Yes, I was one of those kids in elementary school that you rolled your eyes at in annoyance. I boiled with excitement at the announcement of any type of project that required research. I could already visualize myself with a tall glass of cherry Kool-aid with golf ball-sized ice cubes, flat on my belly in my grandmother’s library. She had every issue of National Geographic from (seemingly) 1908 to present day. There were 32 sets of encyclopedias, yellowed newspaper clippings, atlases bigger than the console TV and Sally. Sally was my grandparents’ Great Pyreneese who doubled as a very comfortable, but heavy-panting bean bag chair.
In our familial library, I researched the Galapagos Islands to the extent that I could probably still beat Charles Darwin in Jeopardy on that category. I spent countless prone hours making footnotes and line drawings of blue footed boobies, tortoises, frigate birds and the mighty albatross. I studied the aurora borealis, Orion, the Amazon, the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot with PhD concentration.
I am still a mad researcher, especially when planning a trip—whether it’s the province beside us, the Congo or Angel Falls, Venezuela.
Two weeks ago, Kim and I went to the Ice Hotel in Quebec, and added a few extra days to absorb the romance and charms of Quebec City. She had never been, and my memories were rooted in a grade 8 trip that involved a maple sugar shack, a creepy church that had crutches and canes nailed to its walls from those who had been cured of their ills, and a snore trip to the Plains of Abraham.
As the date approached, I flipped through a Lonely Planet guide and made note of the Artillery Park that housed the army barracks and ammunition factory that operated until 1964. The Cathedral of Holy Trinity seemed to be worthy of a drop in, just to see the oak pews imported from the Windsor Castle’s Royal Forest by two Brit military officers.
I refreshed my Canadian history lessons that had expired long ago. As a bigger fan of geography and art class (well, every class over history), reading about the Citadel was largely brand new to me. I shared all my findings with Kim. La Citadelle, built by the British, had cannons pointing at the river and Quebec City itself. There was fear of an American invasion coupled with a revolt by the French.
I made point form notes on the Eglise Notre Dame Des Victories, built in 1688 (the oldest church in Canada and the US). A wooden ship hangs on the ceiling as a good luck charm to those making ocean crossings.
And that was enough of the history. Who was I kidding? I had to research where and what we were going to eat! I sat myself down with a glass of Malbec and pulled up Frommer’s on Google. Moving on to more serious matters, I tapped in: “Best place for poutine.”
Then I was on a tangent.
The L’inox had a Viking cranberry beer made with barley, wheat, local honey and cranberries. A friend of a friend on Facebook insisted on the L’inox hot dogs. Hot dogs? I do a hot dog maybe once a year at a staff barbeque, and even then it’s mostly an emergency situation– so I don’t tip over from half a dozen beers . However, we did as we were told, except I thought we were supposed to have the hot dog at L’oncle Antoine’s, which we did. It was as long as my forearm, served on a buttered bun that somehow tasted exactly like a pogo stick, without the deep fry treatment. After braving sub zero temperatures and a bitchy wind from the east (might have been the west, it seemed like it was coming from all directions, really), that hot dog was the best thing I’d eaten in a month.
Each day I pulled out “The List,” folded neater than a map in one of my pockets (often lost in one of those many pockets). I had listings for brioche with caramelized pears, elk with sautéed apples and leeks, duckling in maple syrup, the best pheasant and buffalo casserole, caribou in blueberry wine sauce, where to get yard long beers and spaghetti bolognaise, hot fresh crepes that tasted like clouds and dreams, the local secret “Epicerie de la Rue Coillard,” where to get strawberry basil truffles and a place that was gaga over all things maple syrup (Le Petite Cabane a Sucre du Quebec).
Kim was my perfect food adventurer sidekick. Even when it was snowing and blowing of Arctic proportions, and we needed snowshoes to traverse the city sidewalks, she was at my side, willing to walk three miles for a wild boar burger. Because Chez Victor had the best ones. They were so good we could hardly speak after our epic walk and thaw. We drank pints of Boreale stout and Griffon Rousse, embracing the local beer-making community and swooned over our burgs. I had a Cerf (venison) burger with pears braised in red wine. Kim found love in the Le Sanglier (wild boar) burger with brandied Portobellos and rosemary-maple mayo. Our plates arrived heaving with at least a pound of fries each. Hot, oily, salty and so sublime when dunked in more of the rosemary-maple mayo that came in a side dish.
I think we were still half-starved from our dinner the day before at Le Dijon. Prior to our stay at the Ice Hotel we thought French Onion soup would be a wise and O Canada-esque choice. And it was. But, the salad we decided to split came in a shot glass with a blade of grass shooting out of the top of it. Kim and I split the grass evenly and the smoked trout and scallops that were given a beauty treatment on the menu were more suitable for a sandpiper versus humans.
I think I ate that entire pound of fries, save for three or four.
Pre-trip notions that we would eat poutine and croissants on a daily basis actually fell through because we ran out of days to eat. But we did have a high roller pit stop at the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac to take in two beers for $20. As a former Fairmont Royal York employee, it’s a bit of a pilgrimage for me. I feel obliged to visit any Fairmont in my radius and breathe in that old gentleman’s club feel of wood and polished brass.
We did attempt to see the Citadel, choosing a road that seemed to run parallel to it on the map. Indeed it did, but the map didn’t show the 50 foot cliff of Canadian Shield that split the road and the entrance. Again, it was Arctic conditions and we opted for the semi-roaring fire and warm hug of a pub called Le Pape Georges. The exposed stone walls and rustic feel transported us back to fur trader days when a day’s work required whiskey in the debrief.
A pint later, after a sunset ferry to Levi across the St. Lawrence and the bobbing ice floes, we found refuge at 1670, a swanky joint that prefers hushed voices and overly attentive staff ready to dab the corners of our mouths with napkins if need be. We found another fire to sit beside, this one a modern gas and ambient. We had been working on the caloric intake of our Pain Beni breakfast (located inside Auberge D’Armes, our fairy tale attic loft in the shadows of the Frontenac). Kim had an open-face Croque Monsieur with Bernaise sauce, as I embraced the pillowy French toast with strawberry preserves to be extra authentic while in Quebec City. It came with a side baton of bread pudding that tasted exactly like French toast, but without the mess of the syrup.
At 1670 we ordered half a carafe of a French white and the venison and rabbit stew. And I thanked Kim for not being a vegetarian. The stew was a perfect salve to a winter’s day in Quebec. Thick and sinfully rich, but unfortunately, doled out in prisoner rations. We went back to our hotel room and ate 600 pistachio nuts shortly after.
In our travels that day (a failed attempt to see the Church of Notre Dame), we re-routed in Place D’Youville and happened upon a lumberjack-shirted man who was all smiles and joie de vivre. And I now know why. He was serving up hundreds of miniature ice cream cones filled with maple butter and syrup. In heaven, this will be my breakfast food of choice. With bacon.
The cones swept me back to childhood days when we would buy less palatable versions for 25 cents. The maple syrup was usually a rock hard plug that made the cone disintegrate with a single bite. These? Perfectly executed.
We moved on to the Erico Choco Musee (chocolate museum, for those who are French as a forgotten high school language). Most of the tiny museum was in French (duh), but, the chocolate was in a universal language of decadent. Kim had the Coccinelle with pacanes sautees au beurre dans un caramel a la fleur de sel. I praised my French teachers of yore, because I could translate that truffle! I opted for the Miquette with a puree de poires Bartlett et fromage de chevre (pear puree with goat cheese). We found another chocolate shop in a few hours and tried a lavender and Szechuan pepper dark chocolate. Which, as you might imagine, tasted like Nana’s bathwater with a hit of Vick’s Vapo Rub.
Of all our wanders, L’oncle Antoine’s was our favourite hideaway. The ambience was quintessential Quebec. A fire burning bright, story-telling stone walls and the world outside carrying on, but far from our thoughts. I had a Dieu au Ceil rye peppercorn beer that mimicked the sensation of swallowing tiny embers. Kim went for a blonde (beer), and we made quick work of that gourmet European hot dog.
I always believe that you should leave something to return to in a place. A reason to go back. And our reasons will be:
The Citadel (just because we should try again), the bison and duck burgers at Chez Victor, poutine at Chez Ashton and a flaky croissant, somewhere.
I’ll be sure to research that.