An hour northeast of Quebec City is the region of Charlevoix — a world apart where mountain, forest and field follow the course of the Saint Lawrence River, unfurling in a picturesque landscape dotted with small villages and family farms. In addition to the gorgeous scenery, the riches of Charlevoix are expressed wonderfully on the table, in a cuisine that draws on a tradition of creativity and a larder of distinctive ingredients.
The region of Charlevoix extends from the boundaries of Quebec City along the northern shore of the St Lawrence as far as the Saguenay River, bookended by the charming settlements of Baie Saint Paul and La Malbaie. The heart of the region is a pastoral valley created some 400 million years ago by a massive meteorite strike that pounded a section of the High Laurentian Mountains into a ladle-shaped bowl, creating a uniquely fertile pocket in an otherwise challenging agricultural environment. Today, the Route des Saveurs (Flavour Trail) is a network of independently owned farms, artisanal food producers, and restaurants who showcase the gastronomic delights of Charlevoix, reaping the benefits of that lucky strike.
The town of Baie Saint Paul, nestled in a bend of the St Lawrence, is picture-postcard pretty, its narrow main street lined with centuries-old houses now home to boutiques, restaurants, antique shops and an inordinate number of art galleries. Baie Saint Paul has long been a magnet to artists (including members of the Group of Seven) attracted by the area’s genteel landscapes and luminous northern light. Today it is a cultural hub with an established artistic community enlivened by young entrepreneurs.
My lodging in Baie St Paul, Maison Otis, has just undergone a major refurbishment that preserves the original 1863 farmhouse while adding a modern wing of elegant rooms, the whole united by the theme of local art and artists. I’m told that this town of 9,000 souls has the highest number of art galleries per capita in all of Canada.
Across the street from the handsome Catholic church, Église de Baie-Saint-Paul, is Le Diapason, a cosy bistro serving regional cuisine and specialties from Alsace. The restaurant is a member of the Route des Saveurs and tonight summer tomatoes feature in a fresh gazpacho, with a crisp shard of locally made prosciutto as a jaunty garnish. Ravioli follows, stuffed with lobster and salmon, topped with a tangle of baby arugula. The showpiece is a shoulder of kid, slowly braised in Labrador Tea until meltingly tender. On this warm night, the French doors of the ancestral house are open to admit the evening breeze, with a tang of salt on the air carried from the distant Atlantic.
The following day I met the woman who raised that kid for the table. Sophie Talbot and her partner Michel Nicole farm goats and highland cattle against a dramatic backdrop of Charlevoix mountains. Their beef (the cows enjoy a diet enriched by mash from a local brewery) and goat meats are highly prized by the handful of local chefs who have managed to secure a supply for their restaurant kitchens. There’s a little farm store where Sophie sells her homemade sausages, cretons, pâtés and fabulous goat rillettes. Ferme Caprivoix is one of some 22 agritourism operations (among them an emu farm, sheep cheese dairy, duck ranch, lavender farm and the world’s only producer of tomato wine) on the Route des Saveurs that welcome visitors at varying times during the region’s year-round tourism season. An additional 55 restaurants and food producers are found along the route, which meanders through a compact, 60-kilometre area, making it easy for tourists to plot a day trip or weekend jaunt.
The tourism industry in Charlevoix owes much to the ingenuity of three local boys, Gilles Ste-Croix, Guy Laliberte and Daniel Gauthier, whose busking career in Baie St Paul would lead to the foundation of the world famous Cirque du Soleil. Gauthier has given back much to the community, establishing a renowned ski resort at Le Massif and building the ultramodern Le Germain de Charlevoix hotel in Baie St Paul. The hotel sits on the site, and honours the legacy, of what was once the largest wooden farm in Canada, operated during the nineteenth century by the nuns of les Petities Franciscaines de Marie. At the hotel’s market-driven Les Labours restaurant, I savoured a late breakfast of farmhouse bacon with a rich potato casserole laced with Migneron de Charlevoix cheese, while looking out over the fields in which the nuns had toiled. Their tradition of self-sufficiency lives on at le Germain, with 60 perecnt of the vegetables used in the hotel kitchens being grown on the farm.
Next door to the hotel is a railway station where you can board Le Train de Charlevoix, a vintage railcar that follows the shoreline of the St Lawrence for 125 kilometres, passing (via two tunnels and over 900 bridges and culverts) through a mesmerizing and otherwise inaccessible landscape. The views of the great St Lawrence waterway, known by the native people of the region as magtogoek, the Mighty River, and the quaint historic villages that hug its banks, are unparalleled.
La Malbaie, eastern terminus of Le Train de Charlevoix, was one of the earliest resort towns in eastern North America, attracting wealthy Americans exchanging the heat of summer in New York and Philadelphia for the scenery and fresh air of Charlevoix. William Howard Taft, who would go on to become a president of the United States, came here as a boy and returned throughout his life, bringing members of high society with him. Until the 1960s the resort was only accessible by water, with visitors arriving in the port of La Malbaie on the white vessels of the Canada Steamship Line. The elegant summer cottages of the Americans, with their manicured gardens and views of the bay, are now some of the most sought-after addresses in La Malbaie.
Nestled in the countryside not far from La Malbaie is La Maison du Bootlegger, an unusual restaurant whose past as a speakeasy during Prohibition has been preserved in a museum-like collection of rooms furnished as they were in the period and linked by a network of secret doors and passageways. Elvis Presley, whose wife Priscilla’s family hailed from across the river in Kamouraska, was one of many celebrities who have enjoyed the discreet comforts of Bootlegger’s hidden rooms. These days, beneath heavy wooden rafters in the attic of the 1860s farmhouse, guests can tuck into a hearty menu of meats cooked on an antique grill. In the evening the space transforms into a lively supper club featuring live music from co-owner and Quebec rock ‘n roller Joey Tardif.
I end my visit to Charlevoix with a taste of the good life at Le Manoir Richelieu, a magnificent pile built on a bluff in La Malbaie with a commanding view of the St Lawrence and a jaw-dropping clifftop golf course. The hotel collaborates with Route des Saveurs and sources many ingredients for its restaurants from farms located within a 50-mile radius. Cocktails in the piano bar, followed by an elegant dinner are worthy of a splurge — especially when a comfy bed, a fluffy pillow and a window that opens to the fresh scent of the forest are just an elevator ride away.
Charlevoix’s extraordinarily diverse topography, flora and fauna earned a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve designation in 1988. The Charlevoix Crater, encircled by mountains beneath a roof of crystalline, is the eleventh largest impact crater in the world and a legitimate source of wonder. And for those of us who travel with their tummies in mind, this ancient anomaly in the Canadian Shield, with its fertile and generous terroir, is one tasty aberration.