My brief trip to southeastern Quebec was full of surprises, but nothing surprised me more than the Eastern Townships food experiences I discovered as I toured the region. Originally founded in large part by Loyalists fleeing the nascent United States, today the area is largely Francophone but mixes culinary sensibilities from a variety of traditions. It’s also an intensely rural part of the province and it’s this long-ingrained farming culture that today has created a true food lover’s paradise in a region more typically known for boating in the summer and skiing in the winter. While my time learning about the Eastern Townships food traditions was limited, I did manage to visit with some amazing individuals doing some truly extraordinary things in Quebec.
More than a century ago, monks traveled to Quebec in exile in order to set up a new religious community. Over the decades the monks have thrived, expanding the abbey over time and even starting several businesses, including making cheese and cider. In the 1940s, the monks decided to start producing cheese, using milk from local farmers as well as their own. While a variety of cheeses are available today, the first was a blue-veined cheese known as “Ermite.” It’s become the bedrock of their cheese selection, even as the monks today produce other milder cheeses similar to a Gruyere. Building on the success of their cheeses, the monks now also produce an apple cider, made from fruit harvested in the orchards of the Abbey estate itself. While the number of monks in residence has dwindled over the years, these important traditions are still as vibrant as ever and are a fun first-stop on any foodie tour of the region.
La Station Fromagerie
Walking into the newly renovated shop at La Station dairy, I was instantly struck by how light and airy it was – their fine cheeses on prominent display. The family farm owners at La Station have been creating some of the province’s best cheeses for four generations, and that passion for the product doesn’t seem to be diminishing. The cheese maker’s 50 Holstein dairy cows roam on the fresh grasses of the 163-hectare farm, the start of a cheese making process that is 100% fresh and organic. The resulting cheeses are honestly amongst the best I’ve tried and come in a variety of flavors and ages. Soft, hard, tangy and mild, it sounds trite but there really is a cheese in their shop for just about every palate. The family also produces maple syrups and maple jellies, adding to their long tradition of farming and creating delicious and fun products.
The Eastern Townships are home to 22 different wineries, specializing largely in the white wines for which the region is becoming increasingly well known. The climate isn’t always the best, so careful attention to the health of the vines is crucial but, after a brief wine tour of the area, I discovered that the vintners haven’t just survived, they’ve thrived. The small winery Vignoble du Chemin de la Rivière is the perfect example of a typical winery in the area. Small, family owned and run and full of passion, I learned a lot as I explored the winemaking facilities with the master winemaker (and owner) himself. While they only produce a few vintages, this concentration has led to some truly excellent wines. Chenin de la Rivière produces a white wine, fortified red, late-harvest and ice wines and will soon introduce a sparkling wine, something for which the Eastern Townships are particularly good at developing. I learned more about the area’s sparkling wines at another nearby winery, Le Cep d’Argent. For more than 30 years, the Scieur brothers have worked their 114-acre farm to create sparkling wines that have been recognized around the world for their exceptional quality. The winery also produces red, white and rosé wines, but it’s their ice wine that has been getting all the attention lately. Sweet and syrupy, it’s won best in show for its unique taste, quality and overall refinement. These are just two of the wineries in the Eastern Townships, a full tour of the others isn’t just a lot of fun, but makes for a great trip experiencing an under-recognized wine region that I’m sure will soon be amongst the most well known.
The best food I enjoyed though throughout my time in the Eastern Townships was at the luxury hotel I called home, the Manoir Hovey. Under the tutelage of Chef Francis Wolf, the kitchens created some of the best dishes I’ve enjoyed in a long time. For dinner, guests can enjoy a la carte or a chef’s menu and since I ate there twice, I decided to try both. What was most notable to me throughout all of my meals though was the finesse with which Chef Wolf presents the dishes. Modern plating featuring delicious food was the hallmark of the culinary experience for me, an unexpected highlight of my visit to be honest. Dishes like rustic potatoes and truffle, foie gras with pears, venison loin and more all came together to create flavor profiles I know I’ll never forget. That level of care and attention to detail carries through to all meals, the breakfasts are beautifully prepared and the perfect start to the day and even lunch at Le Hatley is an affair to remember. The finesse with which my dinners were prepared was also on display at lunchtime, whether with the shockingly beautiful plating of the warm goat cheese or the rich and comforting homemade Tagliatelles, it all just worked and made me instantly vow to return to enjoy the other dishes I didn’t have time to try.
Originally from Uruguay, tour company owner Alain Fabry has lived and worked in Quebec for more than 50 years and has called the Eastern Townships home for more than 20 of those years. Thanks to his unique experiences and interests, he has created one of the most fun food tours I’ve ever been on. The experiences I’ve shared in this post are all part of the Eastern Townships food tour Alain runs through his company Panora Tours. Spending the day with Alain is about more than just the food, it’s also about his unique personality and intimate knowledge of the people behind the food experiences. Add in several surprises not shared in this post, and you have a fun day out eating and drinking the best the region has to offer. I can’t recommend Alain strongly enough and it’s easy to book a day with him through the staff at the Manoir Hovey.