Tadoussac in Quebec, Canada – remote and spectacular
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Tadoussac, on first acquaintance, seemed an unlikely place in which to experience some of the best cooking I had encountered in North America. It has a long history of tourism, to be sure. The original Tadoussac Hotel opened in 1864. Four years earlier, during a tour of Canada, the future King Edward VII was carried to safety when trapped by the tide while salmon fishing, not far away on the Sainte Marguerite river.
But the remoteness of the place - some 3hrs from Quebec City and a short, free, car ferry ride across the mouth of the Saguenay Fjord, hardly suggested we would find a restaurant such as Chez Mathilde. My starter of lobster. shrimp and yellow beet, topped with smoked salmon was followed by a wild mushroom risotto that had me purring. Even more surprising was the instant response of our waitress when I asked her to identify the fungus: two kinds of chanterelle and pieds de mouton, known in the UK as hedgehog mushrooms.
Dinner Chez Mathilde encapsulated the huge difference between French Canada and its neighbours. It was hard to imagine getting as fine a meal or as quick and comprehensive an answer to my question in a similarly small US town, for example. This was the perfect trip on which to appreciate those differences. We had flown from Heathrow to Boston to join relatives in Massachusetts before driving north for 6hrs 30mins through New Hampshire and Vermont to Quebec City. From there it was north east along the St. Lawrence river via the impressive Montmorency Falls (higher than Niagara) to Baie St. Paul.
Long a magnet for artists - and full of small galleries - Baie St Paul is a convenient jumping off point for several national parks. Closest is Grands-Jardins, is only a half hour's drive away. Granite cliffs rise abruptly from dense cushions of forest. We checked in at the reception centre, where you pay the entrance fee of CAN $6.50 a head, picked up a map and set out for the Mont du Lac des Cygnes, a hike of around four hours, there and back. The Cygnes in its name was originally Signes, but it was changed, so ths story goes, after swans were seen brooding in the lake at its foot. The path up was immaculately maintained. The low scrub was thick with blueberries. Red squirrels scampered between the silver birch and mountain ash.
At the summit we stood on the semi circular rim of an enormous crater, one of the ten largest in the world, created by the impact of a huge meteorite. The view was extraordinary. In the distance was the wide St. Lawrence. The forest below was dotted with lakes. The alpine tundra is at its southernmost limit here, with lichens so fragile that a boardwalk has been built to protect it from the boots of walkers. We picnicked in the shelter of a rock and watch curtains of rain blowing in from the west. The wind stiffened in our faces as we headed back down.
Driving back we were diverted by a sign to the Ferme Basque, whichwas started ten years ago by Isabelle and Jean-Jacques Etcheberrigay. Isabelle's parents were from the French Basque region, though she was brought up near Paris. The farm sells duck rillettes and confit, terrine and magret, boudin noir (black pudding) and - though you may object to the means of its production - foie gras. Back in town I ate duck from the farm, cooked with blackcurrant, at the Mouton Noir restaurant. The menu was only available in French.
On then to Tadoussac via the spectacular Hautes Gorges de la Riviere Malbaie park, where we failed to start early enough to complete the evidently superb 4-6hr climb to and descent from L'Acropole des Draveurs. This route is one of those designated "difficult" by the national parks organisation but provided you are reasonably agile, that should not deter you. Difficulty is in the need for effort, rather than nerve.
Near Tadoussac we walked for two hours at low tide on shining sand a shingle, against a ferocious wind, and saw nobody. This is a great area for whale watching, but instead of taking a boat cruise we drove to nearby Baie Ste Marguerite, in the Saguenay Fjord park, where you can see the glinting white backs of beluga whales. It is the southernmost concentration of these mammals, isolated for some 8000 years from their Arctic cousins at the end of the Ice Age.
Hiking high above the fjord I disturbed a bull moose, complete with majestic antlers, browsing by the trail. It clattered away into the forest, defying our efforts to see it again. Somehow it threw the sophistication of Chez Mathilde into even sharper relief.
Returning there later we drank maple wine and dined to the accompaniment of a very able jazz piano and bass duo played through the evening - and I ordered the risotto again.
Roger Bray flew from Heathrow to Boston with Delta Airlines. In Tadoussac he stayed at the delightful Auberge Maison Gagne, a B&B where the staff could not have been more helpful.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Frontier Travel for tailor-made holidays to Canada, including Tadoussac.
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