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Christmas in Quebec

by Barbara Gibbs Ostmann

If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, the place to go is Quebec, Canada. On a visit last December, we encountered a recent snowfall of more than 20 inches of glistening white stuff, highlighted by festive Christmas decorations, special holiday shopping and the infectious French joie de vivre.
            Quebec exudes Old World charm, yet is so close to home. You feel as though you’re in Europe, but without the long transatlantic flight or jet lag. With its distinctive French flavor and flair, Quebec offers a great getaway anytime of year.  
                  
Christmas market, French style
            The Christmas season is especially festive, with the Marche de Noel, or Christmas market, in Quebec City, as well as similar markets in Montreal and other towns in the province. In Quebec City, which celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2008, the Vieux Port (Old Port) transforms itself from the year-round farmers’ market into the marche de Noel, with 100 beautifully decorated stalls offering foods, wines and gift items from artisans of the province.
As would be expected, maple items – maple syrup, maple butter, maple sugar, maple candy – are popular, with the locals as well as the tourists. But don’t miss the hand-knitted woolens, hand-crafted toys, ceramics, paintings, boutique wines and liqueurs, and other items. To provide fuel for the shoppers, there are bakeries, a small café and a crepe stand, where you can choose between regular flour or buckwheat crepes and a range of fillings from sweet to savory.
             “What is fun about this Christmas market,” says Andre Filteau, general manager of the Cooperative des Horticulteurs de Quebec (Horticulture Cooperative of Quebec), which runs the market, “is that in one place, you can find products from all over the province of Quebec. Everything you buy has a story around it, and in most cases you can meet the producer. The market is like the cave of Ali Baba – there are lots of little surprises. You see new things every time you come and visit.”
             Another holiday special is the Salon des Artisans de Quebec, an upscale version of our arts and crafts bazaars. Held at the Centre des Foires de Quebec, the salon features more than 225 artisans showcasing their jewelry, pottery, clothing, sculptures, paintings and more. An even bigger show with more than 450 artisans, the Salon des Metiers d’Art, is held in Montreal, in the exhibition hall of Place Bonaventure. Both are holiday shopping traditions with the locals.

Shop, Sightsee, Eat
            It’s easy to combine shopping with sightseeing in Quebec City. Wandering through the old town, with its historic buildings, winding hilly streets and beautifully decorated shop windows, is a treat in and of itself. Don’t miss the boutiques along Rue St. Jean, Rue St. Louis and Rue Petit-Champlain. A Quebec classic is Simon’s, a department shore that started in Quebec City in 1860 and now has stores in Montreal and elsewhere. Take a break from shopping for a coffee or hot chocolate or maybe a crepe at one of many eateries in the old quarter.  
            No visit to Quebec City is complete with a stop at the historic Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac (fairmont.com), which is perched atop a hill overlooking the city. This landmark is more than a hotel, it’s a symbol of the city. You can take guided tours of the fabled structure, enjoy a meal or a drink in one of its restaurants or bars, or, best of all, spend the night in this fairytale castle. Be sure to go by the concierge’s desk in the lobby to pet Santol, the hotel’s Canine Ambassador. A St. Pierre breed, a cross of Labrador Retriever and Bernese mountain dog, Santol loves to be petted, taken for a walk or have his photo taken.
For a uniquely Quebecois outing, hop on the ferry that runs from Quebec City across the St. Lawrence River to Levis.  The short ride will allow you an up-close view of the huge chunks of ice floating in the river. Be sure to bundle up well before the voyage! Another fun mode of transport is the funiculaire that goes from the top of the hill near Le Chateau Frontenac to Rue Petit-Champlain in the lower level of the old town.
            UNESCO named Quebec City a World Heritage Treasure because of its unique architecture and historical value, so you can rest assured that the city offers many charms. Considered the cradle of French civilization in North America, Old Quebec (the historic old town within the city walls) is full of museums, art galleries, shops, historic sites and countless restaurants.
            For a taste of traditional Quebec cuisine, don’t miss Aux Anciens Canadiens, which serves traditional Quebec fare such as tourtiere, a meat pie that is traditional for Christmas, in a building that is the oldest house in Quebec (built 1675-76). Another classic on the menu is maple syrup pie topped with heavy cream – delicious!

Many restaurants offer updated versions of the classic Quebec dishes, focusing on using local ingredients in creative ways. At Le Saint-Amour on Rue Sainte-Ursule, chef Jean-Luc Boulay has been voted the best chef of the year in Quebec several times. His cuisine is innovative and the wine list is one of the ten best in Canada. Le Lapin Saute, a cozy bistro on Rue Petit-Champlain, offers a mix of traditional and trendy food served in a quaint, tiny dining room. If you’re visiting the Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec (National Fine Arts Museum of Quebec), stop by for lunch in the Restaurant du Musee for dining with a great view of the St. Lawrence River. These are only a few of the dozens of places to dine in Quebec City – discovering them is part of the fun of a visit.
               
Island of Orleans     
            No matter what time of year, a side trip to nearby Ile d’Orleans (Island of Orleans) is a must. In the summer, it is a lush agricultural paradise. In the winter, it is a snowy winter wonderland. March and April bring the maple syrup season, and the island abounds in maple syrup producers, many of whom offer traditional sugar shack meals and activities – a rite of spring for most Quebecers.
            A great way to visit the island from the comfort of your own home is via a cookbook/tour book, “Farmers in Chef Hats” (Les Producteurs Toques de l’ile d’Orleans) by Linda Arsenault, the daughter of market gardeners on the island. The book (farmersinchefhats.com), in both French and English, showcases the farmers and their products, and includes an agrotourism map to help you plan your own culinary visit. It is packed with beautiful color photography.
Philip Rae, chef and co-owner of Le Canard Huppe, an auberge and restaurant, served as the chef for the book, testing all the recipes. Rae led us on a brief tour of a few culinary stops on the island, including Cassis Monna & Filles, producers of crème de cassis and other black currant products, and the Richard and Nicole Boily farm, producers of maple syrup and other maple products. The Boilys also operate a trout farm. For more information about the island, visit iledorleans.com.

Montreal Merriment
            Whether traveling by car rental, Via Rail train or air, it’s a short hop from Quebec City to Montreal. Montreal is a larger city, with more English spoken, but it is French at heart. Its old town, the historic area around Place Jacques Cartier, is as picturesque as Quebec City. Shopping in Montreal is outstanding – a walk along St. Catherine Street will wear out your credit card as well as your feet.

If it’s Christmas spirit you want, Montreal abounds. From the festive lighting displays along the streets as well as in the incredible underground shopping labyrinth, to exquisite concerts by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, there’s no end to holiday events. Several neighborhood markets offer Christmas markets, and there is the aforementioned Salon des Metiers d’Art at Place Bonaventure. Marche Bonsecours, on St. Paul Street East, houses boutiques offering top-quality Quebec items, from furniture and fashion to crafts and jewelry. The museum gift shops offer a wide range of quality items from around the world as well as from Quebec artisans.

Museums and historic sites offer special Christmas displays. A personal favorite was the elaborate display of nativity scenes from around the world at St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal. Some 250 nativities from 100 or more countries are on display each holiday season at the church, which is the second most important pilgrimage site in North America, second to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico.

There are countless restaurants and cafes in Montreal; we were only able to sample a few during our too-short stay. Breakfast at Boulangerie Premiere Moisson in the Atwater Market is a Montreal treat, any time of year. We had a great lunch at Restaurant Carte-Blanche on Ontario Street East, where French chef Andre Loiseau focuses on local ingredients. Dinner at Aszu, on Notre Dame Street West, was stylish and delicious – and the wine list offers 50 wines and five Champagnes by the glass, perfect for food-and-wine pairing adventures. 

Any time of year, a visit to Atwater Market or to Jean-Talon Market in Montreal’s Little Italy is a culinary experience, as is a stop at Schwartz’s deli for its famous smoked meat. Montreal is also famous for its bagels, and the St. Viateur bagel shop is one of the best.

Tradition reigns
            As modern and trendy as many of the restaurants are in Quebec, the menu for home Christmas celebrations remains decidedly traditional, just as it does here. We asked several locals about their Christmas menu plans, and the resounding response was tourtiere, the traditional meat pie that dates back to the earliest settlers. There are as many versions of tourtiere as there are home cooks in Quebec, so we’re choosing one shared by our friend, Micheline Mongrain-Dontigny, a cookbook author and expert on traditional Quebec cooking. Along with tourtiere, the menu usually includes turkey and maple syrup pie (also known as sugar pie or tarte au sucre) for dessert.
            Traditional Christmas celebrations in the predominantly Catholic province include attending midnight Mass. Just as in the United States, some families open their gifts on Christmas Eve, others on Christmas morning.
            To add a French Canadian touch to your holiday celebrations, try one of the recipes. Joyeux Noel et Bonne Annee (Merry Christmas and Happy New Year).

TOURTIERE DU SAGUENAY
            1 pound lean pork shoulder
            1 pound beef, venison or boned wild fowl meat
            1 pound veal shoulder or boned chicken
            6 medium onions, chopped
            1 teaspoon salt
            1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
            4 large potatoes, peeled
            Enough pastry for three 9-inch pie crusts (your favorite recipe or refrigerated storebought pastry)
            Egg wash (1 egg, beaten, mixed with 1 to teaspoons milk or water)
            Chop the meats into 1/2-inch cubes. Coming meat cubes with onions, salt and pepper in large bowl; mix thoroughly with your hands. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
            Dice potatoes into 1/4-inch cubes. Put in large bowl. Add 4 to 6 cups cold water. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
            The next morning, roll out pastry. (Use two-thirds of the pastry for the bottom crust, and the remaining one-third of the pastry and trimmings for the top crust.) Use bottom-crust pastry to line a baking dish (preferably a cast-iron Dutch oven) at least 4 inches deep that will hold about 12 to 14 cups of filling. Drain potatoes, reserving water. Add potatoes to meat mixture. Transfer mixture to pastry-lined baking dish. Add enough of the reserved potato water (about 3 cups) to bring it up to the top of the meat; add additional cold water if needed.
            Brush outer edge of pastry with eggwash. Cover with top crust; seal edges. In the center, cut a 2-inch hole and insert a small “chimney” of foil. Seal the base of the chimney with eggwash and a bit of the pastry trimmings. Brush surface of pastry with eggwash. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven one hour; reduce temperature to 250 degrees and bake 6 to 8 hours, or until richly golden brown. Check from time to time during baking to make sure the meat is not too dry and the juices can be seen in the foil chimney. If not, add a little hot water through the hole.
            Serve piping hot with beet pickles and a variety of relishes.  
            Yield: 10 to 12 servings.
            Note: Traditionally, lard pastry is used.  
            Adapted from “The Flavours of Canada” by Anita Stewart (Denise Schon Books, 2000).
           
ULTIMATE MAPLE SYRUP PIE
            2 eggs
            1 cup packed brown sugar
            1 cup heavy or whipping cream
            1/2 cup pure maple syrup (not maple-flavored syrup)
            1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
            1 (9-inch) pie shell, baked and cooled
            Lightly sweetened whipped cream and/or toasted walnuts, for garnish
            Beat eggs lightly in medium bowl. Whisk in brown sugar, cream, maple syrup and vanilla. Beat until sugar crystals are dissolved. Pour filling into baked and cooled pie shell. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven 40 to 45 minutes, or until center is just becoming firm. Let cool before serving. Serve topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with toasted walnuts.
            Yield: 8 servings.
Adapted from “The Flavours of Canada” by Anita Stewart (Denise Schon Books, 2000).

When you go ….
            For more information, visit tourism-montreal.org, quebecregion.com, or bonjourquebec.com.
            If going in the winter, be sure to take plenty of warm clothes and appropriate boots. The weather hovered around 0˚F, well below freezing, most of the time we were there. Dress in layers, so you can take off and put on as you go in and out of buildings. Don’t forget a hat or earmuffs and gloves. High boots, preferably waterproof with non-slip soles, are a must.


 

Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a St. Louis-based journalist with more than 25 years of experience in newspaper, magazine and cookbook writing and editing.



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