Considering its short growing season, the Quebec City area bursts with local edibles. Over the weekend, my wife and I visited several Quebec City grocery stores that carry everything from locally made tourtieres (meat pies) to ground-cherry jelly to smoked duck, most of which originating from farms within 100 miles of the city. The Old Port farmer’s market was ablaze with mustard-yellow cauliflower, sweet strawberries, and tiny blueberries, with plenty of ice wine and ice cider on hand to remind us how painfully cold the province becomes in winter.
I would not suggest that Quebec City, claiming half a million inhabitants, is completely self-contained, gastronomically speaking. As with any cosmopolitan urban center that cross-pollinates with world culture, you can find store shelves stocked with food from every corner of the planet — Cambodian peppercorns, olive oil from Italy, and plenty of potato chips from the States. But my wife and I have visited Quebec City over half a dozen times and we always notice how the province’s own edible offerings turn up in grand proportion. A bean-counting importer/exporter, out of frustration, might be tempted to refer to such a bounty of local goods as protectionism; I would imagine the Quebecois call it pride.
If you look at Quebec City on Google Maps, you’ll see that it is almost completely surrounded by farmland on both sides of the St. Lawrence River. A twenty-minute drive northeast of the bustle of Rue Saint Jean brings you to red-roofed barns and roadside stands for maïs chaud (hot corn). I lost track of the number of orchards on nearby Île d’Orléans that let you pick your own apples. Allowing the unchecked growth of McMansion subdivisions is a choice that many city-planning bodies will probably face. Quebec City has said non merci. They have decided to keep the farms, creating an unlikely but energetic combination of city and country, a place where hungry urban dwellers and the nearby farming community embrace one another in a symbiotic dance.
One day, my wife and I shared a picnic made entirely of foods from Quebec. We sat down on a lawn between the Tourny Fountain and the towering masonry of the old city wall, and sprawled out our booty of onion confit; chevre cheese; dueling terrines (a caribou terrine made with port and figs, and a guinea hen terrine with rum and blueberries); one bottle each of carrot beer, maple syrup beer, apple cider; maplewood smoked duck prepared with maple syrup (which, not surprisingly, went well with the maple syrup beer); and a fresh baguette from a Rue Saint Jean bakery that posts the exact times in the day when the bread is hot out of the oven.
The context of devouring Quebec-made provisions became delightfully acute when I began to take in the ambience around the lawn—the sight of Quebecois walking their dogs (ranging from dainty little Yorkies to wide-shouldered canines with tongues the size of flank steaks) alongside the park; the echoes of melancholy harmonica riffs probing the air from under an archway through the city wall; the honk-free traffic that was seen but not heard.
I was amazed that carrots could make beer (and even more amazed that I found myself describing a beer as having a pleasantly dry, carroty aftertaste). But I felt as if my wife and I didn’t simply taste picnic goodies—we tasted a community.