Quebec: Into the melting pot

Quebec’s willingness to embrace its multicultural past is allied to a fierce pride in its bountiful natural landscape. On a road trip between the Canadian province’s two main cities, Quebec City and Montreal, this vibrant synergy shines through.

By Quebec Original
Published 2 Jul 2019, 14:23 BST
Place Jacques Cartier, Montreal
Place Jacques Cartier, Montreal.
Photograph by Toursime Montreal, Stephan Poulin

François Pellerin picks up the pastry, places it on his palm and looks at it intently; an artist scrutinising his work. Handmade and baked just hours earlier, it’s a perfect crescent shape and beautifully golden. Satisfied, he tears off a crispy corner and pops it in his mouth. “Taste the butter,” he tells me, as I devour my own. “It comes from the countryside here in Quebec. You can taste the land — and our heritage
— in that one bite.”

I’m at François’ bakery and cafe, Le Garde-Manger de François, in Chambly, a suburb 14 miles east of Montreal. A couple of bikes are propped outside — the La Route Verte cycling trail, linking most of the regions of Quebec, passes nearby — and locals sit at tables sipping their morning coffee and reading newspapers. 

Le Garde-Manger de François was established by French baker François Côte in 1896; its first customers were mostly soldiers from the British Army, which seized Chambly from the French in 1760. The Franco-British mix is everywhere: there’s an Anglican church less than a mile from the cafe, while the Chambly Road was built by the original French occupiers in 1665. 

This once-strategic thoroughfare, which links the St Lawrence and Richelieu Rivers, is also Canada’s oldest, and as I wander back to my car, I’m struck by how history and modern life intertwine here — often resulting in the most fabulous food.

I’m on my own road trip through Quebec. My route — which begins in Quebec City and winds through the countryside to Montreal — sandwiches the slower pace of rural life between two vibrant cities. 

A stroll through history

Arriving first in Quebec City, I go for a walk around the Old Town. Split into Upper Old Town — perched on the Cap Diamant cliffs above the St Lawrence River — and Lower Old Town, with its waterfront and fortifications, this is the only existing walled city north of Mexico. It’s full of museums, cobblestone streets and architecture that speaks volumes about the city’s heritage.

Most visitors head straight to Upper Town, with its City Hall and the turret-laden Château Frontenac (said to be the world’s most photographed hotel), but Lower Town is the place to start. After all, this is where Samuel de Champlain, known as the Father of New France, established the first French foothold in Quebec in 1608. 

Poutine, Quebec’s unofficial signature dish.
Photograph by Alamy

A five-minute stroll from my hotel, Auberge Saint-Antoine, is Place Royale, where de Champlain founded his first settlement. It was painstakingly restored in the 1980s, and now the pretty square is home to bars, restaurants and art galleries. Just behind it, I find Samuel himself, staring at me from his painted position alongside some of the city’s best-known writers, artists and politicians in the Fresque des Quebecois, a giant mural that traces 400 years of the city’s history.

Quebec City is a brilliant walking city, and wandering through the Old Town feels strangely familiar. The artists’ alley, Rue du Tresor, reminds me of Montmartre in Paris, while the Irish pubs on Saint-Jean-Baptiste (the best area for nightlife) could be straight out of Dublin. 

“Europeans feel at home here,” my guide, Michelle, tells me. “Everywhere you look you see a mixture of French and British influence in the architecture.”

As we walk through Petit Champlain, a charming neighbourhood of narrow streets lined with independent boutiques and bistros, Michelle points out the British colonial-era brick buildings that rub shoulders with the stone houses the French built. 

We pass the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, with its beautiful spire and bell tower — modelled on that of London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields. When it was completed in 1804, at a time when Canada was still under British rule, it was the first Anglican cathedral to be built outside of the British Isles. A few minutes later, we’re outside the Parliament Building, home to the National Assembly of Quebec; it has a touch of the Louvre about it, and Michelle tells me that it was, indeed, inspired by the elegant Parisian palace.

Heading west, we reach the Plains of Abraham, a national park with superb views over the St Lawrence River. It’s a popular spot for runners, and hosts an annual summer music festival, but in 1759, during the Seven Years’ War, this was the site of the decisive Battle of Quebec, during which the British army, led by General James Wolfe, defeated the French. “That was a pivotal moment in Canadian history and put Quebec on the map globally,” Michelle explains. “The British victory here led to the creation of North America as we know it today.”

Life in the early French colonies is depicted in art form at the Musee national des beaux-arts du Quebec, which, as it so happens, also has an excellent restaurant. I feast on tuna tataki salad while gazing at the Plains of Abraham park and the Appalachian Mountains beyond.

The Old Lower Town, Quebec City.
Photograph by Alamy

After a morning on my feet, I head to the city’s newly opened Strøm Spa Nordique to try its Scandinavian-style thermal experience. The saunas, steam baths and outdoor pools (both warm and cold) with river views are both impressive and relaxing, but the bistro also merits a visit of its own. The dishes are true works of art and taste phenomenal, with everything from Asian-inspired marinated sturgeon to Mexican-style vegan tempeh chili on the menu. 

“Quebec cuisine is focused on fresh, local products, lots of flavours and different cultures,” head chef Raphaël Podlasiewicz tells me. “We’re trying to bring the outside inside, so we use seasonal products and sustainably sourced meat and fish. People want to know where their food comes from.” 

Working with local foraging companies, Raphaël uses ingredients from the surrounding land, such as rosehip, seaweed and wild plum, to enhance his menu. 

Quebec’s landscape is rich not only in food (the province produces about 70% of the world’s maple syrup) but also in beauty; something I discover the next day when I leave Quebec City. While my final destination is Montreal — a 160-mile trip that can be done in three hours via the Trans-Canada Highway — first I have the southern regions of Centre-du-Quebec, Eastern Townships and Monteregie to explore, with their sweeping stretches of countryside and charming locals.

“Home to one of North America’s most exciting food scenes, Montreal is a place where you can find a variety of cuisines — everything from Italian to Indian, Japanese to Jamaican”

The Jacques-Cartier National Park is certainly worth the diversion, and vast mountain vistas soon unfold through my windscreen. Next up is Wendake, a village just north of Quebec City and where at a First Nations reserve I sip Labrador tea — said to cure a cough — in a traditional long house with open fires and draped animal pelts. We warm our hands over the flames as our guide, wearing moccasin boots and a robe with a tasselled belt, regales us with a traditional song to the rhythmic beat of a small drum. 

Between songs, he tells us stories. The Huron-Wendat community believes that, in the beginning, the world was made up only of water. One day, a divine woman fell from the sky. Injured and alone, she hauled herself up onto a turtle’s back, but the animal knew she needed land to live on, so he called all the sea creatures to him, instructing them to dive to the seabed to retrieve some mud. Gradually, the woman built herself more and more land until the whole Earth was created. 

The next day, in the small town of Warwick, around halfway between Quebec City and Montreal, I park my car outside a 150-year-old church saved from demolition by Jean Morin, who transformed it into the Fromagerie du Presbytère cheese factory. Where the congregation once sat, Jean ages his award-winning Louis D’or — a firm cow’s milk cheese with a taste akin to Parmesan. “It’s important to conserve the church for the history of Quebec — plus it’s perfect for the cheese,” he grins.

Montreal street scene.
Photograph by Tourisme Montreal

Cheese is, of course, a key ingredient in Quebec’s most famous dish: poutine. To Brits, this is cheesy chips and gravy, but the gooey dish we demolish on drunken nights out has nothing on this Quebecois version, and the locals are passionate about it. I get tips on what makes a good poutine from everyone from a guard at Quebec airport (“The cheese needs to be squeaky. That’s essential.”) to the cocktail maker at W Montreal hotel, my base for the final stage of my trip. “It’s all about the gravy,” he says. “It needs to be thick and piping hot so all the cheese melts.”

And from cheese to beer; the next leg of my journey takes me to the Eastern Townships region, on the border with Vermont in Southern Quebec. The area produces some of the province’s finest wine, and there are a number of wine routes to follow. More recently, a number of microbreweries have emerged — 15, to be precise. In Sutton, a charming town close to the Mont Sutton ski area, I sample an array of local beers at À L’Abordage Microbrasserie, a microbrewery housed inside a New England-style timber-clad building dating back to 1843. 

Cedrik Poitras, the 28-year-old co-owner and head brewer takes a break from his brew kettles to explain why he set the place up. “Sutton is a cool town, and there are lots of young people, especially during the ski season,” he says. “But it was missing something — a place to chill and drink good beer made on site.” Cedrik produces eight beer varieties, including his best-selling creamy stout, Captain Hook. It’s just as well there’s plenty to do in the area to burn off the calories, from classic activities like kayaking to the slightly more bizarre; cycling through the treetops on a recumbent, pedal-powered zip-line at Au Diable Vert, for example. 

In Rougemont, 20 minutes outside Chambly, I pass apple orchards and pause for a tour and tasting at Michel Jodoin’s family-run cider house. His great-grandfather began making cider from his modest orchard as far back as 1901, and when Prohibition struck from 1918 to 1920, simply carried on from his basement. Now, the cider house has around 20,000 trees and claims to be Canada’s first apple microdistillery, producing roughly 500,000 bottles a year, including a sweet, award-winning rose ice cider.

Jean Morin at his cheese factory.
Photograph by Ellie Ross

A taste for culture 

After all this liquid refreshment, it’s time to eat. Luckily, my final port of call, Montreal — home to one of the most exciting food and cultural scenes in North America — is a place where a galavanting gourmand like myself can expect to find everything from Italian to Indian, Japanese to Jamaican. The Mile End district, a former industrial area where artistic communities have sprung up, is where you’ll find the new spirit of Montreal — and some of its best restaurants. To get a taste for it, I head out with Local Montreal Food Tours, starting from La Panthère Verte — a vegan restaurant serving falafel and tahini wraps in a room full of plants and former factory tables. 

As we walk, my guide, Caroline, explains the role food plays in Montreal’s ethnic communities, whose culinary contributions are found in the shops, cafes and restaurants — everything from Portuguese rotisseries to French bakeries — that line the streets. “There’s a multicultural mix in the cuisine that we’re fiercely proud of,” Caroline says.

The central part of Boulevard Saint-Laurent — dubbed The Main by locals — is where the greatest concentration of ethnicities is found, including a large Jewish population that fled the pogroms of late 19th-century Russia. Our next stop is St-Viateur Bagel, a Jewish bakery that’s been making its bagels in the same way since 1957. 

As we arrive, Pedro Benitez is rolling the dough into rings at breakneck speed. Thinner than their New York counterparts, Montreal bagels are poached in honey water before being baked in a wood-fired oven — making them golden and chewy — before being topped with sesame seeds. Montrealers eat them fresh out of the bag, with a scraping of cream cheese. “We make a thousand bagels a day,” Pedro says proudly. “They’re the best in the world.” 

In this food-fixated city, it comes as no surprise there are several festivals dedicated to the stuff. I’m in town during the event MTL à Table, where, over the course of 11 days, restaurants offer a three-course, set-price evening menu for $23-$43 (£14-25). I try out La Champagnerie, where I tuck into Quebec delicacies such as dory from Saint Pierre Lake and pork belly from Gaspor. It’s fine-dining fare — and utterly delicious — but for a slice of the usual price. 

The dishes I’m served wouldn’t be out of place on the menu of a Michelin-starred Parisian restaurant, but there’s also a real edginess to this place, with exposed brick walls and tattooed waiters. As I tuck into my fish, watching barmen with hipster moustaches and open bow ties pour glasses of fizz, it strikes me that this restaurant is a microcosm of Quebec: a historical French finesse — served with a side of Canadian flare.

Beaver lake, Mont-Royal.
Photograph by Getty Images


Getting there & around
Air Canada flies daily between Heathrow and Montreal with onward connections to Quebec City.

Air Transat and British Airways also fly daily between Heathrow and Montreal. From there, it’s a three hour drive to Quebec City.  

Average flight time: 7h25m

When to go
Summer is the best time to visit, with temperatures hovering around 21C, but May, September and October are ideal for pleasant weather and smaller crowds. Temperatures drop to below freezing in winter, but Quebec City’s Winter Carnival in February is spectacular, just make sure to pack for cold temperatures (as low as -15C).  

More info
Quebec has around 200 tourist information points where visitors can find expert advice and get help with planning their stay. 

How to do it
Various tour operators offer bespoke Quebec packages, including Trailfinders, Wexas and Canadian Affair

For more information on Quebec visit: Southern QuebecMontreal or Quebec City

Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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