By Andrea Granahan
On a snowy day, having worked up an appetite roaming a warren of cobble stoned streets and gazing at seventeenth century buildings clustered under the city walls, I suddenly got a whiff of aromas that made my mouth water.
I followed my nose into a small bistro, Le Lapin Sauté
A fireplace on one wall drew me like a magnet. Low wood beams held bundles of drying herbs. Some old copper pots hung on the wall, others were in use in the kitchen emitting the enticing smells. The place was full of people talking animatedly in French.
I stumbled over my own French but Pierre, my waiter, good-humouredly repeated the specials and translated for me as I pored over the menu. Cassoulet, a classic dish, jumped out at me. Before long I was contentedly washing down the succulent meal with some red wine.
“C’est bonne?” Pierre asked. I gave him a thumbs-up sign and he laughed.
Paris? No, I was in Quebec City, North America’s answer to Paris.
Many Americans still tend to think of Quebec in terms of its French fur trapper history, envisioning wooden palisades in the wilderness. While Quebec is proud of that part of her history, and an edgy touch of the wilderness still permeates the sophistication, this is a city that has been civilizing itself since the early 1600s.
For proof of just how sophisticated this city has become you need look no farther than the magnificent Chateau Frontenac. This hotel, in the grand Canadian style of the hotels at Banff and Lake Louise, towers over the city walls and dominates the skyline.
The five star institution boasts Chef Jean Soulard who has won France’s highest award, “Maitre Cuisinier de France” hosts a television cooking show and gives cooking lessons at the hotel. In homage to Quebec’s wilderness tradition he includes wild game on his menu.
Also in keeping with the wild history, the hotel has a ghost who haunts the hotel. The lady had such a lovely time over a hundred years ago when she visited the chateau she has never left. An actress playing the part to the hilt frequently entertains the guests.
She was not the only lady to grace the city. In fact, in the1660s, King Louis XIV of France , delighted with the furs coming from his new outpost, decided it should become a permanent settlement. To do that, the trappers needed wives.
So King Louis rounded up young women orphans from the convents of France. Rumor has it that a few ladies of the night were included for instructional purposes. Called “Les Filles du Roi” The King’s Daughters, they all sailed over, 700 in one ship alone, and were greeted by hordes of happy trappers.
Their mission was to copulate and populate Quebec, one they accomplished with vigor. The average number of children per family until 30 years ago was between 13 and 16. Finally, at that time the daughters of those huge families realized they had a choice and it was “NO!”.
Instead of dealing with so many children they don’t know what to do, Quebec is now facing an aging population, an altogether new problem.
The British, eventually disturbed the peace of France’s colony by invading it. As the Quebecois defended the front at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and St. Charles rivers, the redcoats came in the back way marching across a field owned by a farmer named Abraham in 1759. Today Abraham’s Plain is the site of the annual Winter Carnaval.
The Brits allowed the French to keep their language and religion (something they didn’t do for their own Catholic countrymen at home). Luckily the French also kept their cooking skills.
While the rest of Canada may survive on marmite sandwiches, and under-seasoned sausage, in Quebec even the fussiest gourmet would have to work hard to find something to complain about, and one doesn’t have to frequent the Chateau to find fine cooking. Small bistros pepper the city (no pun intended). They import their wine but do make their own ice wine, a real delicacy. The one possible exception to the excellent food might arguably be poutine. It was the French fur trapper’s answer to fast food. It is French fries topped with fried cheese curds and glued all together with gravy. Poutine is a great source of amusement in Quebec cartoons. It sits in the stomach like a brick – you can eat once to hold you over for a week of chopping wood in the snow.
Quebec makes the most of what it has and in the winter she plays with the cold. The commuter ferry crossing the St. Lawrence is swapped out for an icebreaker. Before the icebreakers were purchased the Quebecois cleverly built temporary winter bridges of ice to cross the river. Many restaurants construct “ice bars” outside, illuminated at night with fiber optic lighting, and they even build their famous Ice Hotel. Now that’s something even Paris doesn’t have.
The European feel of the city is especially evident behind the high walls the British built to keep us Americans from invading. These days we invade with dollars instead of bayonets. Pierced by two gates that had to be widened in the 1950s to accommodate motorized traffic, they surround a wonderful maze of streets that make up the Vieux Quebec, old town, of the city.
Artists, craftsmen and artisans joined forces to preserve and protect the colorful heart of the old town called Quartier Petit Champlain. The shopping opportunities get visitors drooling and spending.
Entertainment is also big in Quebec and it has given the world such phenomena as the Cirque de Soliel and Celine Dion. During Carnaval traditional Arcadian (translate that as Cajun) music from the backwoods days is popular and fur coated people wearing the traditional arrowhead patterned woven sash lead street dances in the old town.
Everyone speaks French, but anywhere near Quebec City they also speak English. The Separatist Movement had its heyday and got rules passed requiring all signs to have the English 50 percent smaller than the French. But when it came to a vote, the Quebecois voted to stay with Canada, so it just seems like another country, and no one has a chip on his or her shoulder about the language. The money is definitely Canadian and our dollar goes a lot farther in Quebec than it does in Euro based France.
They are a fun loving people who welcome visitors and, hey, there’s no doggie poo problem like in Paris. It’s not only closer, it’s a lot cleaner.