The grass is always greener on the far side of the pond. How else to explain why Quebecers took so long to discover their own foods and wines, the tastes of their own terroir? For decades, gourmands and housewives alike seemed to think that the chic thing to eat was anything French, sprinkled with Périgord truffles, cooked by a Parisian chef and paired with a Bordeaux or a Bourgogne. And then, slowly, a small revolution began.
Quebec producers were first thrown into the limelight with the help of chef Normand Laprise, owner of Toqué—critically acclaimed as Montreal’s top restaurant. A skilful marketer, Laprise found that his menu, which featured ingredients from small local farms, always got a lot of press. “I discovered early the magic of a cuisine based on the freshest local products,” he says. “My search for the best ingredients and the farmers who could supply them began in the nineties, when the Quebec terroir wasn’t yet in vogue.” Close ties to France and French cooking haven’t gotten any weaker—but gourmet imports are now sharing the spotlight with new local darlings. Laprise believes this potential was always there, but chefs were simply accustomed to frozen products flown in from Europe.
Who knew what a difference a few years could make! Encouraged by visionary chefs like Laprise—who put in special orders for specific, hard-to-find vege-tables, herbs or cuts of meat—Quebec farmers rose to the challenge. Since the mid-nineties they have been constantly improving the quality and the variety of their products. “Luckily, the timing was perfect. Montrealers were ready to taste locally grown foods, which enabled us, the chefs, to support the growing businesses of the farmers, who in their turn were always very open to our demands, and ready to try new things,” explains chef Martin Picard. He owns Au Pied de Cochon, a highly praised newcomer to the Montreal restaurant scene, which specializes in—surprise!—typical Quebec dishes served with a modern twist. Picard cooks classics like the infamous poutine (fries topped with gravy and melted cheese curds, or foie gras in his recipe) using an estimated eighty percent of Quebec ingredients.
Evidently, harsh winters are the only obstacle to a faster development of the Quebec terroir. “We favour local products, but because of the winters, we must bring in some of it from abroad,” Picard says. Toqué’s Laprise agrees: “The terroir is one of my priorities, but everything must be fresh, which means that I end up buying a lot of fish from Maine or even Seattle, for example. I constantly seek the best ingredients, which aren’t always available here, which forces me to work with an expanded terroir.”
These days Laprise is enthusiastic about what he calls “an incredible boom, brought about by the curiosity and open spirit of diners.” These adventurous diners seem never to tire of tasting local meats and cheeses, showcased also at other top restaurants, like Chez L’Épicier and La Chronique. Many of these restaurants made sure the public noticed their efforts to track down the best small farms by mentioning producers’ names on the menus. Eventually, even neighbourhood bistros and gourmet delis began advertising quiches made with Migneron de Charlevoix cheese or organic greens grown locally. When Brome Lake duck started popping up on menus as often as New Zealand lamb or Alberta beef, it was clear the trend was in full force. It had spread swiftly, with a helping hand from foodie magazines such as Gourmet, which last September heralded the area of Brome Lake and Missiquoi (forty minutes east of Montreal) as “a sort of nascent Napa …, a small paradise for the palate.”
Fortunately, the trend is showing no signs of slowing down. Instead, the fruit of local farms has grown to become a trademark of Montreal’s best tables. Discerning tourists now visit the city expecting to sample food from all corners of the province, especially Quebec’s excellent pork, duck, veal and wild mushrooms, paired with sauces often laced with ciders from the Eastern Townships or cassis from the Île d’Orléans. In the summer they can even taste the excellent and hard to come by fish and fruits de mer from the gulf of the St. Lawrence River, a specialty at Au Pied de Cochon.
And if a mere two years ago these tourists had nowhere special to buy Quebec wines, raw-milk cheeses or pâtés to take home with them, since the summer of 2000 they have been getting it all at the Marché des Saveurs du Québec, a shop adjacent to the Jean Talon market, the city’s largest. “We did a market study before opening, which showed a clear demand for what we call ‘niche products,’ so we went on an exhaustive province-wide search for small producers that could supply them,” says co-owner Antonio Drouin. Local wines can also be found in the Atwater market at the brand new Terroirs d’Ici, operated by the Société des alcools (SAQ), the Quebec liquor corporation. The SAQ is a wineselling monopoly owned by the provincial government, yet surprisingly enough, this is its first branch ever to specialize in Quebec wines (racy whites and bubblies are best) and ciders. More stores are on the way, says SAQ spokesperson Linda Bouchard.
Some visitors, of course, go beyond restaurant-hopping in Montreal or Quebec City and actually explore the terroir itself, eager to taste terrines and jellies right at the source. Local tourist boards have drafted fold-out maps of wine routes (with matching signs on highways), and a cheesemakers’ association drew their own Gourmand Road of Fine Cheeses. These are handed out by the thousands come summer. So the foodies keep coming, in ever growing numbers, for some winery-hopping and lots of tastings. Like the group of twenty-five Americans brought each year to the Charlevoix region by the Smithsonian Institution’s Journeys program to eat well and visit farmers. “All those small producers lend to fabulous culinary experiences,” explains Susan Inge, the coordinator who first put together this foodie trip five years ago. It has sold out every time.
Quebec has many terroirs within its borders, each region—Charlevoix, Bas-Saint-Laurent, Montérégie, etc.—with its own tastes and specialties. I first discovered them through their cheeses. It was at Hovey Manor, an inn with a top-rated restaurant in North Hatley, a little jewel of a town southeast of Montreal, in the Eastern Townships. At the end of dinner, I heard the squeaky wheels of a little wooden cart moving toward me, and an elegant waiter asked if I would like to taste their cheese selection—one of the largest in the province.
I marvelled at the waiter’s detailed description of all the cheeses, artfully arranged on vine leaves made of paper. Some soft and runny, others semi-hard and two or three creamy blues, which gave off an earthy, pungent smell. And to think that only in the last four years had they introduced a significant count of Quebec cheeses to the cart! Originally, the entire selection came from France. Now, it’s about half and half. Local varieties often include an ethereal goat’s cheese by the Chaput family, moulded into a pyramid; the award-winning blue made by monks at a beautiful abbey not far from North Hatley, in Saint-Benoît-du-Lac; and my favourite, the unctuous triple cream Le Riopelle de l’Isle, an artisanal raw-milk dream from the Isle-aux-Grues, east of Quebec City.
The Riopelle, along with the Pied-de-Vent from the Madeleine Islands (north of Quebec City) and the Migneron of Charlevoix, is a bestseller at Fromagerie Hamel, one of Montreal’s top cheesemongers. “With all the magazine articles and TV programs showing how the quality of Quebec cheeses has improved, Montrealers finally started preferring them over French ones,” says Ian Picard. He studied in France to become the shop’s affineur, learning how to carefully age cheeses in cool cellars until they reach their peak. “There has been a clear change in habits,” he says. Quebec cheeses are now flying off the shelves much faster than French ones. Picard seems thrilled and a little surprised by the hike in demand for Quebec cheeses and the unexpected journalists knocking at his doors. Let’s just hope the Migneron and the Pied-de-Vent keep on selling after the journalists disappear, chasing after the next foodie trend.