When my husband and I decided to take our kids to Quebec, Canada, we made a pact to explore it through our taste buds. That meant no boring museums. No cultural tours. No long lectures. Just tasting and savoring local cuisine.
It was a different kind of trip for our kids, Ian, 11, and Chloe, 9. Living in South Florida, we had spent our share of time at Disney and on cruise ships. With this trip, it was the first plane ride they remembered; the first rental car; the first extended stay in a hotel.
We began our culinary journey in Montreal at a downtown restaurant. We ordered poutine, a country dish of french fries layered with brown gravy and cheese curds, an elegant step-cousin of chili cheese fries. Poutine, a Quebec staple, is a comfort food, available in many restaurants, including the Burger King in the Montreal airport. Ian, my adventurous eater, dug right in. Chloe, with the pickier palate, tried a few fries and pronounced it "OK." I thought it was delicious.
The next day, after a horse and buggy tour of the Old Montreal ($50 for the four of us), we headed to Chez Suzette Creperie, www.creperiechezsuzette.com, for the "city's best crepes," according to our buggy driver.
With a firm texture and slight eggy flavor, the crepes made sophisticated wraps for our dishes: ham and cheese for me and Chloe, egg dishes for Ian and my husband, E.J. My son loved the buttery maple syrup so much he drank the rest from his little serving cup. We were on vacation, after all.
We piled into the rental car for the three-hour drive to Quebec City, where we stayed just outside of the medieval stone walls. Though the inside of the walled city is charming and quaint, we found the restaurants and shops to be touristy and pricey. It reminded us of a cleaner but older version of the French Quarter in our native New Orleans.
We struck gold in a culinary fashion, however, when we visited Ile d'Orleans, just a short 15-minute car ride away. Home to a large agricultural tradition, the island is chock full of artisans, produce farms, bakers and shops that grow or make their own food. Heavenly.
The island is 42 miles around from start to finish. Our first stop was Chocolaterie de I'lle d'Orleans, www.chocolaterieorleans.com, because they make their own chocolates, of course. We sat at a picnic table on the tree-covered grounds to eat a simple lunch of quiche and sandwiches. The kids picked out a couple of bars of chocolate for us to eat along the way.
Next stop was Polyculture Plante, www.polycultureplante.com, a you-pick strawberry farm with a small produce market stocked with maple syrups and a few breads. Here's a tip: If you want to take home some of the delicious maple syrup, get it at a place like this or at a tourist shop. If you go to a grocery store or Walmart trying to find a better price, you'll be disappointed. They don't stock it. We had the kids choose a little basket of strawberries for our journey.
A lovely ride around the island brought us picturesque views of the St. Lawrence River and the hilly, green landscape of the regions beyond. It also brought us to Les Fromages de I'isle d'Orleans (apparently they have several acceptable spellings of "island" in French), www.fromagesdelisledorleans.com, home of the first cheese made in North America. Cheese lovers, this place will bring tears of joy to your eyes. There is just no other way to describe it.
A girl in period costume stood at a small skillet, grilling $2 wedges of cheese to sample. Ian's eyes rolled in appreciation at the first bite of the golden-crusted little triangle, the creamy cheese melting on his tongue. The shopkeeper gave us a tour of the small refrigerated cases of specialty cheeses made on the island and in Charlevoix, a nearby region.
Our last meal in Quebec was at Buffet Du Sieur De Laviolette in Trois-Rivieres, named after my husband's ancestor, who founded the city. The kids collected paper place mats and business cards with the restaurant name to bring home. And we had one last serving of poutine to help us remember our culinary adventure through Quebec.