The first produce market I visited in Canada was the impressive Marché Jean-Talon in Montreal, a wonderland of fruit, vegetables and other produce, plus a paradise of specialist food shops and delis. I’ll be writing more about my non-market food finds in Montreal soon, but next I want to tell you about the next destination (and food market) to win my affections.
Quebec City lies just 160 miles North East of Montreal, also on the banks of the St Lawrence River. I journeyed between the two by train, taking VIA Rail’s comfortable direct service from the heart of one city to the other. Next time I’d like to drive the whole stretch, to better appreciate the beautiful scenery and small towns along the route.
Whereas Montreal offers a energising mix of old French and English plus modern North American culture, architecture and language, Quebec City is altogether more French. The old French architecture is spread more widely around town, French is the dominant language spoken, and one could easily imagine oneself back in a corner of France, culturally-speaking. Of course, it’s a modern city too, but its heart is a little piece of France in North America. It’s an enchanting place to visit.
You’ve probably already realised how much I’m drawn to food markets and Marché du Vieux-Port de Québec is another fabulous example, located directly opposite the Gare du Palais, the city’s central station.
Under cover, the market is open all year round. It sells produce direct from the farmers and artisan produce is often sold by the people who make it. You will find fruit and vegetables, meat products, maple syrup, cheese, charcuterie, jam, sweets and more. Stall holders are friendly and happy to answer your questions about their products.
Though I’ve jumped in to tell you about the market first, I actually visited just before leaving Quebec City; taking the train back to Montreal before flying down to Toronto for the next segment of my trip. Before that, I discovered the other attractions of the city and surrounding area.
On my arrival at Quebec City Gare du Palais (train station), I was met by local tour guide Michelle Demers. We headed straight out of the city to Île d’Orléans, a large island located in the river just off the shores off Quebec City. Accessed from the city via a narrow road bridge, the island retains a feeling of rural peace and detachment. Though some residents do commute to the mainland for work, the island’s primary industry is farming, and much of the landscape is put to agriculture. We spent a lovely afternoon driving a circuit of the island, enjoying the pretty villages along the main road and the stunning views of the river and mainland to both sides.
Michelle told me a little about the history of the area – the island was one of the first areas of the province settled by early French colonists and many French Canadians trace their ancestry back to the settlers of that period. The island was also occupied by the British during the Seven Years’ War (1755 and 1764), after which Britain took ownership of much of what had previously been known as New France, in North America. In the 19th and 20th Century the island also became known for it’s boat building, and developed a thriving fishing industry, both of which have declined in the last eighty years.
One of the joys of exploring the Île d’Orléans are the farm gate stalls along the roadside, from which local farmers sell produce to passers by. Some are manned, others operate on the honesty box system. All were piled high with beautiful fruit and vegetables of the season.
We stopped in at Cassis Mona, a family business specialising in blackcurrant products including a range of delicious wines, vinegars, syrups, jams and sweets. You can taste before you buy, and I wish I had more space in my luggage to bring back a treat or two.
My favourite stop on the island was at a cheese dairy, one that has won awards for its high quality cheese. One of their cheeses, La Faiselle de l’Isle d’Orléans, is the fresh version of the very first cheese made in North America. I loved it fresh with maple sugar and pressed, squeaky like halloumi and served hot from the pan.
One of the most famous products of Canada is maple syrup and Michelle told me about the traditional sugar shacks of the region. In times past, the season for harvesting and processing maple sap was short, and producers called in their extended families to help during the busiest period. The sap must be harvested and cooked down to make the syrup we know and love. Food traditionally cooked and served to workers during the harvest have become a nostalgia-inducing comfort food for locals and a tourist attraction for visitors. Serving up the kind of hearty food enjoyed for generations, sugar shacks also teach visitors about the traditional production process and let them enjoy snow taffy – maple syrup that has been reduced to a thicker consistency than usual is poured onto fresh snow where it quickly starts to solidify and can easily be wrapped around a stick to eat as a chewy lolly. These days, shacks use shaved ice made in modern freezers to replicate the snow taffy experience even when it’s warm and sunny outside.
During my visit to Quebec City I stayed at the Auberge Place d’Armes, a beautiful French-style inn with an unbeatable location. My room was utterly gorgeous, one of the most charming of my trip, and service from the front desk was helpful and genuine. I appreciated the voucher for a sweet treat which I was invited to choose from the crepe stand in the cathedral grounds opposite or the ice cream shop beneath the auberge. Delicious ice cream, which I ate perched on the window ledge in the ice cream parlour, watching people walking by.
From my room windows I looked out onto the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and the famous and enormously grand Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. There’s a wide wooden boardwalk that extends from the chateau – a lovely walk on a sunny day.
The auberge was also just steps away from the furnicular down to the pretty Quartier Petit Champlain, an area full of cafes, restaurants and tourist shops. The central square here was rebuilt to original plans and is a beautiful place to stop for a hot chocolate or coffee.
I particularly enjoyed several modern art installations around the Petit Champlain area and further afield in the city.
I only had a short time in Quebec City, as I also made a visit to Huron-Wendat to visit the museum, hotel, restaurant and visitor facility; these collectively showcase the culture, traditions, food and hospitality of the Huron first nation. More on that in a future post.
Next time I visit (and I will definitely go back!) I hope to explore more of the city’s many attractions, including world-class art galleries, beautiful parks and excellent restaurants.