The smells are intoxicating – sweet, smoky, briny like the ocean. We’re at Marché de 3 Fumoirs (Market of the Three Smokehouses) in the village of L’lsle-Verte in Quebec’s lower St. Lawrence (Bas-Saint-Laurent) region. For 40 years, Jacqueline “Jacky” Ouellet’s family have been carrying on the tradition of smoking local fish, shellfish, and meats and selling them at this modest storefront. They are the only such smokehouse in the area and you can literally taste the love and care they take with their products.
At 3 Fumoirs, they smoke just about any kind of fish, including halibut, turbot, trout, salmon, smelt, herring, shrimp, scallops, and welks (sea snails). (They sell, but don’t smoke locally-caught crab and lobster.) Much of the product is caught fresh by Jacqueline’s fisherman boyfriend either in the mighty St. Lawrence, which is only a stone’s throw from the shop, or in the Atlantic. Their cod comes from Nova Scotia and the salmon is farmed in New Brunswick. They also pickle and sell a variety of seafood products such as clams, welk, and turbot. And, when the smokehouses aren’t busy smoking fish, they smoke locally-produced ham and bacon.
The name Three Smokehouses comes from three small, wood-fired smokehouses next to the market that look like very tall, grey and red dollhouses. The first, an indirect fire, is the cold smokehouse. They build a fire in an underground pit outside of the smokehouse. The fire is connected to the smokehouse by underground pipes. After the fire is going well and reaches the right temperature, maple chips or “dust” are added for smoke flavor. The interior of the smokehouse is lined with dozens of wooden fish shelves and firebrick blackened from years of smoke. It’s here that they process their cold smoked salmon, their most popular product.
In the second “hot” smokehouse, the fire is built inside the smokehouse. Maple dust is used here for smoky flavor too. Temperatures in this smokehouse reach 240 degrees Centigrade. It’s here that they smoke the majority of the fish and shellfish and their bacon and ham. Depending on the product, it can take anywhere from 12-24 hours to smoke in this smokehouse.
The third smokehouse, also hot style, is used to smoke only herring. The oily fish takes an entire month before it’s properly smoked. On the herring house’s ground floor are several iron bathtubs where they build the fires that heat the smoker. Thin wooden slats that hold the fish soar 20 feet all the way up to the rooftop where there’s an opening to vent the wood smoke.
Each of the smokers can process 200 pounds of fish. However, the popularity of Marché de 3 Fumoirs’s products has grown so much among locals and tourists that they need as much as 150,000 pounds of smoked fish every week. To meet that punishing demand, they’re using a programmable high-tech electric smoker. Like the others, this smoker relies on maple wood dust to flavor the products. However, because the electric smoker is so well sealed, it controls the temperature better than the wood-fired smokers and takes only one hour to process 75 pounds of product. Does the electric smoker product the same quality as the more old fashioned wood smokers? “Absolutely, the quality and taste are identical,” insists Jacqueline.
Before products go into any of the smokers, they sit for 12-24 hours a layer of Three Smokehouse’s dry rub – brown sugar, salt, and spices like savory, tarragon, and rosemary. (The exception is their herring which gets a salt water bath.) After spending the requisite amount of time in the smoker, the products are “painted” with local maple syrup for a bit of sweetness.
The results of all this care are fish products that are perfectly cooked, not overly smoky, with just a hint of maple sweetness. Their cold smoked salmon, which resembles lox, is thin sliced, slightly oily, and has a mild salmon taste. In addition to trying pieces of smoked turbot, scallop, shrimp, salmon, and halibut, we sampled a mousse made of smoked salmon topped with locally smoked oysters – deliciously creamy, smoky, and slightly briny.
While 3 Fumoirs only ships inside Quebec, a visit to this place is a wonderful reason to visit the province’s lower Saint Lawrence region. Will they be there when you visit? Jacky smiles broadly, “My daughter is taking over our fish market in the village 10 minutes away and she’s learning how to smoke fish. We’re passing our passion on to the next generation.”
Marché des 3 Fumoirs