Sometimes the old ways are the best ways. In Charlevoix, Quebec, a verdant region along the mighty St. Lawrence River, artisan food purveyors have discovered this wisdom and are turning back the clock to produce traditional foods using old recipes and proven techniques.
Cheese, Flour/Bread, Foie Gras
We’re here in Charlevoix, about an hour’s drive from the capitol of Quebec City, to explore the Flavour Trail, 40 local growers, producers and restaurateurs who use regional products to create artisanal foods. We begin our journey just outside the walkable artist village of St. Paul Bay (Baie-Staint-Paul) under robin’s egg blue skies that complement the blaze of autumn golds and oranges of the surrounding hills.
Our first stop is the cheese shop, La Maison D’Affinage Maurice Dufour. In the 1990’s, agronomist Maurice Dufour traveled to Europe intent on learning the secrets of making traditional cheeses. He uses the milk from his 450 female sheep as well as milk from other area farmers to make his cheeses.
In Dufour’s little tasting room and store, we peer through glass windows into a cavernous room where big yellow wheels of cheese sit aging; in another, rest hunks of blue cheese covered in shiny bronze wrappers.
We gather with other visitors around a table with bite-sized pieces of cheese laid out from mildest to strongest. Le Migneron is a semi-soft, surface-ripened cow’s milk cheese that offers a clean dairy flavor. A blend of sheep and cow’s milk, La Tomme d’ Elles is a firm cheese with sharp notes. La Tomme du Brebis, a surface-ripened cheese with washed rind made from Dufour’s sheep’s milk , is both sharper and dryer. Le Secret de Maurice, a surface ripened cheese made with 100% sheep’s milk, is very soft, almost liquid. It’s got a tangy flavor and a texture that’s sensual on the tongue. Le Ciel de Charlevoix, a blue cheese, is a sheep cheese that’s surface ripened and offers a creamy texture and an assertive earthy flavor. Le Bleu de Bebis, our final sample, is a semi-soft, blue-veined cheese made from regional sheep milk with a firm texture and a mild blue fl
After purchasing a few of our favorite cheeses, we head to Le Remy Flour Mill and Boulangerie. The water-driven stone mill, built in 1826 on the Remy River, operated as a grinding mill from 1826 until the 1950s when the owner installed a turbine and made animal feed. When the miller retired in the late 1980’s, the old mill closed. It stood abandoned, ravaged by time and harsh weather. Then, in 1992, it was purchased by Heritage Charlevoix and underwent a 10-year restoration to return the mill to its former working glory.
Patrick Gosselin, the miller here for the past eight years, came to the job with no previous milling experience and learned the intricacies of water-driven stone grinding “by trial and fire.” Stone milling can be a dangerous job. If the mill spins too fast, the flint grinding stones can produce sparks that can ignite a fire.
Milling with this ancient equipment is as much an art as it is a science. Patrick must constantly listen to the stones and be alert to any unusual vibration or creaking noises. He uses his senses—touching the flour, smelling the air—to know when he needs to adjust his grain mixture, the amount of grain between the stones and the force of water driving the stones.
According to Patrick, most commercial flour, which he calls “dead flour,” is bleached with ammonia and heated to kill any pests, which also kills the nutritional value. This flour also has the germ, the nutrition-packed part of the grain that sprouts into a new plant, and the bran, the fiber-rich outer shell of the grain, removed. In contrast, Patrick’s La Remy flours, made the old fashioned way with only local Charlevoix wheat, contain both the nutritious bran and germ yet are still light and delicious.
As we walk through the door of the boulangerie next door, the fragrant smells of freshly baked bread envelope us. We buy bags of Le Remy flour and a few loaves of bread.
Just north of St. Paul Bay is St. Urain, home to The Basque Farm (Le Ferme Basque) where foie gras, the duck liver pate so prized by foodies, is produced the old fashioned way. French transplants Jean-Jacques Etcheberrigaray and his wife, Isabel Mihura, are “slow duck farmers.” Unlike the super-fast, inhumane way of raising foie gras ducks and geese, at The Basque Farm, Mulard ducks begin their lives in a warm, dry barn and then move to outside “pantries.” They spend their days in the fresh air and sunshine with plenty of room to roam and graze on lush grass. When they’re large enough to be fattened, they move back into the barn for a month and are fed rich, rehydrated corn twice a day.
To finish the fattening, the ducks undergo gavage, a gentle force feeding of extra corn. One at a time, the ducks are held on JJ or Isabel’s lap and a small tube is inserted into the mouth and corn is sent down the throat. The entire process takes just a few seconds and the ducks emerge relaxed and unhurt.
We move into the farm’s boutique to sample their products—uber-creamy foie gras and toothy and rich rilette made from neck and leg meat. It’s some of the best pate I’ve ever eaten and I’m happy to shell out the hefty price to take some home.
Later that night in St. Paul Bay at the Black Sheep Restaurant, I enjoy grilled La Basque Ferme duck breast. It’s incredibly decadent and flavorful, marrying perfectly with the slightly sweet Moroccan sauce.
Island Pork Pie, Milling History, Ciders
The next day, we travel to the tiny village of Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive where we board the free car ferry for a 15-minute ride across the water to Coudres Island (L’Isle-aux-Coudres), 37 square miles of pastoral scenery and small communities named by French explorer Jacques Cartier for the abundant hazelnut trees he found here.
Our growling stomachs let us know it’s lunchtime so we head for Boulangerie Bouchard, a popular bakery and eatery that boasts umbrella picnic tables overlooking the St. Lawrence. Since 1945, this family-owned business has been creating old time dishes, including traditional Charlevoix pork pie and Tarte Grandmère, a simple and delicious tart made with rum, raisins, and butter in a flaky pastry.
In Quebec, meat pie is called “tourtière,” likely after a cooking utensil used to make the pie or from the original ingredient the tourte, or passenger pigeon. Traditional meat pies are served during the dinner or party (Reveillons) held after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. At Boulangerie Bouchard, you can indulge in pork pie anytime.
Under a brilliant sun, my friends and I savor thick slabs of the meaty pie, green salads, and buttery apple pastries.
Our next stop is Les Moulins de L’lsle aux-Courdes, a fascinating milling museum. There’s an 1826 water-driven mill, much like the working mill we visited at Le Remy. There’s also a huge windmill, built in 1836, that uses great arms that turn in the wind to power the grinding stones. We learn that milling using wind power was as complicated, if not more so, than milling with water power. Wind millers not only had to contend with the vagaries of the wine, but they had to watch out because the entire roof the windmill turned depending on the direction of the breezes.
We’re feeling a little thirsty, which is a perfect reason to stop at Ciderie Vergers Pedneault, a cidery where they grow all kinds of apples and other fruits and make ciders and hard ciders. In one room, we explore the history of apples through displays of apple growing and processing equipment. In another, we sample alcoholic and non-alcoholic ciders, some made from apples, others with fruits like pear, plum, Saskatoon berry and blueberry. We also taste ice cider, a special aperitif cider made from frozen apples, that offers an intense apple flavor.
We stroll through the u-pick orchards where they grow 28 different types of apples and five varieties of pears. After helping ourselves to a fresh apple or two, we head back to the ferry and the mainland.
In the evening, we dine at 3 Canards (3 Ducks), another Flavour Trail restaurant that specializes in using local Charlevoix artisan products. We begin our meal with a 3 Canards tradition that harkens back to an older time—grilling bread on an open hearth. We slather thick slices of homemade bread with herbed butter and place them on a grate over the open flame in the fireplace. Within moments, the bread is warm, toasty and delicious.
After a delightfully fresh salad of local greens and a creamy mussel soup, my entrée arrives–locally raised red deer. Grilled to a perfect medium rare, the meat is tender, juicy and incredibly rich. It’s served with buttery La Basque Ferme foie gras and an artisan cedar jelly that lends spicy flavors of the forest.
At the end of our meal, we sip coffee and enjoy traditional Quebec sugar pie with housemade frozen yogurt and milk jam. One of our friends offers a toast: “Here’s to Charlevoix. One of the most delicious places on the planet.” – Story and photos by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor
If You Go
Ed Note: If you do not read French, use the translate function on the sites that are in French.
Flavour Trail Charlevoix www.tourisme-charlevoix.com/en/circuits/flavour-trail
Quebec Tourism www.bonjourquebec.com
The Basque Farm (La Ferme Basque) www.lafermebasque.ca
La Maison D’Affinage Maurice Dufour www.famillemigneron.com
Le Remy Flour Mill and Boulangerie www.moulindelaremy.com
Les Moulins de L’lsle aux-Courdes lesmoulinsdelisleauxcoudres.com
Ciderie Vergers Pedneault vergerspedneault.com
Black Sheep Restaurant www.terroiretsaveurs.com/en/mouton-noir-restaurant-bistro
3 Canards Restaurant www.auberge3canards.com