Some 350 million years ago, a massive meteorite plummeted out of the heavens, slammed into Earth and gouged out a giant bowl-shaped crater that today is the remarkably beautiful, fertile region of Charlevoix, Que.
Wedged between the picturesque north shore of the mighty St. Lawrence and the stunning Laurentian Mountains, this UNESCO-designated biosphere is just a little over an hour east of Quebec City, at a place where the river begins the great widening that becomes the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Apart from the stunning natural beauty of the region and the warm hospitality of the people, Charlevoix showcases what culinary agritourism can achieve, both for visitors from around the world (including, recently, several friends and me) and for the sometimes unusual and always entrepreneurial farmers who join in.
The region was named for Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, a Jesuit explorer who arrived in 1705 to become the first historian of New France. By the early 20th century, the area was a thriving summer watering hole for wealthy Americans, including President William Howard Taft who reportedly commented that “breathing the Charlevoix air was like drinking champagne without any morning-after effects.”
The community of La Malbaie (Murray Bay), considered to be the first resort area in Canada, has been home for 120 years to the luxurious Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu that last year hosted G7 leaders at the Global Economic Summit.
Early Charlevoix residents relied on coastal navigation, fishing and small, conventional family farms for their livelihoods. Since then, the economic landscape has diversified. Tourism is now the major economic driver, thanks in large part to the enviable reputation of its high-quality food products and the exceptional restaurants that feature them.
Visitors who choose to take the train from Quebec City not only get a delectable taste of what’s waiting at the end of the line, they can relax while winding through a postcard-pretty countryside that hugs the river all the way.
Daniel Gauthier, co-founder of Le Cirque du Soleil, got his start here, busking in the streets of Baie-Saint-Paul. The innovative entrepreneur is less well known for turning a disused railway line and abandoned railway cars into Le Massif de Charlevoix, a 21st-century version of an old-world train in which the wait-staff serve gourmet food — local, of course — and provide iPads that describe the stunning scenery you’re passing through.
The origins of this viable agritourism scene date back to the early ’80s when several chefs began to work with three or four producers, promoting local foods in their restaurants. “We wanted to add value to Charlevoix’s reputation as a premier holiday destination by creating something unique,” says chef Eric Bertrand, one of the prime movers. “We didn’t see local cuisine as based solely on the chef, but rather on a fifty-fifty association between chefs and local producers, with an emphasis on the unique regional character of the products we had to offer.”
In 1995 these forward-thinking stakeholders, eager to add structure to their vision, formed La Table Agro-Touristique de Charlevoix. Their goal was to foster quality assurance for their products, thereby ensuring the future of agriculture and regional agribusiness. “The impact has been encouraging in the sense that it has allowed producers to stay in the region, selling unique products to local restaurants as well as tourists,” says Bertrand.
Two years on, the group hosted a “Protection of Origin” forum. Specialists from France came to share their expertise. The forum’s vision was to legally protect food products based on their region of origin. This was a first in North America, similar to the popular European model, under which champagne, for example, must be made exclusively from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France. As a result, today’s Certifé Charlevoix guarantees that all certified produce is from the region and that the animals have been raised there.
The forum also gave birth to La Route des Saveurs (The Flavour Trail), a means to showcase local products and encourage tourism.
Experiencing the Flavour Trail
With a bilingual guide book and mapped route in hand, we wind our way along pastoral country roads, past fieldstone farmhouses and through centuries-old villages, each with a silver-spired church, hoping to visit as many of the more than 40 growers and producers as possible. And, as well, stopping at exceptional eateries along the way.
From Baie-Saint-Paul to La Malbaie, foodies can treat themselves to a gastronomic adventure, farmers get to appreciate the potential of small-scale specialized production, and everyone discovers a French-Canadian cultural treasure.
In the small town of Baie-Saint-Paul where Cirque du Soleil began, the creative vibe is palpable. Art galleries, artists’ studios, boutiques and cafés occupy historic buildings along rue Saint-Jean-Benoit, the busy main street.
Here we meet Damien Girard and his wife Natasha McNicoll, owners of Viandes Biologiques de Charlevoix. Girard tells us that the development of the business is a history of his passion.
From an early age, he worked with his father on their ancestral Baie-Saint-Paul farm. “My dad had the greatest respect for the animals and the land. The fundamental values of organic farming marked my childhood,” he says.
After studying agronomy at McGill’s Macdonald College, then working for a couple of years, Girard returned to the family farm, intent on practising sustainable agriculture. In 2001 he and McNicoll founded Charlevoix Organic Meat. They had 15 sows and produced 50 chickens a week. Little by little, the demand for chickens increased. Fresh pork, on the other hand, was more difficult to market until the solution emerged in the form of charcuterie.
After several trips to Europe to learn how to make charcuterie (the French style of cooking that produces prepared meats like bacon, ham, sausage, etc., mainly from pork), Girard returned home to build a 7,000-square-foot processing centre. “Our goal,” he says, “is to produce quality, organic products that reflect the same passion we put into our breeding methods.”
The farm now raises 170 sows and produces 3,500 chickens a week. Their sausages, hams, terrines and rillettes are sold in more than 400 locations across the province. An ardent supporter of La Route des Saveurs, he says, “we have witnessed regions across the province emulating us in promoting local flavours in conjunction with their tourist organizations.”
Just north of Baie-Saint-Paul is Laiterie Charlevoix, where the Labbé family has bred dairy cows since 1948. Today they are famous for their cheese and a dairy herd that includes Vache Canadienne (“Canadian cow”), an endangered breed. The ancestors of the breed, Quebec’s first cows, were brought to Canada in the 17th century by French settlers. Dominique Labbé, head cheesemaker, recognized that the Canadienne’s milk, being high in protein and fat, was ideal for making cheese. Milk from today’s herd is used for their 1608 cheese, named for the year the cows arrived from France.
Touring the facility with Robert Benoît, our gregarious bilingual guide, we see wheels of cheese resting in the ripening room, are overwhelmed by the vast collection of dairy memorabilia in the dairy’s museum, taste a variety of cheeses (including the firm, supple and delicious 1608) and shop for other regional products in the company store.
A short drive away, at Domaine de la Vallée du Bras, we meet Pascal Miche and his wife Lucie Hotte, who produce a tomato aperitif wine that is unique in the world. We visited on a beautiful autumn day when the couple set up an outdoor tasting next to an heirloom tomato patch, where Miche, speaking French, and Hotte, English, brought to life the story of what’s in the bottle.
The wine’s origins go back to Belgium where, in 1938, Miche’s great-grandfather Omer Miche had a bumper crop of tomatoes. Not wanting to waste this bounty, he decided to concoct an alcoholic beverage. For each of the next 20 years, he patiently honed his production methods until he achieved the refined mouthfeel he was looking for. Miche says his great-grandfather, who had a passion for experimenting, never became discouraged. And his recipe never left the family.
Eager for better business opportunities, Miche emigrated to Montreal in 1998. Seven years later, deciding to honour his ancestors’ legacy by creating the coveted tomato wine, the couple moved to Charlevoix. “We were looking for a country property and fell in love with the area,” says Hotte. “It was beautiful, affordable and La Route des Saveurs added to the appeal.”
Procuring a permit to commercially produce an 18 per cent alcoholic beverage using tomatoes took an excruciating eight years. “Can you believe, we had to convince the authorities that the tomato is a fruit and worthy of becoming a wine!” In honour of his great-grandfather, he chose the name Omerto.
“Originally, my great-grandfather used only one variety of tomato.” Experimenting with Quebec’s 16 heirloom varieties, Miche began fine-tuning his product. Today the couple grows more than 6,000 heirloom plants. Although the recipe is still a closely held family secret, freezing the fruit to bump up the sugar is part of the process. Production has soared to over 50,000 bottles per year, available on global markets and through la Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ).
Danielle Ricard and Jean-Pierre Lavoie, owners of Champignons Charlevoix are another couple who have carved out an enviable place in the agri-food industry here. Ricard grew up in the area. She left to continue her studies, dreaming of becoming an artist in New York City. In 2000 at age 40, she returned with her husband, buying her father’s winter cabin at the foot of Mont Grand-Fonds, farther north along La Route on Route 381.
They had no idea what they would do to make a living but were impressed with Charlevoix’s exceptional food reputation. Ricard tells the story of taking a stroll one day. “Jean-Pierre kicked a mushroom on the path, and the idea hit us both — at the same instant — we would grow oyster mushrooms.”
Nobody in Quebec had succeeded in growing oyster mushrooms, but Ricard, her entrepreneurial spirit kicking into high gear, was up for a challenge. “For me ‘can’t,’ is a ‘can,’” she says, adding that they never lost their patience nor their dream, and they worked “very, very hard.”
Today Champignons Charlevoix produces between eight and 10 tons of oyster mushrooms annually, transforming 95 per cent into marinades and pestos. Two years ago, they built a commercial kitchen which, along with their greenhouses, results in a 4,000-square-foot facility.
“La Route des Saveurs is enormously important to us,” Ricard says. “We don’t have a distributor and we don’t sell outside the province. It is the route map that brings more than 5,000 visitors annually.”
We are awed by the diversity of initiatives. Farther along the Trail is the largest emu farm in Canada, built entirely of recycled materials and managed by Raymonde Tremblay. Over 400 birds, raised without antibiotics or hormones, produce the meat and oils that she sells.
At La Ferme Basque de Charlevoix, Isabelle Mihura and Jean-Jacques Etcheberrigaray raise ducks the traditional way, letting them roam free in the fields, which results in superior quality meat and foie gras.
The picturesque farmstead owned by Louise Vidricaire that dates back to 1844 is home to Azulée, an organic lavender farm where you can buy culinary and scented lavender in many forms in the petite boutique.
Every summer, 20,000 people stop in at Boulangerie Bouchard to pick up the best seller, tarte au sucre (sugar pie) or the lesser known but equally tasty pets de soeurs (you have to look up the translation for yourself).
“The Charlevoix Flavour Trail is all about the shared love and passion we all have for our produce and amazing natural products,” says Félicia Corbeil-Labbé of Tourisme-Charlevoix. “And then there’s the wonderful things our chefs do in their restaurants. We’re very proud of the tastes of our region.”
Despite the diversity of the producers and chefs along this trail, they all enjoy welcoming visitors and sharing their stories — and they have created an exceptional way to explore this remarkable region through its food and drink.
If you go
Where to stay:
- Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu, La Malbaie — luxurious château
- Auberge des Trois Canards, La Malbaie — charming country inn
Hotel & Spa Le Germain Charlevoix, Baie-Saint-Paul — chic and ultra-modern
Where to eat:
- Le Diapason, Baie-Saint-Paul — fine Alsatian cuisine
- Chez Cruchon, La Malbaie — bistro with a vibe
- Mousse Café, Baie-Saint-Paul — cosy café with a kids’ play area