My wife and I have tradition we follow each time we visit Quebec City: a picnic on the old city wall. Rillettes, a baguette of bread so fresh it is still steaming, onion confit, local chevre cheese, maybe some smoked duck, and a few beers from nearby Île d’Orléans.
On our last visit, however, we skipped our tradition. Because our beer might have frozen.
We just returned from Quebec City a few weeks ago, our first visit to the city during the winter. Despite the unusual warm-up (one day we enjoyed a balmy 27 degrees Fahrenheit), we traded the piquenique for restaurant dining, starting with a visit to the Petit Champlain location of Le Cochon Dingue, or The Crazy Pig.
As you might guess from its name, Le Cochon Dingue specializes in the realm of pork. We went for the tartiflette, a casserole pan layered with braised pork, mushrooms, bacon, and a cream sauce made from a local brie-like cheese; and the maple-glazed smoked ribs accompanied by a side of Caesar salad with freshly shaved parmesan cheese. All that rich protein gave us the energy to explore and examine the copious collection of festive ice sculptures on the sidewalks of the neighborhood (one benefit of a city being below freezing for months on end).
On another day we balanced out meat with a salmon terrine at the Restaurant Le Saint Amour, where the atrium-like interior lives up to its romantic name. The terrine was served with blood orange, fennel puree, and a dollop of spicy micro greens.
We also had the deer in a sweet-savory blueberry sauce and a flaming crème brulee complete with marshmallows on sticks for an impromptu indoor campfire snack. But, as is the case with many meals that were too desirable for their own good, no pictures exist, as I forgot to take shots before the enjoyment of the dishes began. Oops.
I managed to utilize the camera at another of Quebec City’s culinary saints, St. Hubert. We also maintain a tradition for having poutine, even if it’s from a low-brow, everyman’s chain. Especially if it’s from a low-brow, everyman’s chain. Such a practice is a way of learning about the largest demographic of a place by eating what they’re eating. St. Hubert, a sort of diner with around 100 locations in Quebec and New Brunswick, served up a sizeable bowl of poutine with fried chicken and barbecue sauce. The crispy chicken chunks contrasted with both the fries soaked in gravy and the half-melted cheese curds in a messy but satisfying way. And the barbecue sauce added a tangy dimension, a welcome element to a dish that sometimes ends up heavy and bland.
Salmon made a return to the table at Graffiti, a restaurant on bustling Avenue Cartier about a mile west of the old city wall. Here we had the spicy salmon tartare served with a mango relish and—inexplicably—french fries. Graffiti seems to be aiming for new flavor combinations, an endeavor I applaud in gastronomy, but occasionally Graffiti’s plates grow too busy flavor-wise, as with my wife’s ris de veau served with both soba noodles and ratatouille. Still, individually, each item was carefully executed and delectable, and their ris de veau, or sweetbreads, were some of the most tender we’ve had—no surprise, since Graffiti is known for their multiple presentations of ris de veau.
We did manage to eat one thing outside: sirop d’erable sur la neige: maple syrup on snow. This is a popular dessert at Quebec’s sugar shacks, the rural, beer hall-style restaurants that customarily serve tourtières (meat pies), ham drizzled with maple syrup, and les oreilles de crisse, or Christ’s ears—the Quebecois term for pork cracklings. They do sort of resemble curly earlobes. Really. But more importantly: why wait for Sunday morning to receive the body of Christ? And why limit yourself to a flavorless wafer when you can munch on his ears? Maybe that’s a good way to insure he hears your prayers.
But the sugar shack we had visited last month was more of a stripped-down version, a mere kiosk that stood outside Quebec City’s ice hotel. (We stayed there for a night, but the ice hotel experience is a whole other story I’ll cover another time.) In fact, the kiosk only sold sirop d’erable sur la neige, a simple pleasure requiring only room-temperature maple syrup, a wooden stick, and snow. First, the sugar shack host pours the syrup into a pre-dug shallow trench in the snow. Then the customer waits for the syrup to slightly harden, after which time the customer rolls up the taffy-like stuff onto the stick. The hardening only took about 20 seconds in 22-degree weather. The sugar shacks are also open year round and make fake snow during the summer, at which time customers have to contain their drool a little longer to wait for the syrup to harden. My wife and I found it refreshing to finally dig into sirop d’erable sur la neige in the snowy season, the season in which the dessert had been invented. If I had to guess, the specialty probably began as an accident:
“Quick! Scoop up the syrup that spilled on the snow! Get a spoon!”
“I can’t scoop it. It’s hardening.”
And then after seeing how the half-frozen syrup rolls up on the utensil: “Hey, check this out. This is fun! Spill some more!”
Or something like that.
Speaking of having fun with your food, we carefully navigated the slippery snow on the sidewalk of steep Rue Sainte-Ursule to reach the restaurant Le Petit Coin Latin for their raclette, a platter of cheese, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, bacon, prosciutto, and potatoes that you cook yourself on a two-tiered tabletop grill. The hollandaise sauce uncannily went well on top of everything, especially the whole leaves of romaine lettuce that served as edible doilies.
We found that we achieved the best results by grilling the bacon first to get the grill top oily and flavorful, and then cooked everything else in that great smelling grease, except the cheese, which we had placed in the scoops that we stuck into the bottom tier for browning. But there were no rules, as we saw other tables mixing and matching, layering cheese atop the potatoes on the top tier. Their cheese didn’t brown, but the end result was the similar in either case: everything melted together in a sticky orgy of fat and carbs, as if the raclette were trying to one-up poutine.
Adding to the already burgeoning category of “food we ate without photographing because all we could think about was devouring it,” was a wapiti (elk) tourtière, which we had at Le Petit Coin Latin the day before. Elk is a difficult meat to conquer gastronomically, owing to its leanness and its tendency to gain revenge on its diners by becoming tough. But in the hands of the chef at Le Petit Coin Latin, the elk tourtière revealed a surprise of tender chunks of the meat in a spicy-sweet blueberry gravy that gleefully clung to the browned pie crust when chunks of the latter fell in.
So we missed out on our picnic. But we certainly didn’t miss out on some of Quebec City’s culinary hits.