The morning of the day we left, at a deliriously friendly Malbaie café called Chez Nous (recommended, of course, by the hotel bellman – you can trust bellmen), we had the best smoked Atlantic salmon either of us remembered tasting. It was so good we got into the car and drove 10 miles to Baie-St. Paul, to the Fumoir St-Antoine. I suppose that's not much different in its way from walking across a city for a meal. The fumoir is owned by Johane Roy and Serge Garneau, who five years ago added a smoker to the old summer kitchen of their farmhouse.
They buy New Brunswick salmon with the skin removed, trim all its fat, cure it for 12 to 24 hours in a dry brine of salt and sugar and fines herbes to leach out the moisture, and then cold smoke it, 60 fillets at a time, 200 kilos a week, in a temperature-controlled fridge at 25 degrees by piping in smoke from a barely smouldering fire of (mostly) wild cherry and (some) maple wood chips. The brine is what provides the taste. The smoke leaves aroma. If I could figure out a way to get a package to Danny Anctil, I would. Would that do any good? Would it excuse my pleasure? It would give Danny some. That might help. Both of us, I mean.
I can tell you how lucky some of us are. One morning at Montreal's Atwater Market, I counted 54 different things to eat on one table. Across the aisle were calzones like giant pale ears and panzerotti fashioned from delicate phyllo stuffed with zucchini and chèvre and mushrooms and roast pimento and parmesan.
At the shop of Serge Bourcier, a condiment maker from Mercier – a shop that has been in the market for 50 years – there were lamb tourtières, and jars of spiced pears and lemon confit, and glistening mountains of jellies and jams. Upstairs at Terrines & Pâtés, Marcel Sogne (from Lorraine, near Paris) and his assistant Natalie DuClos (from the south shore of Montreal) were selling terrines made from local caribou and blueberries, local deer and pecans, bison, goose. The potted meats sat in their terrines in a cold display case like small graves. I watched Jean-Claude Bres, a retired teacher in sunglasses and a Panama hat, buy $70 worth of food for three meals for himself, his wife and some friends, if they were to come by. A chicken, a small roast of beef, a pound of very fine coffee, a slice of pâté berrichon, veal in a pastry crust. “I'm interested in pâté and food, yes,” he said in reply to my question, with a tone one might use when speaking to an imbecile, “because I like eating.” He made it sound simple.
One morning I drove to the north end of the city, to La Binerie Mont Royal, where Jocelyne Brunet and her husband Philippe operate a restaurant that's a monument to traditional Quebec cooking. Yves Beauchemin wrote about it in a novel called Le Matou. I ordered pea soup and tourtière and ragôut of meatballs and baked beans. Copies of Edward J. Massicotte's etchings of Québécois life and traditions hung from the wall.
Fèves au lard are the house specialty. There were half a dozen customers in the restaurant tucking into a breakfast plateful. The Brunets make them in a tiny dungeon under the restaurant, using the original owner's 1938 recipe and the original charcoal- and now gas-fired, three-door brick and cast-iron stove: 150 pounds at a time, cooked with lard and a secret combination of spices, for 15 hours.
“He makes 38 tons of beans a year,” Jocelyn said of her husband. I ate them plain and with maple syrup and with molasses and even with ketchup. I mashed them and ate them one by one. It felt like I was eating history, a simple but serious meal. You don't have to be hungry or even homeless to feel that way, but it helps.
Ian Brown is a feature writer with The Globe and Mail.
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