Delightful Dining in the Laurentians' Gastronomic Inns

By Margaret Swaine   Canadian Tourism Commission

Besides the bucolic scenery that beckons in the mountainous countryside north of Montreal, there are charming inns that open doors to gourmet regional cuisine.

My first night in Quebec's Laurentians, I call my husband to describe the bucolic scenery surrounding my bed and breakfast or "gîte" in French: a land dotted with apple orchards, vineyards and ancient farmhouses of stone and sloping tin roofs. Set in Saint-Joseph-du-Lac a mere half-hour northwest of downtown Montreal, it feels like a place in early Quebec history.

"I thought the Laurentians were ski hills, Mont Tremblant and other snowy slopes," says my husband. Neither a skier nor fond of winter, he has declined to join me on my expedition to discover the region's gastronomy. "They are partly that," I reply, "but look at a map. The area is huge and diverse."

I have begun my journey in apple, maple-syrup and vineyard country with a stay at La Roche des Brises, a hive of year-round activities operated by Gina Pratt and husband Jean-Pierre Bélisle. In spring the maple sap runs, the sugar shacks are opened to the public and people flock to the property to see the sap turned into maple syrup and enjoy meals of scrambled eggs, sausages and beans drenched in the amber liquid. During the brilliant fall foliage period, it's apple and grape harvest season, and visitors pick their own apples and sample apple cider and wine.

Year-round, food lovers come for the fine regional cuisine at the Brises des Bois restaurant (beside their wine-tasting room). Chef Kevin Kelly and sommelier/maitre d' Marie Bélisle (the owner's daughter) create a truly gourmet dining experience at the restaurant, which overlooks rolling farmland. Accommodations are in a house across the street, really a small inn or "auberge," with seven large, luxurious rooms. One of a few five-star gîtes in the province, this country gem requires advance reservations. Ditto for the restaurant - Quebecois love their fine food.

The following day I stop at Les Vergers Lafrance to sample a range of their strong (alcoholic) ciders, from sparkling to still and dry to sweet apple cider ice wine and a port style aged in wood. All delicious, I buy a champagne-method one and some artisanal cider vinegar to take home. On autumn weekends, 2,000 visitors are attracted by the café, live folk music and picnic areas at Vergers Lafrance.

Next I head for nearby Saint-Benoit-Mirabel to visit Intermiel, a family-run farm of 2,000 beehives and myriad honey products of every imaginable variety, including eight different honey wines as well as cosmetics made from royal jelly. A guided tour (with a film and tasting) lasts two hours. For kids, Intermiel offers a learning centre, animal-filled barn and puppet shows.

A leisurely drive along backcountry roads leads to Le Clos Joli in Morin Heights. This family-owned auberge and restaurant is five minutes from the ski hills and shops of Saint-Sauveur-des-Monts. Owner-chefs Andrée Theoret and Gemma Morin delight visitors from around the world with their seasonally inspired variations of salmon, lamb, venison, bison and duckling.

Formerly a farmhouse, the place has nine bedrooms with basics like en-suite bathrooms and a clothes cupboard, but little else. Its draw is the package for two: room, five-course meal and full breakfast at $160. The table d'hôte without accommodation starts at $35. My seven-course $45 dégustation menu ends with Quebec cheeses and dessert. Happily, I can just roll into bed.

Next morning, I visit the nearby Ofuro Spa to rejuvenate. Set in the woods where two streams meet, with natural waterfalls and bathing pools, it's an oasis of peace.

My destination in Val-David is Edelweiss, a charming auberge with large rooms, most with fireplaces, balconies and therapeutic multi-jet tubs-for-two. The award-winning dining room on the second floor is presided over by owners Nathalie Chenier and her Belgian husband Olivier Sadones, the chef. The meal is an extravaganza perfectly matched with a selection of wines by the glass. I decide not to tantalize my husband with an envy-inducing phone call describing the Quebec foie gras, deboned Belchasse squab, terrine of three Quebec cheeses and Belgian chocolate mousse. Instead I sink into my spa tub and let its 16 jets simultaneously caress my body. I don't miss my man one bit this night.

On day four I visit Gérald Le Gal, owner of Sainte-Adèle's Gourmet Sauvage, a company that harvests wild edibles from Canadian forests. His products, including cattail hearts, milkweed pod ketchup and cedar jelly, are sold in stores throughout the Laurentians.

I've wanted to eat at Hôtel La Sapinière ever since my childhood, when during family ski vacations in nearby Val-Morin I would ski over to peer through its windows. Even then I knew its reputation for gourmet food. Founded in 1936, today it's the granddad of Laurentian resorts, with most of its 70 rooms recently renovated.

Much-awarded chef Daniel St-Pierre (formerly of L'Eau à la Bouche and other renowned establishments) heads the kitchen. The place is so well loved that almost half its customers are repeats, some reserving a year ahead. The menu changes daily so there's no fear of boredom. St-Pierre is working with others in the area on a Laurentian "gastronomic route" that will link fine restaurants that use regional products in at least 75 per cent of their menus.

After an impressive meal, maitre d' Gilles Godbout shows off the inspiring 10,000-bottle wine cellar. Alas, the Pétrus is gone: Godbout says an American bought it all, spending $25,000 on wine in two days.

Driving home in the morning, I remember the tip a fellow foodie gave me about the Becs-Fins boutique, a gourmet outlet on Route 158 between Saint-Jérôme and Lachute. I stop to load up on foie gras, tourtière, fresh and smoked duck breast, duck confit, pintade terrine and rabbit in mustard sauce. A peace offering to my husband that will thrill his taste buds.

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