Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 14, 2017
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Back to the land

Quebec's local producers put flavour back on the map in Charlevoix

"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.

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