CHAMBLY, QUE. — For many Septembers, I was jealous of a friend in the Netherlands, an urban hunter and gatherer who, at first brace of fall, packs up car and cooler and sets off for France to stock up on champagne, brie and foie gras. But no longer — for I have discovered my own Brittany, Champagne and Provence all in one place: the Montérégie in Quebec.
A half-hour south of Montreal, the Montérégie is a foodie destination waiting to be discovered. The triangular region — tucked south of Ontario, north of New York State and west of the Eastern Townships — is a temperate microclimate moderated by Lake Champlain. The farms and orchards have long supplied vegetables, fruits, meats and cheeses to the famed Jean Talon and Atwater markets of Montreal.
But as wine did for Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, the burgeoning artisan cider industry is putting the Montérégie on the gourmand’s map. Of late, The New York Times, Gourmet magazine, even Playboy have all raved about some of the 60 different ciders being produced here.
A Cider Route, linking the nearly 20 cider houses in the region, was established in 1998; the same year, artisan food producers created the Countryman’s Tour (or, so much more lyrically in French, the Circuit du Paysan). The 194 kilometres of winding, paved country roads connect more than 200 producers of everything from duck and lamb to cheese, honey, even honey wine.
There’s also a Wine Route and a Cheese Route. And Chambly, the gateway town to the region, has established itself as the “beer capital of Quebec,” with its annual Labour Day Weekend Beer and Flavour Fest.
Depending on the number of stops you make, the Circuit du Paysan alone can take anywhere from six hours to three days to drive. My partner, Nancy, and I decided to let our taste buds choose the sections of the route we would travel.
On our first day, we visited the Fromagerie Au Gré des Champs, where we sampled cheeses made from a single herd of Brown Swiss cows grazing on organic pastures specially planted with about 30 different flowers and herbs to flavour the milk. We lunched at Verger et Cidrerie Denis Charbonneau, famous for its crepes folded around a mound of gently cooked apples. (In the fall, Montreal families flock here for horse-drawn wagon tours of the orchards.) In the afternoon, we quaffed wines at Vignoble Morou, a tiny boutique that looks like a roadside vegetable stand. Le Closeau, a three-grape blend with notes of black currant, goes wonderfully with local duck.
Chez Émile, a romantic restaurant set in a century-old country house in Napierville, offers an authentic taste of the area with its Circuit du Paysan menu. On a warm summer evening, reserve one of the three white dining tents that surround the swimming pool on the back terrace. Chef Luc Van Winden grew up on a farm here, and returned to the area after 15 years working in Laurentian resorts, lured home by local produce. We dined sumptuously on a terrine of baby goat from Domaine de la Chevrière, veal from Mr. Lamb’s farm, and the very best foie gras we’ve ever had — from the nearby St-Louis-de-Gonzague property and served with a sweet reduction of Minot Doré apple cider aperitif.
After such a dinner, we focused on the spirits of this terroir. Near Hemmingford, two cidreries should not be missed, as they showcase the style and range of artisan cider-making.
Du Minot is the more traditional of the pair, with rustic slate floors and old oak casks guarding the entrance to the cider cellar. Owner Robert Demoy grew up in a cider-making family in Brittany, trained as a winemaker in Bordeaux and moved to Quebec to make wine — until he discovered what he calls the province’s “native grape,” the McIntosh apple.
Demoy secured the first artisan production permit awarded in 1988. Though cider was a popular drink in the 17th century, Quebec prohibited it from 1921 to 1970, then awarded production licences only to large companies who made generally acidic industrial brews. “It’s more difficult to make cider than wine,” Demoy says, “but very easy to make apple vinegar.” To counter the high acidity in apples, he explains, a quality cider can take from six months to two years to ferment.
Today, Demoy makes 10 ciders, ranging from low-alcohol summer sippers such as the sparking Minot Rosé to the refined 16-per-cent aperitif Du Minot Doré.
At La Face Cachée de la Pomme (the hidden side of the apple), owner François Pouliot, who once produced music videos for Quebec stars such as Celine Dion, helped pioneer ice apple wines. The process is similar to making icewine. The pressed juice of late-harvested apples is left outside to be “baked” by the winter sun, wind and cold, until the middle of January. Then it is fermented for eight months to produce a wine of incredible finesse, managing to combine the crisp clarity of winter with the fall sweetness of sugar-baked apples.
When Pouliot’s wife, Stéphanie Beaudoin, joined the business, they built a soaring, edgy boutique — antlers and hooves from deer, that nemesis of the orchard, accent moody, abstract art in the tasting room.
“We’re making a product of the terroir, but it isn’t something that existed in our grandparents’ time,” Beaudoin says when asked about the boutique’s modern design. “So we didn’t want to be nostalgic about it. But we believe we are contributing to the history and culture of Quebec — and trying to put the finest of it in a bottle.”
In Chambly, Nicolas Bourgault brings the same passion to beer. The thirtysomething brewmaster opened Bedondaine & Bedons Ronds in 2005, both as a microbrew pub and museum celebrating the history of beer in Quebec and Chambly. (The town is also home to the Unibroue brewery and the restaurant Fourquet Fourchette, which pairs Unibroue beers with local cuisine.)
Since Bourgault sampled his first beer “at age 15 or 16,” he has been collecting bottles — there are about 26,000 on display, along with historic items such as Molson money from the defunct Molson’s Bank and other paraphernalia, from long-gone Quebec breweries such as Champlain and Dawes Black Horse.
And then there are the beers Bourgault brews on site, as he says, “with big love.” While industrial breweries can make a batch in three to five days, his take a month. He forsakes artificial additives that speed the process but kill both aroma and taste, and even uses traditional equipment such as the oak forchette to stir the mash.
At any time, there are 12 tasty ales and lagers on tap to sample — three that change seasonally, such as a fall apple-pie beer, the Halloween Vendredi 13 made with pumpkins and ginger, and a Christmas scotch ale that takes nine months to mature.
Like the Montérégie’s new cider masters, Bourgault embraces the creative freedom of working in a new field. “We don’t have an old tradition of brewing in Quebec, so we can make all styles of beer,” he says. “We’re lucky.”
Pack your bags
La Bohème B&B: 617 Bord de L’Eau South, Noyan; 450-294-2502; http://www.boheme.ca. $65 to $99 for two with breakfast.
L’air du temps B&B: 124 Martel St., Chambly; 450-658-1642; http://www.airdutemps.qc.ca. $109 to $130 for two with breakfast.
Auberge West Brome: 128 Route 139, West Brome; 1-888-902-7663; http://www.awb.ca. $135 to $250 for two.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Fromagerie Au Gré des Champs: 400 rang St-Édouard, St-Jean-sur-Richelieu; 450-346-8732; http://www.augredeschamps.com.
Verger et Cidrerie Denis Charbonneau: 575 Rang de la Montagne, Mont St-Grégoire; 450-347-9184; http://www.vergersdc.qc.ca.
Vignoble Morou: 238 Route 221, Napierville; 450-245-7569; http://www3.sympatico.ca/morou.
Chez Émile: 267 rue St.-Jacques, Napierville; 450-245-7893; http://www.chezemile.net.
Cidrerie du Minot: 376 rue Covey-Hill, Hemmingford; 450-247-3111; http://www.duminot.com.
La Face Cachée de la Pomme: 617 Route 202, Hemmingford; 450-247-2899; http://www.cidredeglace.com.
Bedondaine & Bedons Ronds: 255 rue Ostiguy, Chambly; 1-866-447-5165; http://www.bedondaine.com.
Fourquet Fourchette: 1887 avenue Bourgogne, Chambly; 1-888-447-6370; http://www.fourquet-fourchette.com.
Le Circuit du Paysan: http://www.circuitdupaysan.com; 1-800-378-7648.
Tourisme Montérégie: tourisme-monteregie.qc.ca; 1-866-469-0069.
Tourisme Québec: http://www.bonjourquebec.com; 1-877-266-5687.