CHARLEVOIX, QC - We plummet over the edge of the cliff — butterflies in my stomach. I’m on my first-ever helicopter ride and there couldn’t be a more beautiful place for it than this Charlevoix region, just 80 kilometres east of Québec City.
One of the first resort areas in Canada, Charlevoix started attracting wealthy vacationers over two centuries ago. It’s easy to understand why, with its beautiful emerald green hills and valleys rolling up to the Laurentians, and shimmering blue bays on the St. Lawrence. But let’s back up over the precipice for a moment. I’ve come here not for butterflies in my stomach, but to put tasty food in it, and to follow La Route des Saveurs, a food trail with more than 40 participating farmers, food producers and restaurants.
My first stop is at Domaine de la Vallée du Bras, where the owners have taken advantage of the sunny day to set up an outdoor tasting next to an heirloom tomato patch. Not coincidentally, this is the base for their unique product, Omerto, an aperitif tomato wine. Although the original recipe is four generations old, concocted by Pascal Miche’s great-grandfather — who had a bumper tomato crop and some time on his hands — Miche is the first to commercialize it. Of the four types, the Acacia semi-dry, with its citrusy, woody tones is my favourite, and with an alcohol content of 16 per cent, I move on to my next stop with a satisfied glow.
A short drive past picture-perfect farms and verdant pastures is Laiterie Charlevoix Cheese Economuseum. Started as a dairy farm in 1948 by the Labbe family, they began crafting award-winning cheeses soon after, like Le Fleurmier, a decadently rich and creamy soft cheese.
“A mushroom fungus causes the crust that helps preserve it,” says Bob, our guide, as he leads us through the spotless processing facility. Upstairs — in the museum filled with hundreds of dairy-related paraphernalia dating from 1890 — I reminisce about my grandmother when I see glass milk bottles with foil caps.
Left: View of Baie Saint Paul from Auberge des 3 Canards. Right: Helicopter ride exposes beauty of Charlevoix.
Not just proud cheese-makers, Laiterie has also won sustainable development awards for converting whey by-product into energy and for partnering with young farmers to preserve dairy-farming in Charlevoix. I’m starting to recognize how important history and community are to this region.
Next, on the edge of the quaint village of La Malbaie is Fairmont le Manoir Richelieu, the French chateau-style hotel perched atop a cliff. I meet with Executive Chef Patrick Turcot, who describes his food philosophy as a fusion of French culinary basics with the endless supply of local ingredients.
Chef Robert Humphries takes time out of his busy schedule to show me the behind-the-scenes production of their “roots-to-service,” as he describes it. On our way past various fridges, stoves and ovens, he stops to stir a gigantic pot of veal stock. “This important mixture of veal bones, herbs, and veggies must be simmered daily, or there will be no sauces the next day.”
Later, in the lounge, as I appreciate the delicate flavours of the nut-crusted cheese balls and duck charcuterie canapés, I gaze over this particularly wide and picturesque section of the mighty St. Lawrence River and make a note to myself that I must return to participate in one of the Richelieu’s food programs, like the Culinary Iron Chef, where their talented chefs compete to make the best dish using a Charlevoix mystery ingredient.
Dinner is down the road at the rustic Auberge des 3 Canards, and Chef Mario Chabot pulls out all the stops, each dish featuring Charlevoix products and each an objet d’art. My salmon tartare with its cracker crown and micro greens is so stunning that I hesitate to destroy it with my fork.
For an entrée, I order the tender duck confit topped with buttery foie gras. I waddle back to my room through the endearing maze of stairs and hodge-podge hallways, dotted with duck carvings and caricatures.
Left: Executive Chef Turcot sourcing from local ingrediants from a farmer. Middle: Chef Humphries stirring the pot of veal stock at the Fairmont. Right: Salmon tartare at Auberge des 3 Canards.
The next day, I slow things down and hop aboard the Train de Charlevoix. The scenery from my window is exquisite as we wind along the edge of the St. Lawrence and through villages with towering church spires and traditional Québécois architecture. Even on the train, they offer only regional food items like pâtés, rillettes and mousses made from locally-sourced products.
I disembark at L’hôtel Le Germain Charlevoix, my lodging for the evening, unique with its urban bohemian chicness juxtaposed against a pastoral setting of grazing sheep and cows. The in-house restaurant, Les Labours, sources 50 per cent of its herbs and veggies from their own garden in the growing season, and of course, the rest of the ingredients from local suppliers.
My appetizer of glistening, in-house smoked salmon melts in my mouth. My entrée is a delicious coffee-glazed guinea fowl (you guessed it — local), and I can’t say no to a typical Québécois dessert, le pouding chômeur (poor man’s pudding), with its maple sauce goodness oozing over moist chunks of cake.
At the outdoor bonfire pit there are s’more ingredients, and I drink in the feeling of camaraderie amongst the guests as I savour my red wine nightcap.
On my return to Ville de Baie-Saint-Paul the next morning, I walk rows of cages filled with skittish emus at the Centre de L’Emeu. Proprietor Raymond Tremblay, a former dietician, informs me about these fascinating blue-headed birds.
“Their fat has healing and antioxidant properties. And the meat is best served raw, as a tartare or carpaccio, which you will see on several of the local menus. We make charcuteries and pâtés, but most of our production is therapeutic beauty products and oils.”
Back in the helicopter, my pilot, Benoit, points out the craggy circular uplift of mountains and explains this is where a meteorite impacted the Earth 350 million years ago. I have a bird’s-eye view of the farms spread out over this special area, which is now home to the Charlevoix food trail. The food is fantastic, but it’s the people behind the food who really give it heart. For them it’s about sticking to their roots, pride in their products, and sustaining tradition, community and future generations.
No wonder it tastes so good.
Although the Auberge des 3 Canards, the Fairmont and Heli-Charlevoix are open year-round, some of the producers and restaurants close in low-season and are only open by appointment. Be sure to check their websites. / Year round activities make Charlevoix a four season destination: whale-watching in spring, snowmobiling and dogsledding in winter, fall foliage and the Reves d’Automne Arts Festival in autumn, hiking in summer. / For more info go to Tourism Charlevoix www.tourisme-charlevoix.com/en/
If you have a couple of extra days, make Quebec City a starting point. Stay at the historical Auberge Saint Antoine in Old Quebec and go on a guided bike tour with Cyclo Services — there’s lots to see. / For more info go to Tourism Quebec www.quebecregion.com/en/