At Carnival time in Québec, there’s magic in the air — and in the kitchen.
Why not revel in winter, I thought, as my gal pal Susan and I broke out the fleece and headed north for a week of cold-weather fun in the Canadian province of Québec.
I knew that sporty Susan would love the winter activities and I knew from previous experience that we could both count on French Canada’s culinary savoir-faire to fortify us. And I was right, on all counts.
We kicked off our trip at Quebec’s Winter Carnival, the world’s largest winter celebration. Unlike those other Mardi Gras extravaganzas in Rio and New Orleans, this Carnival is a wholesome, affordable, and family-friendly celebration. A giant snowman named Bonhomme is the king of the carnival, and his likeness appears everywhere: in restaurants, stores and on street corners. Around his midrift is a one of the most prominent Carnival symbols, a ceinture fléchée. This woven red-striped sash is a traditional piece of folk art in Québec and varies in design. The sash is also a popular souvenir.
French Canadians love to play in the snow and the festival shows North America’s only walled city in all its snow-blanketed historic and cultural glory. Although 98 per cent of the province’s residents are French-speaking, English is widely spoken and the Québécois are the epitome of graciousness and hospitalité.
On our first night in town, we visited the Érablière le Chemin du Roy, a traditional maple sugar shack tucked away in a snowy wood. (Maple syrup products are a principal industry in Québec). Although we had just arrived, we were immediately thrust into the party atmosphere, stomping our feet to a traditional gigue played on the harmonica and wooden spoons by a musician dressed in traditional bûcheron (lumberjack) style. The musical roots are Celtic and a to my ear a distant cousin to bluegrass.
The traditional foods we sampled evoked a 400-year-old “peasant” style: pork rings, hearty thick pea soup, maple syrup-smoked ham, and the famous Québécois dish la tourtière, an ample pastry-covered meat pie that is the embodiment of comfort food. We made toothsome maple syrup taffy (think maple syrup popsicles) by pouring maple syrup into wooden troughs packed with fresh snow and twisting it onto wooden sticks. We capped that magical evening with a sleigh ride through the sugar maple stand under a luminous moon.
Diverse and unusual (to the visitor) carnival events are scattered over numerous sites throughout the city and each is pays homage to winter. Bundled in multiple layers, we visited Bonhomme’s Palace during the day to view ice sculptures created by artisans from around the world. At night in his palace, there was a dance party with parka-clad participants. On a clear frosty night we watched as young couples danced to Big Band tunes out of the 30s and 40s. We also ate “beavertails,” a fried dough confection topped with cinnamon or chocolate — or both!
During the day we took in an old-fashioned soapbox derby on city streets lined with throngs of well-wishers. We tried snow tubing in big yellow inflatable rings, careening down the steep hills surrounding Québec's Citadel right by the famous Plains of Abraham where in 1759 England wrested the Canadian colony from France. We sampled caribou, a powerful mixture of brandy, vodka, sherry and port. This traditional liquid fare is guaranteed to warm the body, and is carried by some festival-goers in a plastic red cane, for stealthy sipping.
We tried ice fishing with a bunch of rosy-cheeked kids; shades of Grumpy Old Men danced through my head as I waited for the trout to take the bait. As the snow swirled in a nighttime cityscape enhanced by colorful Carnival lights, we listened to adults and kids alike sound their enthusiasm on traditional red plastic trumpets during a night-time parade that wound its way through Québec's narrow streets.
And then there was a one-of-a-kind canoe race (longboats really) across the St. Lawrence River in which teams of competitors leapt from canoe to ice floes and back again, braving the daunting currents of the river, not to mention the freezing temperatures. Previously we had witnessed qualifying runs on the snowy expanse of the Plains of Abraham, with uber-fit men and women’s teams clad in multi-colored stretchy sports fabric. Winter in Québec is a challenge in itself but during the Carnival's impressive events, such extreme athletic endeavors push the envelope in an even more rigorous and light-hearted style. Winter is the co-competitor and is to be admired, respected, and challenged.
At dinner one night at La Crémaillère, one of the city’s best tables, we got an ample “taste” not only the the chef’s gastromic accomplishments but of Québec City's world-class reputation for the culinary arts. In an elegantly furnished heritage building in the heart of the old city, we feasted on dishes that blended classic French cuisine with contemporary Italian touches such as: paparadelle with escargot and spinach, salmon stuffed with sauerkraut, and a to die for three-chocolate mousse.
The province of Quebec is three times the size of Spain and five times the size of Japan. In fact, only 18 countries are larger than Quebec. The land is dotted with lakes and rivers, and bisected by the 746-mile-long St. Lawrence River, the principal “highway” in the original French colony and before that for the First Nations in this part of the Americas. One-fourth of Canada’s population lives in Québec.
Post-Carnival, we got to sample the unique country inns that take full advantage of this beautiful geographic region. Hôtellerie Champêtre (Québec Resorts and Country Inns) is a collection of 22 well-priced, family-run, independent hotels spread across 12 regions in the Québec countryside. In addition to offering charming accommodations, they are acclaimed for their gastronomy. The chefs work closely with a host of local producers and purveyors of meat and poultry, dairy, vegetables, and fruits.
It was a blindingly and pure-white day with a serene silence that almost defies description when we arrived at Auberge Lac St. Pierre. More manor house than inn, it boasts a spectacular proximity to nature, perched above the silver-blue Lac St. Pierre and the St. Lawrence River. In other seasons, herons, geese and ducks are plentiful here. The starkly beautiful landscape in which the Auberge is located has been declared a UNESCO biosphere world reserve.
After braving the brisk temperatures to vigorously
snowshoe through the silent woods, we sat à table
for our reward: a three-course lunch of rich, earthy mushroom chowder,
chicken with maple syrup and cardamom, and chocolate and passion fruit
soufflé. Susan fretted briefly about the calories, but I was
not-so-secretly thrilled. What a way to embrace Québec's regal
Before dinner, we sampled two local apéritifs:
the first a sortilège, a Canadian whisky flavored
with a maple syrup liqueur, and then a fortified red wine. The evening’s
table d’hôte menu included salad with shredded candied
duck, rabbit medallions, local cheeses and maple syrup cake; at about
$35, a multi-course meal at a fixed price and a real value for U.S.
travelers. The menu however was a challenge; how to choose between
trout and caribou médaillons?
At the contemporary Auberge Lac-à-l’Eau-Claire, huge picture windows provided unbroken views to the ice-covered lake. Susan donned a bulky thermal suit and went snowmobiling while I visited the tiny ice huts where two Montreal fishermen were warming themselves with comfortable chat; quite protected and separate from the wintry scene outside. They had already caught several rainbow trout. Their wives (quite sensibly?) were back in their rooms indulging in a good winter day's read. Later, Susan and I met back in the expansive living room where rosy-cheeked, breathless kids and adults trundled in, throwing off their coats, scarves, hats and gloves to relax by the fire with hot tea, before indulging in another leisurely, delicious gourmet lunch.
Susan must have been of a Nordic ethnic group in a previous life; she was hankering to get to the Hôtel de Glace. Located less than an hour from Québec, this particular ice hotel (in its sixth year) is modeled after the one in Sweden. Rising out of a expanse of white, the buildings appear as blue-white, gently rounded pyramids with one set of simple wooden doors.
It takes $2.5 million Canadian to build it each year and nearly a month of work to construct the facility that stays in place for just 86 days. A no-melt mixture of four parts water and one part snow is blown between wooden molds which are then removed after they freeze solid. The process can take up to three days and creates four-foot thick walls and two-foot thick ceilings.
The grand hallway features fiber-optic lighting that constantly changes colors; 34 theme rooms (including the Egyptian and Great Wall of China suites); two bars (one sponsored by Absolut vodka which you drink out of small blocks of ice); a chapel (they will host more than 30 weddings this winter); and galleries (exhibits include ice carvings and photography under ice). Visitors who are not staying the night plunk down $14 to visit the property during the day.
If you are a collector of novelty experiences, a stay at the Ice Hotel will dazzle your friends and colleagues. Upon check-in, you are given a key to a plywood locker in which to store your suitcase and a towel and robe. There’s a communal locker area and shower facilities in an area removed from the actual ice structures. You are also given a coupon for a three-course meal at the adjoining Duchesnay resort, along with a back-up room there in case you can’t make it through the night, though we were told only five per cent actually use it. I noticed the guest book contains an entry from an Atlantan; my home state.
A staffer explained how to prepare for bedtime. You undress in your sleeping bag (rated to -40 Celsius) and keep your clothing inside with you — otherwise the garments would freeze. After dinner, we showered and then sat and read by the fireplace (more for looks than heat). At 9:45 p.m we sprinted to our suite. Although there was a sauna and hot tub in the ice hotel, we decided to forgo them.
It was a bit awkward getting into the sleeping
bag, but finally I managed to do it. It was -8 Celsius in the room;
-15 outside. (Zero is the freezing point in Celsius.) In other words,
frigid. The sleeping bag was partially insulated by a fur rug underneath
it on a wooden plank, all of which was on the bed — a huge block
of ice. I kept my hat pulled down over my head, but my breath was
still visible. I slept fitfully, as did Susan who usually sleeps like
the dead. I kept thinking, “How long have I been sleeping? Am
I cold? Could I feel it if I were numb? Do I need to pee? Where is
the chamber pot?” The answer to the last self-query is there
isn’t one. You have to get dressed and go outside to pee.
If You Go