Richly productive: MicroBrasserie Charlevoix.
Terry Durack finds meeting the people behind the food along the Charlevoix Flavour Trail makes everything taste better - no argument.
Travelling, I would argue, is all about arguments. Arguing is pretty much how my wife and I fill in the time when travelling. We argue about where to go, what time to allow to get there, where to eat, and what to drink.
At least this time we have agreed on the destination: we're heading for the idyllic French-Canadian region of Charlevoix, north-east of Quebec City, to experience the Routes des Saveurs (read Flavour Trail) that meanders through the Laurentian mountains.
Baie-Saint-Paul shops. Photo: Alamy
Nor is there any debate about where to stay: it has to be the hotel La Ferme, part of Cirque du Soleil co-founder Daniel Gauthier's great vision for his home town of Baie-St-Paul (see story on page 22). But the rest of the itinerary is up for debate.
And debate we do, all the way out of Quebec City and on to the 138 for a leisurely drive past rolling hills embroidered with red maple, yellow birch and black spruce.
This outright gorgeous little region nestles in a lush pocket of greenery formed within the crater of a 15-billion-tonne meteorite that smashed into earth 300 million years ago. It's so richly productive, it's known as the garden of Quebec City, which makes the idea of a Flavour Trail sound doubly tempting.
What strategy you adopt for such a project will be a measure of your character, psyche and your relationship with your partner. Drive yourself, and you can either map out your own route, or, as my wife argued, you could simply wander serendipitously up hill and down dale, dropping in to up to 40 different local growers, producers, bakers, cheese-makers, restaurants and micro-breweries at the sudden appearance of the Flavour Trail sign - a small orange shingle emblazoned with a chef's hat.
The whole experience is remarkably personal. You get to wander into ancient redwood barns filled with long-eared sheep, their wooden pens smelling deeply of lanolin; watch ridiculously cute two-week-old ducklings waddle as fast as they can to their automated feed dispensers; and see cheesemakers hand-form wheels of sheep milk cheese and stack them in atmospheric cellars.
First stop, the Laiterie Charlevoix, an "economusee du fromage" that blends postcard prettiness with an innovative sustainable development system and a flourishing cheesemaking factory. Family-run since 1948, the dairy produces a number of fresh and aged cheddars, the mighty 12kg wheels of Hercule de Charlevoix, the delicate Fleurmier, and the region's most famous fresh cheese product, "squeaky" cheese curds. The favourite cabin snack of those renowned gourmands, Canadian truckies, these are also the main ingredient of the region's famous poutine, a dish that cleverly turns a bowl of chips into a meal and just has to be on the agenda for lunch; no argument.
After cheese, comes bread - and what bread. The Boulangerie La Remy is a beautifully restored 1827 mill tucked into the hillside. Its little bakery smells sweetly of spices, a must-stop for one of the eight different hand-shaped loaves baked in two brick and clay wood-fired ovens, not to mention utterly addictive amandines, coiled flaky pastries layered with creamy almond paste.
It's soon time for lunch; a big pot of mussels in beer and a dish of poutine at local brewery; MicroBrasserie Charlevoix in Baie-St-Paul. The soft, skin-on frites tossed with fresh cheese curds and drenched in beer gravy are rough, gutsy and no-nonsense - as is the loud, friendly beer-hall/beach shack atmosphere.
Then it's back on the road again, for more cheese. At Maison Maurice Dufour, the sheep are in the barn, the cows are in the fields, and there, on the tasting table, are some of the creamiest sheep and cow milk cheeses in Quebec. Words like runny, velvety, oozy and gooey just don't do justice to the soft, surface-ripened, sheep's milk Le Secret de Maurice (unless spoken in French, of course, when they are onomatopoeically gluant, fonte, veloute and soyeux.)
We, too, are feeling a little gluant, but there's no stopping us now. It's onwards and upwards, our little car climbing over the big toes of the mountains to St Urbain, where Isabelle Mihura and Jean-Jacques Etcheberrigaray run La Ferme Basque de Charlevoix in the old Basquaise tradition. They raise hundreds of ducks here, first outside, and then in their high-roofed Disneyland barns, where they are fed for two weeks on local corn.
"It's the corn that accounts for the golden colour of our foie gras," says the minxish Isabelle Mihura.
One of the real pleasures of a trip such as this - apart from foie gras mousse laced with Armagnac, and slabs of chunky pork and duck terrine - is being able to talk to the actual producers and growers themselves in their tasting rooms. There is no doubt in my mind that it makes the food taste better.
Dinner? You could mount a fairly solid argument that it's not at all necessary, but then you'd miss out on Joe's Smoked Beef in Baie-St-Paul.
Walk into this casual, checked-shirt, wood-lined beef-sauna and you'll see black-crusted, burgundy-coloured brisket being sliced in a cloud of sweet steam into fine, soft, spicy ribbons. Sandwich it in light rye and team with shredded cabbage, dill pickles, a cheap glass of vin rouge and some rollicking blues music, and you'll be fed and watered cheaply and well.
There's barely time, or room, for a bag of chocolate-coated blueberries from Baie-St-Paul's Cynthia Chocolat before silent agreement that it is way past our bedtime.
The lovely Charlevoix tourism people also offer a daily guided tour around the Flavour Trail designed to take all the angst out of driving, navigating and arguing about what to do and where to go. But where's the fun in that?
The writer was a guest of the Canadian Tourism Commission
Qantas flies daily to Los Angeles from Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, connecting via Toronto to Quebec with Air Canada. Also, Air Canada flies daily from Sydney direct to Vancouver, connecting via Toronto to Quebec. Fares range from $2200 to $3000, including tax.
Laiterie Charlevoix, 1167 Boulevard Mgr-de-Laval, Route 138, www.fromagescharlevoix.com; Boulangerie La Remy, 235 Terrasse La Remy Baie-St-Paul, www.moulindelaremy.com; Maison Maurice Dufour, 1339 Mgr de Laval, Baie-Saint-Paul, www.famillemigneron.com; MicroBrasserie Charlevoix, 6 Rue Paul-Rene-Tremblay, Baie-Saint-Paul, www.microbrasserie.com; La Ferme Basque de Charlevoix, 813 Rue St Edouard, St Urbain, www.lafermebasque.ca; Joe's Smoked Meat, 54 Rue St Jean Baptiste, Baie-Saint-Paul, also in Chicoutimi and La Malbaie; Chocolaterie Cynthia, 66 Rue Saint Jean Baptiste, Bureau 3, Baie-Saint-Paul, www.chocolateriecynthia.com.
Hotel La Ferme, 50 Rue de la Ferme, Baie-St-Paul, www.lemassif.com/en/ferme. From $Ca200 ($208) a night plus tax.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN CHARLEVOIX
Have a bash at this particularly Canadian sport - in winter, obviously - on the 7.5-kilometre sled run on Mont a Liguori's natural snow (Dec to March). In summer, the mountain is turned over to natural trails; in autumn, Le Massif Fall ColourFest celebrates the magnificent scenery. www.lemassif.com.
TAKE A MOTORBIKE TOUR
Jump into a sidecar of a classic motorbike and let tour guide Francois Gariepy zip you around the stunning countryside, stopping for a beach swim, a beer or a stroll through the many art galleries in the region. From $C90 ($93) adults. 50 Rue de la Ferme, Baie-St-Paul +1 41 8633 2712, www.charlevoixecomobilite.com.
GO ISLAND HOPPING
Drive through the forest to the ferry for L'Isle-aux-Coudres (allow time for queuing to get on board in summer). You can tootle around the entire idyllic island, stopping at century-old bakeries, historic sites, children's treasure trails, and sweet little restaurants, then ferry back. www.tourismeisleauxcoudres.com.
CATCH THE GOURMET TRAIN
Book a discovery tour, day trip or something more on a luxurious gastronomic train that hugs the banks of the St Lawrence seaway from Quebec City to Baie-St-Paul. Lunch at the award-winning La Ferme or take a rail shuttle to the top of the Le Massif mountain for skiing or hiking. Returns from $C119 adults, $C95 children, plus taxes. www.lemassif.com/en/train.
DRINK TOMATO WINE
Pascal Miche makes a unique tomato-based aperitif wine based on a recipe created by his Belgian grandfather, Omer Miche in 1938. Add it to your Flavour Trail itinerary. Domaine de la Vallee du Bras, 328 Rang Saint-Antoine Nord +1 41 8435 6872, www.domainevb.ca.