My impression of the Charlevoix region was reinforced on our last morning there. I was running into the Dollarama in Baie-Saint-Paul (the town of about 7,000 where we were staying) to get a cooler bag. We had all sorts of local cheese, sausage and smoked salmon – the foie gras "gift" was long gone – and needed to keep it cool until we reached our hotel in Quebec City. The Dollarama existed in a typical strip mall. With a difference. Rather than being bookended by a nail salon and Subway, this Dollarama was smack dab between a shop selling regional fruits and vegetables and a butcher who sold local, naturally raised meat.
And that's what cemented in my mind the idea that, when Charlevoix people preach eat local, they're serious. Not in my "I have long-term plans to hit that local charcuterie festival I've read about" kind of way, but more with a "I swung by the Dollarama and since I was there picked up some local, handmade sausages and just-picked sweet corn for dinner" nonchalance.
The Charlevoix region of Quebec is about 1½ hours east of Quebec City and runs along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River until you hit the town of La Malbaie. My curiosity about the area was piqued while profiling its local cheese makers. I discovered that cheese was part of a bigger picture – The Flavour Trail ( La Route des Saveurs) has showcased the region's culinary tourism for 15 years. I liken it to the Cabot Trail in that it offers beautiful scenic drives (rolling hills, picturesque towns, fjords, the Laurentians and the majestic St. Lawrence River for a backdrop) but also maps out stops for local honey, smoked salmon, charcuterie, foie gras, pear and apple cider and local lamb, beef and ice cream. Truck stops for foodies.
We booked our lodging at a campground called Le Genévrier, adjacent to Laiterie Charlevoix, both owned by the Labbé family. You can actually "camp" there, but we were staying in a log cabin equipped with a basic kitchen and bathroom. I would be sleeping just steps from my favourite cheeses (1608 and L'Hercule de Charlevoix) and just down the road from the award-winning Maison Maurice Dufour, known for the classic Quebec cheese Le Migneron de Charlevoix. Both facilities welcome visitors for tastings and exclamations of, "Oh my God, this is so good!"
By 8 a.m., we could wander along the stream running through the Genévrier campground to the cheese store at Laiterie Charlevoix. There we would buy fresh, uber-flaky croissants or pain au chocolat (brought over from the nearby bakery) and eat while waiting to sample warm, squeaky curd that was being packaged while we watched through a glass divider.
Enthusiastic promoters of the community, the Labbés stock their cheese store with local preserves, terrines, smoked-salmon pâté and pickled quail eggs, all of which added gratifying side notes to our cheese and salami fests. My husband chose a local brew, the double hopped IPA called La Vache Folle. My son chewed on a maple sugar cone. These treats were all giddily purchased within an hour of arrival. We were very happy campers.
Tearing ourselves away from the comfort of our cabin, we hit most of Charlevoix's artisanal producers, cruising through a string of small towns along Highway 138 on our way to whale watching in Baie-Sainte-Catherine. We ran out of time to take the ferry to L'Isle-aux-Coudres on the way back (where we could have seen cider making and wheat and buckwheat being milled on a traditional water mill), but we did drive up and down some extremely steep (and scenic) roads in the vicinity, one which our rental car worked hard to climb. I wondered how anyone got anywhere in the winter. From the back seat, Felix (2½) piped up, "What the *&@%# is happening?" (While not exactly thrilled, I will admit he had a point.)
Baie-Saint-Paul, known as an artists community, made a picturesque home base. Galleries line the absurdly charming main street. The town is the birthplace of Cirque du Soleil. Bob Benoit, a tour guide at Laiterie Charlevoix, remembers the locals complaining about the troupe's early days when the still unknown "buskers" would come around "always asking for money for a coffee." Today, Daniel Gauthier, co-founder of Cirque (but no longer an owner), owns Le Massif, the local ski destination.
That night, back at the cabin, I prepared local Charlevoix lamb – it's mild and lean and considered so unique to the region that it is IGP ( indication géographique protégée) protected, a law similar to the European AOC status that protects products like Roquefort in France. We sat on the porch with crackers and a jar of foie gras mousse from La Ferme Basque de Charlevoix, where, for $4, we got a tour and passionate explanation of their traditional production methods. Between crackers, Felix and I gathered wild blueberries and bug bites in the bushes surrounding our cabin. I know, sickeningly delightful.
Our four-day stay went much too fast. Our last few hours were spent packing suitcases, searching under furniture for errant Hot Wheels cars and having a strange breakfast of pickled eggs, red pepper jelly, cheese that was mostly rind and other gourmet scraps we couldn't bear to leave behind. Meanwhile, I'd forgotten about ever going back to France. I was already planning my next trip to Charlevoix.
Sue Riedl writes The Globe and Mail's cheese column, The Spread .