Imagine giant cranberries the size of nickels, intensely-flavored black currant liquor, silky sweet apple syrup, and rich foie gras produced from happy geese. This is just a fraction of the culinary bounty that comes from Île d’Orléans (Orleans Island), a pastoral spit of land in the middle of the St. Lawrence River just 12 miles from Quebec City in the Canadian province of Quebec.
While small in size (22 miles long by 5 miles wide), Orleans Island, whose motto is “to welcome and to feed,” is playing a big role in a regional food revolution that’s pairing exquisite local products, many available only in on the island, with the city’s best chefs and restaurants. And the results are delicious news for food lovers.
It’s mid-November and the air is crisp and the autumn light is soft golden as we cross Island Bridge to Orleans Island. The busiest tourist time is May through September, but even in November it’s easy to see why this island is a favorite playground for Quebec City residents and visitors alike. In late fall, there are few visitors and we have this gorgeous island pretty much to ourselves.
Orleans Island has a rich history and many consider it the cradle of French culture in North America. French people from all over Canada and the United States can trace their ancestors to Orleans Island. Jacques Cartier was the first European to discover this forest-covered place, calling it Bacchus Island for all the wild vines. Before Europeans arrived, Algonquin natives called the island “Ouindigo,” meaning “bewitched place.” While the island has had a succession of names, in 1536, Jacques Cartier officially named the island after François I, son of the King of France, Duke of Orleans, and the name Orleans Island stuck.
The road we’re driving on, The Chemin Royal (Royal Road), was built in the 1600’s and it circles the island, hugging the rugged and craggy coastline. While the English invader, General James Wolfe and his troops destroyed all but two of the original homes in 1769, many island farm homes are at least 200 years old and even the newer ones are built in traditional French style. In fact, the island boasts 600 buildings, many of them built from stone quarried on the island, and the Government of Quebec recognizes them as cultural and historical treasures.
Island homes tend to be close together with the farm land stretching out behind them in long strips (the seigneurial farm or “long lot” system developed in France). This gives the farmers a greater sense of community while providing more farmers with access to the river.
Our first stop is Le Vignoble Sainte-Petronille, a winery rapidly gaining notoriety for their ice wine. The six-acre vineyard is the labor of love of Nathan Lane and Louis Denault, a young couple who gave up big city life to pursue their dream of producing outstanding wines. When we arrive, Nathan and her husband, who have expanded the farm to 13,000 grape vines, are busy pulling up 20-year-old wooden posts that support the grapevines and replacing them with stainless steel ones. Judging from the mud on their clothes and strain on their faces, the work is dirty and difficult.
Nathan is dressed in a lightweight jacket, but her cheeks are red from the cool weather. “We have a real microclimate here on the island because of the river and the mountains,” she explains. Both the elevation and the moderating effects of the river protect the island from killing frosts. The island’s river soil makes it rich and fertile for growing. “It’s great for the vines.”
While the grapevines are bare of leaves, long mesh sacks tied to arbor wires hold grapes that will become the winery’s famous ice wine. The loose grapes stay outside in the wind, rain, cold, and snow until about mid-December when they’ll be frozen solid and harvested.
“When we press the frozen grapes,” says Natalie, “the water in the grape is frozen, but the sugars and concentrated fruit is not. The first press collects this concentrated sweet fruit juice for ice wine.”
The grapes are then thawed and re-pressed and mixed with other grape juice to make a light white wine. However, for many, it’s the heady, intense ice wine that’s the prize. A 200 ml bottle sells for about $30.
Nathan shows us around the winery. One room contains giant stainless steel vats where grapes are crushed and the various wines distilled. In a second room, traditional oak wine barrels from Europe and America age the wines. American oak barrels cost less than European ones, but the cells of the American wood are more open, giving a stronger oak flavor to the wine. The owners are still in the experimentation phase, determining which grapes are best, how long to age them, which barrels work with their grapes to produce the kinds of wine they want.
We follow Nathan up the hill into a light and airy tasting room with a commanding view of the river, including Montmorency Falls on the mainland side. She lines up glasses and pours several of wines, including the ice wine. Everyone agrees the ice wine is something special — smooth with a sweet, redolent richness not found in other wines.
After buying several bottles, we head down the road. We pass through a number of villages, all of them picture postcard quaint. There are six villages on the island and, while the population soars in the summer and fall with visitors, only about 7,000 people live here year-round.
Black Currant Vinegar
We stop in the village of Saint-Jean at the Vinaigrie Cass’Isle D’Orléans, a vinegar distillery making vinegar the old fashioned way using fourth generation recipes.
Cass Isle is the largest black currant grower in Canada and they grow the tiny, intensely-flavored fruit not only for their own vinegars and other products, but also for other artisan food producers in the area. In their little roadside boutique, they sell black, red and white currant vinegars, mustard, jelly, jams, and a variety of home canned vegetables grown on their farm. You can also buy espresso drinks, zucchini bread, gelato, and cookies.
We taste some of the black currant vinegar. It’s deep and rich, not unlike good balsamic from Italy. In fact, the proprietors went to Italy to study traditional vinegar making. Unlike many flavored vinegars today that are white vinegar with added favors, they make vinegar from their own organic fruit in a long process that can take two years or more. They even brought back “source vinegar” (also called the “mother vinegar”) from Italy that contains the bacteria necessary for distilling vinegar.
We walk up a hill behind the boutique on a dirt road that’s been used by area farmers and boat captains for 400 years. We enter the vinegar distilling “cave,” a specially-built, heated room with rough cement walls that encourage the bacteria to grow. The air inside the warm, humid room is pungent with the smell of distilling vinegar. Wooden casks of various sizes are lined up on their sides. Each has a cloth covering a hole to let gases escape during distillation
The next room, which is cool, contains several casks from larger to smaller. This is where the vinegar is aged. As the vinegar ages, it’s moved into smaller and smaller casks. In the future, Cass’Isle D’Orléans will sell their artisan vinegars and other currant products and offer visitors an agri-tourism experience that includes tours of the vinegar operation.
Stress-free Foie Gras
By now we’re feeling hungry and we pull into the driveway of a 200-year-old house that’s a table des champs, or country dining establishment unique to Quebec where guests enjoy country-style meals made with products produced right on the farm. As we pile out of our vehicle, a flock of geese set up a honking racket.
Husband and wife, Jacques Legros and Lise Marcotte, are the owners and chefs at Ferme au Gout de Autefois or A Taste of Yesterday Farm and they specialize in humanely-raised duck and goose products. Eight years ago, the couple left their environmental jobs to restore the old farmhouse to its original 1800’s condition, including wide plank floors and walls with grass for insulation.
“We wanted guests to experience how people lived here 200 years ago,” explains Jacques, a thin man with a ready smile and a strong French accent. “We had two guiding principles: respect for animals and the environment and respect for the health of people.”
The couple does everything on the farm themselves, including breeding and raising the ducks and geese, growing organic vegetable gardens, processing the fowl into meat products and foie gras, and preparing and serving all the meals for visitors. They don’t use chemical pesticides, insecticides, or synthetic fertilizers, or gas powered machines, and they raise their fowl without hormones or antibiotics and fatten the birds’ livers for delicate, rich foie gras without the controversial force feeding.
Lise and Jacques apply the same care in their kitchen. They don’t cook with butter or oil and use only duck fat, a mono-unsaturated fat that contains healthy omega-3s and important minerals. To ensure the natural flavors of their foods, they slow cook most dishes and don’t use spices except a bit of sea salt.
When Jacques makes his smoked duck breast, he relies on his AmeriIndian heritage and marinates the meat for 12 hours in maple syrup and ice wine made on the island. Then he smokes it slowly over a maple wood fire.
To make foie gras, they cook the duck for 12 hours at a low temperature and then hand shred only the best meat, chopping it and hand mixing it with duck fat. The result is a product for which many of the best restaurants in Quebec City are willing to pay top dollar.
Our lunch starts with a plate of three egg-sized scoops of foie gras – duck, goose, and wild turkey – served with toasted bread. The meats, all distinctly different, are intensely flavored and dripping with rich duck fat. This is like no foie gras we’ve ever tasted.
Next comes the main course – succulent smoked duck served with Brussels sprouts, yellow and green tomatoes and peppers, and sweet yellow carrots picked fresh this morning. The vegetables have been confited in goose fat.
Despite all the foie gras and duck fat in our lunch, we feel amazingly light and refreshed from our meal. Recently, the Association of Tourism and Agrotourism Gourmand recognized Jacques’ and Lise’s country table and their duck and goose products with an Award of Excellence.
Year round, groups of 10 or can enjoy Jacques’s and Lise’s hospitality (advance reservations) for lunch or dinner. During the summer, couples or individuals can arrange for dinner by calling ahead.
We bid goodbye to Lise and Jacques and head a few minutes down the road to the Bilodeau Cider House, the first and oldest cider house on the island. It’s a family business that’s been operating since 1990. They grow 3,500 apple trees, mainly Jonathan, Macintosh, and Spartan varieties, and make both hard, ice, and sparkling (non-alcoholic) ciders, apple butter, jellies, mustards, and syrup.
We sample a number of their products, including the apple butter and sparkling and ice cider. All of them have an intensely fresh apple flavor. The apple butter, unlike many we’ve tried, isn’t overly spiced, and tastes like a creamy version of apple pie. Their apple syrup, which is a soft pink color and comes in an elegant glass bottle with a glass stopper, has a delicate apple flavor that’s not too sweet. I can imagine this apple syrup on pancakes or French toast.
We tour the cidery, checking out the giant stainless steel tanks and cider pressing equipment. The Cider House produces 25-30,000 bottles of cider every year, including their hard ice cider. Like ice wine, ice cider is produced from apples allowed to freeze on the tree. Because pressing frozen apples extracts just the concentrated sugars and juice and not all the water, the flavor is like biting into a sweet, deeply-flavored apple. It makes an excellent dessert wine. Bilodeau Cider House sells more than half of their cider products at their on-site boutique. The rest sells at the Quebec Farmer’s Market or to area restaurants. To ensure customers can identify that their products come from Orleans Island, Bilodeau products are certified by Savoir-Fair Île d’ Orléans, a voluntary certification process that distinguishes Orleans Island products from those produced elsewhere.
Wondering how we’re going to pack our cider treasures in our suitcase, we load up our bags with apple butter, syrup, jelly, and ice cider and head for our last stop, the Tailleur Sugar Shack (Cabane à sucre I’En-Tailleur), a traditional maple sugar operation that’s been in the same family for nine generations. We’re greeted by Lise Tailleur, who grew up on the land tapping maple trees. Unlike some maple producers who are using unsightly hoses strung between the trees to access the maple water, Tailleur Sugar Shack uses traditional maple taps and buckets.
Sugar maple trees, Lise tells us, must be 25 centimeters (approximately 10 inches) around to be tapped for maple. It takes a tree 40 to 55 years go grow that large, but the tree can be tapped for 200 years.
Every March, they drill a two centimeter hole in each tree and insert a metal spout to which a narrow metal bucket is attached. As the trees thaw in the spring, the sap starts to move and the buckets collect a mixture of sap and water called maple water. Each tree produces six to seven liters of maple water each day.
The water is then cooked down (104 degrees C) into maple syrup. And it takes lot of maple water to make maple syrup. Forty liters of maple water yield one liter of maple syrup and each tree produces only one liter of syrup each season (there’s a reason real maple syrup is expensive!).
If you cook maple syrup down a bit further, you get maple taffy, a delightfully chewy, sweet concoction that’s a favorite of area kids and adults alike. During the mapling season, thick maple syrup is poured onto snow and then “rolled” onto a stick for maple taffy.
Lise pours syrup in strips onto snow that’s been packed into a long metal tray. Each of us takes a fat wooden stick and presses it onto the syrup. When it sticks, we roll stick, forming a nice square of amber colored maple candy that’s delicious.
Tailleur Sugar Shack also has a small maple museum, a shop selling maple products, and a restaurant where, with advance reservations, groups are treated to maple-themed dishes like French toast and maple cured ham and bacon.
The sun is setting and a chill fills the air as we leave Orleans Island and head back across the bridge to the city. Our visit has been full, but we know there’s plenty more to see and do. We’ll be back to Orleans Island, Quebec City’s amazing pantry, very soon.
If You Go
Vignoble Sainte-Petronille (winery) www.vignoblesp.com
Boutique Cass’Isle D’Orléans (vinegar distillery) www.iledorleans.com/eng/artisans/boutique-cassisle-dorleans.asp
Ferme au Gout d’Autrefois (A Farm with a Taste of Yesteryear ) www.augoutdautrefois.qc.ca
Bilodeau Cider House www.cidreriebilodeau.qc.ca/
Cabane à sucre I’En-Tailleur (Tailleur Sugar Shack) www.entailleur.com