Culinary Roots

October 2012
Written By: 
Denise Mullen

The trip back home that began with croissant




For as long as I can remember, I have loved all things molasses. To this day, real maple syrup makes my tongue sing. And in a small sidestreet bistro in Toronto many years ago, I developed a low-grade addiction to Coq au Vin and Salade Nicoise.

One-third French on my mother’s side, I was raised as an English-speaking Anglophile, and, except for perfecting molasses cookies, mon Mere’s culinary and cultural roots were put on the back burner.

That is, until I took her on a family trip this summer to Ile d’Orleans, the “Garden of Quebec,” an indescribably beautiful island cradled between the Laurentian Plateau and the Appalachian Mountains, its soil pushing up lush orchards and fields of produce and grains.

My maternal grandparents and an uncle are laid to rest on the island’s eastern banks along the majestic St. Lawrence River at Saint-Jean Parish, with an ancient seawall as the only protection from high tides. The cemetery is full of namesake ancestors who first ventured to “New France” 300 years ago, duking it out with merciless winters and no bridge to the mainland until 1935.

But if necessity is indeed the mother of invention, my islander relations turned harsh elements into fertile farmland and whipped the fruits of their labor into cuisine laced with amour fougueux.

We discovered a Boulanger across the road from the church that offered a second-story terrasse overlooking Saint-Jean parish. The simple intent of a coffee- and-donut-break turned into a collective “ooh-la-la” with fresh ground and pressed coffees creamed with lait bouillant, airy butter croissants and dense sweet rolls that redefined the essence of cinnamon.

Happy hours dictated that we consider all temptations: An ice wine at one of the famille vineyards? Stop into a cidre house for a refreshing glass of a clear alcoholic apple drink or sample artisan beers at a microbrasserie?

We did them all and, much to my surprise, I found a dormant passion for a maple-infused draught crafted at Pub Le Matin, located on a covered terrasse looking upon the St. Lawrence and the rolling mountains beyond.

In fact, everything on the Ile is served with a side of incredible views. And no matter where you manger, bread becomes a guilty pleasure—rustic and hearty and impossible to put down once pads of fresh creamery butter get passed.

The Ile hosts a number of auberges, historic hotels with A-one restaurants, the type of eateries that won’t be rushed and that take immense pride in crisp white linen service and presentation.

Laid out on a large floor tile, I ate a decadently rich pate de fois gras, encircled by a thin layer of duck larde to smear on a bite of crostini with braised figs and a black current cassis compote. Everything I thought I knew about goat cheese went by the wayside once I tasted a paillot brulee, the cheese mousse-ified under a maple crust with a side drizzle of sun-dried tomato vinaigrette.

Meat pies, tourtieres, have long been a staple of French-Canadian kitchens, and I treated myself to a wedge at one auberge where the waiter warned me that it would take long temps to warm the pie properly. It was worth the wait—the pastry was to die for and the savory filling was so satisfying with the accompanying bean dish.

Could there be a gene that carries DNA programming for salad dressing?    

 I was amazed to find that every salad I ate on the Ile came with the same vinaigrette I use at home—a tossing of EVOO, aged balsamic, heavy on the garlic.

 The trip marked a special time in my life. Precious hours spent with my mother who is staring down breast cancer. Taking her and her brother back to the very site of their heritage and, with them, tasting from the land that their forbearers tilled.

It isn’t every day, or even within every lifetime, that you get to share a meal with  family members stretching back three centuries. I got the rare opportunity to meet them all. With every sip and munch I took on Ile d’Orleans, and via my eyes and taste buds, I have a greater understanding of who and what they were.

I’ll be back. Je me souviendrai.