The restaurant Les Ancêtres is housed in a regal manor dating to the 18th Century. (Courtesy of Les Ancêtres)
As if its bucolic farmland, colourful church spires and rolling green hills were not enough, Quebec’s Île d’Orléans has another trick up its sleeve. Full of fertile soil and Normandy-style farmhouses, this verdant island in the middle of the St Lawrence River is also quickly becoming the epicentre of Québec’s agritourism movement.
Farmers, chefs and artisans all along the narrow island, located just a 15-minute drive northeast from Québec City, are helping local restaurants construct dishes solely with local ingredients, from fish to fowl, wine to cider, bread to cheese and a dazzling array of organic produce.
Bring your own wine and tuck into a truly unique experience at Au Goût d’Autrefois, where a husband-and-wife chef team sources ingredients from their own backyard. Jacques Legros and Lise Marcotte raise ducks, geese, guinea fowl, pheasants and wild turkeys, and keep a colourful garden of organic grains and vegetables. The fowl are raised in an ethically and ecologically sound manner, and the geese are not force-fed to produce the foie gras on offer. Opt for a conservative four-course menu ($35 Canadian) or splurge on the 12-course extravaganza ($125 Canadian), either of which might include roast goose and barley soup or apple-cider smoked turkey with wild rice.
French expat Bernard Monna of manufacturer Cassis Monna et Filles turns his many varieties of blackcurrants, known in Québec as gadelle noire, into award-winning crème de cassis (blackcurrant liquor), wine and jam. The rustic and cosy onsite restaurant, La Monnaguette, serves local specialties that employ his star ingredient, such as goat-cheese salad with blackcurrant coulis or duck confit with cassis jam.
It is a sin to leave the island without indulging in the most Québécois of all commodities: maple syrup. Sunday brunch at Relais des Pins, a sugar shack with a light and airy wooden dining room, is a bountiful banquet of maple-glazed ham, traditional Québécois tourtière (a pie filled with finely diced pork, veal and beef), maple-hued baked beans and plenty of pancakes to soak up the never-ending supply of homemade syrup. Despite the cloying image that maple syrup may evoke, the talented chefs here are adept at churning out light and savoury local dishes with a multitude of flavours.
For a little history with your island food, try Les Ancêtres, a regal manor dating to the 18th century, where the perfect view of the misty Montmorency Falls on the mainland only enhances the local bison tartare or Québécois stew. On a sunny day, the best table on the island is next to the little babbling waterfall on the patio at Le Moulin de St-Laurent, a 300-year-old flour mill with a menu that changes weekly depending on what local produce is available.
For a more casual affair, assemble your own picnic. Hit up the island’s bakery La Boulange for tasty takeaways such pizza or sandwiches bursting with locally-produced fillings. The first cheese made in the Americas was in 1635 on Île d’Orléans, and cheese shop Les Fromages de l’Île d’Orléans proudly continues the tradition. For portable potables, Domaine Steinbach produces five ciders from their organic orchard. Try pairing the ice cider, Cristal de Glace, with a jar of their homemade maple-onion confit for a perfect marriage. If you are looking for a more decadent combination, pick up a bottle of red at local winery Isle de Bacchus, and pay a visit to Chocolaterie de l’Île d’Orléans, where artisans produce creative chocolate concoctions using cocoa beans imported from Belgium. At the southwest tip of the island, the dramatic, rocky shoreline has spectacular views of Old Québec, and the public park makes for a great picnic spot.
It is an easy commute back to Québec City for the night, but a more rewarding experience is a farm stay on the island. The tastefully-decorated stone cottage Dans les bras de Morphée, nestled in a quiet corner of the island, offers a bed-and-breakfast experience to remember. Using what can be found in the several acres of gardens, streams and farmland surrounding the home, professional chef and host Marc Cadieux constructs extravagant three-course breakfasts that make good use of freshly-picked fruits, hand-pressed juices and honey and jams made on-site. Just-baked pastries complement the cheese, meats and pâtés, either homemade or sourced locally from the island.