In Quebec, there is no other season that brings out the essence of the province than winter – wild and white and magnificent. The Canadian Shield is the foundation of the region, a huge landform of granite spilling from Hudson Bay into the St.Lawrence River. Ice curtains the rocks and snow fills the forests, widely interlaced with thousands of kilometers of snowmobile trails – it was here, after all, that the Skidoo was invented.
Quebec is steeped in history. In 1674, the Company of One Hundred Associates ceded a 65,000 acre seigniory to François de Laval, the first bishop of Québec. Several centuries later, this massive chunk of land in the ancient, well-worn mountains known as the Laurentians came to be owned by Louis-Joesph Papineau another colorful character. Papineau was a rebel of the first order who, after a period of exile in the U.S. and France, returned to build a magnificent manor house in 1850.
In 1930, H.M.Saddlemire, a Swiss-American with a dream, built Le Chateau Montebello, the largest log structure on earth. It was constructed in 1930 in a mere four months. Ten thousand red cedar logs from Western Canada were hauled into the Quebec forest on a railway built for the task. There were so many logs that laid end to end, the length would measure 40 miles.
Today the lobby, particularly at Christmas, welcomes like an old friend. It is warm as only Montebello can be warm. It’s filled with soft sounds, the creaks of well-aged wooden floor boards muffled by thick carpets; the air is richly colored with fragrance – resiny pine boughs and sweet maple being burned in the multi-storied, stone fireplace.
The foods of Montebello are embedded in the culture of the province. From the thin crepes afloat in maple syrup and baked beans (fèves au lard) at breakfast to the game used in the consommé at dinner, the kitchen uses many of the very best local ingredients. Quenelles for the traditional Caesar salad are created with goat’s milk cheese from a farm just down Highway 148; honey comes from La musée de la abeille (the bee museum) near Quebec City. There’s local rabbit, cider and apples from Rougemont, the region famous for its orchards, a good assortment of fabulous Quebec cheeses and from the Eastern Townships comes Brome Lake duckling, maple syrup and sugar.
But for me it’s the trout that tells the most important story. It comes from Kenauk* the 60,000 acre private lake-strewn preserve owned by the hotel and part of the old seigniory. There, a team of wild life biologists headed by Bill Nowell, manage not only the lake system but the only trout hatchery associated with any hotel in Canada. Nowell is a unique man. His chosen role on the old seigniory is as wildlife protector and aquaculturist. Fox, black bear, timber wolves and about 10,000 rotund beaver live happily and naturally in his lake dotted preserve. The trout ponds are used for breeding, stocking and harvesting brown, rainbow and brook trout. Land-locked salmon, ouananiche, abound.
In the wintertime, for the Christmas feasts, the trout from Kenauk is marinated in a maple-sap eau de vie and then served with gingered mayonnaise. But it was late one late autumn when I was privileged to partake in a feast unlike any other.
From my earliest writing days, I have been entranced by the lyrical writing of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher. In her magnificent book, The Art of Eating, she wrote about blue trout (truite au bleu), served to her by a fanatic waitress in northern Burgundy. As the sole diner, M.F.K. was the target of the servant’s fullest attention and persuasive powers. With bucket in hand, she displayed the live fish while sermonizing … ‘But the trout! My God, the trout! …Here is the trout, Madame. You are to eat it au bleu and you should never do so if you had not seen it alive. For if the trout is dead when it was plunged into the court bouillon, it would not turn blue….His little gills are pinched, with one flash of the knife he is empty, and then he curls in agony…and all is over. And it is the curl you must judge, Madame. A false truite au bleu cannot curl.’
Although I am a fisher, until that autumn in the hilly folds of Kenauk, beside a deeply chilled Laurentian lake, I had never anticipated dining on this fabled dish. But Bill Nowell and Alsatian born Marcel Mundel, then executive chef at Chateau Montebello, fulfilled the fantasy for a group of my dearest friends.
The smell of marsh dampness and cedar mingled as the chef fired up the stoves. We were protected from the graying, watery day on the screened porch, languorously mingling. A heady potion of apple and maple wine from the monks of St.Benoit du Lac, those who understand pleasure as men of God should, lulled us all into submission.
Steaming bowls of venison consommé …. fluffy quenelles encased a tart cranberry…then the blue trout… just as Mary Frances had described it, curled and sensual on our plates. No fish could be finer!
The largest expense at Kenauk are the mantles for the gas lamps…dozens of them. The place defines utter and complete privacy. No cell phones…no personal computers…just fly fishing, canoeing and time to heal, relax and just be.
There the wilderness has a language of it’s own. The autumn silence is punctuated by the echoing loon’s call and, in the winter, the poignant howl of distant wolves. In the autumn, trout surface and splash in the streams and the beavers’ loud tail slap warns of intruders. In the winter, away from the light polluted urbanity, the inky heavens are carpeted with stars and Bill Nowell’s gas lamps glow golden, warming the snowy darkness.
*’Kenauk’ is an abbreviation of mukekenauk, one of the words in the Algonquin language for turtle, the amphibian which binds the basic elements of nature, land and water, symbolizing creation. North America itself is known as ‘turtle island’.
Le Chateau Montebello
392, rue Notre Dame, Montebello, Québec J0V 1L0
Tel:819 423 6341
Fax: 819 423 5283
Website: Email: [email protected]
Ginger-Maple Marinated Trout
This is the most delicious gravlax-style fish preparation that I’ve ever tasted. It’s worth searching out the maple sugar but if you absolutely cannot find it, substitute brown sugar and drizzle the trout with 1/2 cup (50 mL) maple syrup before marinating it.
Sève d’érable is an eau de vie made with maple sap. A good brandy may be used as a substitute.
2 lbs rainbow trout fillets
1 cup maple sugar
1/2 cup coarse salt
2 tbsps Sève d’érable
2 tbsps grated fresh ginger
Mix the sugar, salt and ginger. Place a layer of fish, flesh side up, in a non-reactive or glass pan. Spread with sugar mixture. Sprinkle with Sève d’érable. Top with remaining fillets, skin side up. Cover with plastic and press down with a weight. Refrigerate 24 hours.
To serve, scrape excess marinade off fish; slice thinly and serve with Gingered Mayonnaise (recipe follows)
2 tbsps Dijon mustard
2 tbsps maple syrup
2 cups high quality mayonnaise
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
Fresh lemon juice, to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a small bowl, stir together mustard, maple syrup, mayonnaise and fresh ginger. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Refrigerate in tightly covered container till needed.
Makes about 2 cups
Anita Stewart, of Elora, Ontario, is an award-winning freelance journalist and culinary activist
Photo: Ginger-marinated trout (by Stephen Smith)