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Canadian Wonderland

  With soft snowflakes drifting down on the cobblestone streets and the castle like Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac that overlooks the dark harbor lit by the gleaming lights of the ferries as they make the early night crossings, Vieux Quebec, the historic portion of Quebec City, with its 17th and 18th century buildings, looks like a scene from a fairy tale.
  We follow the winding streets which are crowded despite the frigid weather. Canadians know how to dress for the cold and the snow, while heavy, is almost immediately cleared from the sidewalks and the streets. And for those who don’t want to walk, there are the eco-buses -- electric buses that run about every ten minutes and are free.  Because there is virtually no crime (only 11 murders in all of 2009 in Quebec City), my husband and I don’t mind letting our children wander on their own with promises to meet up again at Le Conchon Dingue, a restaurant near the quay where we feast on lobster pie, chicken Normandy and a killer  chocolate cake.
  Using our hotel, Hôtel Loews Le Concorde on Cours du Général-De Montcalm with its magnificent views of Vieux Quebec and the St. Laurence Seaway as a base over the next few days we will visit such delights as Le Mache Vieux Port, which translates to The Old Port Market, a big sprawling indoor market next to the magnificent Chateau style railroad station where a myriad of vendors including artisanal cheese makers, winemakers, farmers, bakers and candy makers sell their wares.  There was even a vendor selling a variety of eggs such as quail and pheasant.  At one stall I watched a man make nougat by hand and at another I took a sip of de la Pomme Neige or ice cider.  Like ice wine, which is made from grapes picked after the first night when temperatures get into their teens, ice cider comes from apples that remain on the trees and are picked after the weather turns extremely cold.  After the frozen apples are harvested, the juice is pressed from the fruit and then fermented where its sweetness levels reach about 12%.   I buy a bottle; it is another thing to slip into my suitcase along with the locally made cheeses and candies.

   Sorry to leave, we head northwest, stopping at Montmorency Falls to take a gondola to the top of the 275-foot high roaring waters and then on to  Mont Saint-Sauveur International, a ski resort in the Laurentian Mountains. After getting our skis and passes, the first order of business is to try the newly installed Alpine Coaster, where each of us gets to control a car that slides in a series of step descents and circular curves on a track cut through rugged mountain terrain.

  Dinner that night at our hotel, the four star Hotel Manoir Saint-Sauveur, located right in the heart of the village, is in L’Ambiance, their wonderful dining room where menu selections include wild game such as red deer, fresh caught fish from Canadian waters such as scallops, salmon and lobster and the local wines and cheeses.

  The Laurentians are less than two hours from Montreal and for the last decade the place to be on New Year’s Eve in Montreal, Quebec is the Place Jacques-Cartier, an early 19th century market place in the city’s Vieux Montreal (historic old Montreal) district of the city. So, with the snow falling, we board the easy to navigate Montreal Metro, the underground train, and travel from the Hilton Montréal Bonaventure, known for its year round outdoor swimming pool, on De la Gauchetière where we are staying to Vieux Montreal.  Stopping for a moment to gaze at the Basilique Notre-Dame, considered one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world, we make our way along streets that could just as easily be Paris as the New World to the quay where the streets are festively lit for the holidays and horses and carriages wait for riders. Here during the Extravaganza Old Montreal which starts December 5th and ends on January 2nd (the Quebecois sure know how to throw a party), the New Year is ushered in at Le Grand Bal du Nouvel An!, an outdoor ball featuring music and at midnight, a fireworks display that lights up the waters of the Fleuve Saint-Laurent (Saint Laurence River).

  Think the Canadian version of Times Square, where up to 40,000 people are expected to gather, all dressed for the cold weather and some wearing outlandish hats, in the original city, parts of which date back to the 1600s and just a short walk from the bustling and very modern downtown.  The rock band Bernadette is performing in the square which is near such architectural icons as Montreal City Hall, a classic example of the Second Empire style popular under the reign of Napoleon III.  We eat at what instantly becomes one of my most favorite restaurants, the two story Modavie Bistro Bar on St. Paul Street West where we listen to the jazz trio while sipping wine and dining on classic osso bucco and quail in raisin sauce. Over the next few days, we’ll eat at several restaurants on St. Paul, the main street of the historic district and each one is a delight, with their ancient stone walls and dedication to using locally produced foods.

  “You must come back,” a woman who I meet at Reubens on Sainte-Catherine Street West just up the street from our hotel and known for their smoked meats, tells me.  “It’s even prettier here in the summer and fall.”
  I’m in Quebec on a family vacation and this place is full of skinny French Canadians out dining in restaurants where every menu item seems to be served in a creamy white veloute sauce, butter and cream sauce or rich wine and beef gravy accompanied with dense, textured and very yummy bread and desserts made with chocolate and whipped cream or the what seems to be the national dessert here – sugar pie.

  I’ll have to look for my copy of “French Women Don’t Get Fat” which was written by Mireille Guiliano and was a huge best seller a few years back to understand again how women on a high caloric diet can be so slim.  I thought it was about small portions, but the portions here in Quebec City and Montreal are not small.  Often our family of four orders two entrees and it’s enough for all of us.  

  And to make it even more galling is that another seemingly national dish in the province of Quebec is poutine (pronounced pooh teen), crisp hot French fries covered with gravy and topped with fresh cheese curds.  The emphasis is on fresh as cheese curds carry labels carrying the date that they were made.  Really fresh cheese curds should squeak when you bite down on them.  I know that sounds a little strange, but it’s true, they really do squeak.  But even semi-fresh cheese curds, which like the freshest of croissants are even available at gas stations, taste good.

  Poutine has become so popular that it’s on the menu at some of the McDonalds and KFCs and is also on the menu at high end restaurants.

  At Aux Anciens Canadiens in Quebec City which is housed in a building in Vieux Quebec, the city’s historic area, that was built in 1675 making it the oldest building in the city, we saw a bottle of wine listed at $1200 (and no we didn’t order it) and poutine.  Besides that, poutine has morphed and restaurants like Montreal Poutine now offer the dish topped with marinara sauce (an Italian take on a Canadian dish) and barbecue sauce – maybe a Texas take.
  But one of the most interesting poutines I saw when in Quebec was Michigan poutine -- French fries, gravy and sliced up hot dogs.

  It is said that more Canadians have eaten poutine than have seen a moose (and there are signs all along the highways warning of crossing moose) or been in a canoe – two things I associate with Canada way before fries with cheese and gravy.  At almost 1000 calories a serving, why aren’t the French Canadians fat?  I don’t have an answer to that but I can tell you that poutine and French fries in general here in Quebec are very, very good.  They’re crisp, very hot, not that greasy and are often served, when not topped with gravy and cheese curds, with mayonnaise instead of ketchup.  And, while standing in the train station, my daughter spied a French fry making vending machine the size of a soda pop machine that promised freshly cooked French fries in two minutes.  I wish we had tried it.

Published: August 11, 2010
Issue: Winter 2009 - Annual Philanthropy Guide