Road Trip Eats: Quebec Winter Carnival

Because I currently live in the frozen tundra known as Vermont, I had the unique opportunity to take a quick jaunt up to Quebec this weekend for the annual Winter Carnival (Carnaval de Quebec).  Since the late 1800’s, the city of Quebec hosts a three-week festival celebrating winter activities, Quebecois culture and the creepiest mascots you’ll ever see.
Held on the southern shore of Quebec City overlooking the frozen Saint Lawrence river, the Carnival festivities transform the Plains of Abraham (a city park and site of an important battle during the Seven Years War) into a winter wonderland replete with activities for young and old alike.  During our three days at the carnival we were able to enjoy dog sled and snow shoe races, massive snow slides and incredible snow and ice carvings.  The carnival also featured kid-friendly offerings like an ice tobogganing course and an enormous ice castle built for the famous Bonhomme himself.
This being a food blog and me being a fanatical fair-foodie (nice alliteration!), I would love to talk about all the amazing fried fair cuisine that was particular to the Winter Carnival, but unfortunately, the fair itself isn’t well known for it’s cuisine, save for the famous drink “The Caribou” (spiced red wine with whiskey and maple syrup, often drank by revelers from hollowed out plastic walking sticks topped with a statue of the Bonhomme).  One notable snack worth trying if you ever make it to Quebec or even the far northeastern United States, would be the tire d’érable or maple taffy -hot maple syrup is poured on clean white snow, allowed to quickly firm up and wrapped around a popsicle stick and eaten much like a lollipop.  These taste amazing, especially when you’re using great local Canadian maple syrup, but definitely fall into my mother’s “rot your teeth out” food group.
Because of the strong French influence (the primary language of the city/province is French though they’ll speak English with you if you claim to be from Montreal), Quebec makes for a killer food city.  The food culture of the city is perfectly summed up by a visit to the Marche du Vieux, the Quebec City Market found at the merger of the St. Charles and St. Lawrence rivers.  The marche is the best place in Quebec to find fresh meats, seafoods, pastas and nearly anything else that you could dream of.  We hit the market one morning for some cafe au lait and ham and cheese croissants (chocoloate ones too… for dessert)  and were not disappointed.
For those of you who were hoping for more of a sit down breakfast or brunch, the Cafe de Clocher Penche is a must-visit.  Located in the Haute-Ville region of Quebec, the restaurant named for the leaning steeple of the next door church was bright and airy and was the perfect location for a Sunday morning brunch.  The menu included only a prix-fixe option which gave you the choice of eight breakfast dishes, an excellent yogurt parfait with homemade cranberry and tangerine jellies, juice and espresso.  I decided on the “Du Museau a la Queue”, a breakfast pate made of braised beans and pork with a fried egg and a tomato persillade.  Jess got the “L’Abbe Chamel” which featured poached eggs, ham and brie on a buckwheat waffle with bechamel sauce.  I liked mine a little more because I thought the buckwheat in the waffle overpowered the rest of her meal, but both were excellent and definitely worth the walk across town.
When making the trip to the province of Quebec, you can’t pass up on two well-known Quebecois delicacies: poutine (french fries with gravy and fresh cheese curd) and smoked meat sandwiches (cured and smoked beef brisket sliced thin).  We hit both of those at once for lunch at Le Comptoir.  The smoked meat sandwich was good but was a little too mild-tasting and too tender (I know it’s weird, but you want the meat to have a little bit of a bite to it) to stand up to the gold standard of smoked meats (Schwartz’s Smoked Meats in Montreal).  The poutine, however, was excellent – the fries were crispy enough to keep their shape after being bathed in gravy and the cheese curd was so fresh you could feel it squeak off of your teeth.
If you’ve made it through your breakfast and lunch without a coronary event (it’s good, it’s NOT low-fat) then you have to head by The Hobbit Bistro on St. Jean Street for dinner if only for the transcendent experience of having their boudin noir (French blood sausage).  If you’ve never had it before, good boudin noir is the closest thing to the food-of-the-gods you can find on earth.  If you think I’m out of my mind in my appreciation of this magnificent meat, I suggest checking out the chapter in Jeffrey Steingarten’s “It Must Have Been Something I Ate” to see what lengths he was willing to go to obtain his favorite boudin noir.  I can’t even remember what the rest of the meal was that night, only that it was a pleasant dining experience until I ran out of boudin to eat.  Then it got ugly.  (Side note: The Hobbit’s boudin noir is not made in house, but is obtained from a local source that the proprietors are obviously trying to keep to themselves – I say this because as soon as I asked where to buy some of my own, our extremely English-fluent waiter suddenly could only answer in fast French, broken English, and ambiguous had motions – I’m onto you, monsieur).
If you’re not a fair-goer or an food-eater (are you human?), Quebec may appeal to the beer snob in you.  I was surprised to find that Quebec had a number of truly excellent local microbrews.  For a great selection of both the local hooch and the local music, stop by the Pub Saint-Alexandre for live music almost every night of the week (Mike Deway, below, is the Quebecois equivalent of Jerry Garcia) and tons of local microbrews in bottles and on tap.  If loud music isn’t your scene but you still want to taste some of the local wares, you should try and stop by La Barbarie, a microbrassarie on the north side of town who make all of their own beers in house.  While the Imperial Stout and Russian Ales are incredible, please remember that Barbarie is a little off the beaten path and doesn’t serve food, so when you’ve finished a flight of 8 of their best pints getting back to your hotel in Old Quebec may be more of a challenge than anticipated.

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