French Canada prides itself not just on its language but also on the quality of its food - I take the train from Quebec City to the Charlevoix region and explore their Flavour Trail
Poutine could be called the national dish of Quebec, a strange mixture of French fries, cheese curds and gravy. It's something I'm going to try to avoid on my gourmet rail journey from Quebec City to La Malbaie - this will definitely not be the gravy train, rather the gastronomic express. Here's one I ate earlier...
I start by spending a couple of nights in Quebec City to get a flavour of the local food. A good place to get a feel of what's on offer is the local market where producers bring their produce to sell. Much of it comes from the Ile d'Orléans, a few miles away, well worth a visit. Blueberries, wild and cultivated, are a feature here as well as maple syrup.
L'En-Tailleur Sugar Shack has a number of maple trees and I learn that the syrup's only produced in spring - as the trees begin to thaw, the sap starts to rise from the roots and it's tapped from the trunk. The season lasts around 6 weeks and the sap is evaporated to concentrate the syrup - 40 litres down to one. A local delicacy is Taffy - hot syrup is poured onto snow and solidifies to make something like toffee.
As you'd expect, restaurant menus tend to feature this local ingredient but I enjoy excellent maple-free menus at Panache and Chez Boulay in Hotel Manoir Victoria which is also a good central place to stay. If you want to learn to cook with maple syrup then Ateliers & Saveurs runs courses - you start by making cocktails, sweetened by guess what?
Train du Massif
The Train du Massif takes what used to be a freight line from Montmorency Falls to La Malbaie for 140 km, stopping along the way. It's the brainchild of local hero, Daniel Gauthier, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, and follows the St. Lawrence river, wedged between water and wooded cliffs.
Meals are served on the train and I enjoy breakfast. Chef Patrick Turcot, from Fairmont Le Richelieu, is in charge of the railway food and prides himself on using local ingredients. I feast on cinnamon crepes with apples from Isle-aux-Coudres and asparagus frittata topped with a St-Fidèle Swiss style cheese.
Hotel La Ferme
The train's first stop is the town of Baie-Saint-Paul, cultural capital of Canada in 2008, and there's a farmer's market right at the station. Next to it is the Hotel La Ferme, also owned by Daniel Gauthier, newly rebuilt as the original wooden structure burned down in 2007. Chef David Forbes, uses 80% of local ingredients and works wonders in the hotel's Les Labours restaurant. I sit overlooking the kitchen and watch him prepare an exquisite meal - squash soup with cheese curds and curry oil, cheese and chard risotto, turbot on a bed of squash, peas and corn and finally wild blueberry tart.
It's no accident that local producers and restaurants are linked by the Charlevoix Flavour Trail, running 143 km along the coast. I visit cheese factories, a 19th century working water mill, grinding grain for bread, and sample tomato aperitif wine at Domaine de la Vallée du Bras.
The demand for Foie Gras is satisfied by Basque refugees Jean-Jaques Etcheberrigaray and his wife Isabelle. They emigrated here 9 years ago and all products at their Ferme Basque are free range. I can see the Muscovy and Peking ducks wandering around outside and Isabelle tells me that they are only taken inside in the last couple of weeks of their lives. The force feeding is all done by hand and is worlds away from the hated industrial process. I admire her courage for throwing her farm open to everybody and answering questions about this contentious subject. The rest of the duck doesn't go to waste and she supplies surrounding restaurants with the meat.
Next day, I'm catching the train to my final destination of La Malbaie and staying at the historic Hotel Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu. I have fantastic views over the St. Lawrence River but my job is to sample the 7 course menu that Chef Patrick Turcot has prepared.
He explains that this is his 15 mile menu, with nothing coming from further afield. I start with Ferme Basque's Foie and follow it with organic pork belly then there's a tender lamb cutlet with Baie-St-Paul milk lamb sausage. This is a memorable marathon of a meal but every course is delicious and he's planned the portions accordingly.
Patrick's breakfast also features local products - strawberry yogurt with honey from Baie-Saint-Paul and a cheese platter featuring cheeses from two local fromageries Just to work up an appetite, I'm out in the Baie St Catherine for some whale watching and, after the mist has lifted, am rewarded with a tally of 4 Hump Backs, 1 Fin Whale, 1 Minke and a Beluga.
My final resting place is the Auberge des 3 Canards and I start with seared Foie Gras, apple and rhubarb compote with a pistachio crisp. Dodging their famous duck breast I go for a huge portions of sweet breads, flamed in calvados, with parmesan gnocchi, prosciutto and a drip of truffle oil. This is classic French cooking with a Québécois twist and none the worse for that.
The Charlevoix Flavour Trail is plainly a success with over 40 producers and restaurants taking part. The Train du Massif makes it very accessible from Quebec City, itself home to many wonderful restaurants. Baie-Saint-Paul is a delightful town, crammed with boutiques, shops and countless art galleries. It's also has a boucherie, boulangerie, chocolaterie, fumoir, laiterie and its own microbrewery. There's no doubt that the Québécois take their food very seriously indeed - in fact you could say in terms of food they're more French than the French themselves. Long may it continue.
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Air Canada flies to Quebec City via Montreal.
All pictures copyright Rupert Parker