I’m very fortunate I am able to spend time in an area of Quebec called the Eastern Townships, or les Cantons de l’Est (and now becoming l’Estrie). The region is special in a number of ways; however one particular aspect of it would make me continue to spend time there even if it were situated in the ninth circle of Hell. The food. While the grocery stores are similar enough to what I see in New York (other than everything being labeled in French), the Eastern Townships happens to be an area of agriculture and animal husbandry, and due to that, much of the food we eat is grown or produced locally. Very locally. It is “slow food” at its best.
It is a place of lakes and hills (and a few ski mountains too), farms and pastures, fruit and dairy. The Cantons has always been a place deeply rooted in working the land, and the culture has encouraged the growth of small businesses which sell their produce scarcely feet (or meters) from where it was grown. Your raspberries may have been picked this morning and your eggs just descended from the bird (that may sound gross, but if you have ever eaten an egg laid the same morning, you won’t ever want to eat a supermarket egg again, it is a different product altogether).
While I go to the store for paper towels, for my fruit, vegetables, eggs and even meat, I jaunt a few minutes down to the road to pick up food for lunch or dinner; it is in fact more convenient than driving to the store. Meat, eggs, and fruit abound in roadside stalls, more fresh than the competition which has been sitting in a truck for days or weeks. It is the slowest of slow food, not even having journeyed to a farmers market.
Vegetables and more fruit are available in small farmer’s stands also along the side of the road, such as one run by Gaston, the friendliest purveyor of local produce I have met. He knows what is being harvested and when, as well as the day he will receive it. He is my local source for the dark, rich maple syrup I stock up on every year, available only to those who ask specifically. The #1 light/clear abounds on every market shelf, being perceived as a better product. However those of us in the know understand that the darker, “lower quality” syrup has more flavor and deep maple tones than the light syrup. Gaston’s farm stand is the place where all the locals go for fresh produce when the summer bounty screams for attention, and it is easy to eat like a king while spending like a pauper.
The Eastern Townships can feel like an island of a century past. A local monastery at Saint-Benoît-du-Lac sells some of the most amazing cheese that I have ever eaten, which they make on premises. Another group at Abbaye cistercienne de Mistassini sells dark chocolate covered wild blueberries for a few weeks of the year, while in season. The roadside is filled with horses, cows, and sheep (and even a few llamas). Riders on horseback occasionally clop by your house. The days feel slow yet productive. But the food, particularly in the summer, seems the way food ought to be. In the eastern Townships, food seems no longer a commodity, but a celebratory aspect of the region. A local Relais & Châteaux, Manoir Hovey, even has an internationally acclaimed restaurant, in which they espouse local cuisine, many ingredients being sourced from within a few kilometers of the hotel (duck from Lac Brome, local raw-milk and artesianal cheeses, and dishes garnished with edible flowers picked from their own garden).
The slow food of the Eastern Townships is not slow as a marketing angle, but a natural occurrence resulting from a culture that appreciates what it has. While I do the region a disservice by not mentioning the thousands of examples of local cuisine and produce available, the old-world feel combined with the food craft gives the eastern Townships an ambiance all its own. No place could feel so far from where it really is, and the accessibility and appreciation of locally produced foods is miraculous. There are many places in the world that have a renowned dish or food item, but nothing that I have experienced quite matches the diversity of culinary interest or availability in the eastern Townships of Quebec.