Charlevoix has been a popular holiday spot since the 1880s when the White Ships of Canada Steamship Lines brought passengers from the Great Lakes to the castle-like Manoir Richelieu, which is now a Fairmont hotel with a dining room specializing in regional cuisine.

Americans built summer mansions overlooking the St-Lawrence around La Malbaie (which they called Murray Bay) in the '20s and '30s and many have been converted into country inns like two of my favourites, Auberge des Trois Canards and Auberge des Peupliers. The inns are luxuriously furnished with country antiques, fireplaces and Jacuzzis and usually include breakfast and a multi-course dinner in their room rate. The latter was where I was first introduced to the regional specialty of venison, served with a red-currant sauce, in the mid-1980s,.

On my last visit to Auberge des Peupliers I enjoyed a lovely table d'hôte created by chef Dominique Truchon, that included Mr. Dallaire's Smoked Sturgeon, Cream of Fava Bean Soup from Jardins du Centre, and Crusted Salmon with Butter of Verger Pedneault's Ice Cider - all food from places I'd visited that day.

For those who like to indulge in a great bottle of wine with their meal, the restaurant cellar at La Pinsonnière holds 12,000 bottles of wine, many of them aged Bordeaux. The Relais & Châteaux affiliated property is a lavish enclave of luxury and impeccable service overlooking the St. Lawrence at La Malbaie. The menu is a gourmet tribute to Québec cuisine from its Gaspé lobster to the carpaccio of venison from Boileau in the Laurentians. You can even dine overlooking the river and watch Minke whales frolic just offshore.

But if all that quality cuisine has you in the mood for something simple, you can always opt for one of the Charlevoix's earthy roadside casse-croûte wagons, with Quebec style traditional fast food and tuck into a poutine and a cheese-dog - but you're not likely to see any local producers credited on those menus.


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