Cantons-de-l’Est: Eastern Townships in Quebec
New England Charm with Québec Flair
Part 4 of my Trip Across Canada
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Just over an hour and a half (by car) out of Montréal is a hidden jewel in the Québec crown, Cantons de l’Est or in English, the Eastern Townships sit north of New England in the United States and south-east of Montréal; farmland and vineyards are criss-crossed with white picket fences, blazing maple trees, moody lakes, pine forests and quaint wooden houses with wrap around terraces, in and near towns and villages with English names such as Sutton, Richmond, Stanstead, Windsor and Granby. When the United States declared independence in 1775, Loyalists who remained faithful to the British Crown flocked to the Eastern Townships, officially designated as such in 1792, which is why there are so many English place-names, as well as Victorian architecture in this delightful part of Québec.
As well as the beautiful rolling countryside with its apple orchards, dairy cattle and vineyards, the Eastern Townships are also known for their charming Cafés de villages, antique shops and family run B and B’s. During the winter months, the area is also very popular as a ski resort, with cross-country skiing and snowboarding being especially popular. I was fortunate enough to be there at the beginning of the Fall (autumn) when the maple trees were just starting to turn colour and the days were warm and sunny with crisp, cool evenings and early mornings…….the grapes were just being harvested and the apples were also being picked for the local cider. Not all the apples are picked at this time of the year however, some are left on the trees until January or February, when they are picked at night when the temperature drops to between -8°C and -15°C, (as are many grapes) which go towards the making of Ice Cider (and Ice Wine), both are favourite tipples of mine!
On my trip there in September, I visited a local vineyard, where I joined the honourable ranks as a Maître-Sabreur, imbibed in the local ice cider at a local orchard, joined in with the “joie de vivre” and had lunch at one of the Cafés de villages, visited a Benedictine abbey where I chatted to one of the brothers (and had a cheese tasting session in the same abbey), chilled out for the evening (and overnight) in a Spa with award-winning food and wines and also enjoyed an early morning “fitness” walk around the Spa complex. The area is indeed charming, and there is a diverse range of places and things to see and do. Of all the places I have visited in Canada, this remains one of my favourite areas – it’s undoubtedly picturesque, but, the townships also have a mellow, laid-back feeling and atmosphere that I revelled in after two hectic weeks travelling.
If you planning a trip to Montréal or Québec, I urge you to make time to visit the Eastern Townships for a relaxing and rejuvenating break; there are numerous B and B’s to stay in, as well as the fabulous Spa Eastman, where I stayed……for foodies, there are plenty of opportunities to taste and enjoy the local produce, such as wine, ice wine, ice cider, cider, cheese, maple syrup and honey, as well as visit the vineyards, orchards, hives and dairies that produce these local specialities. The region is also well-known for its Chefs Créateurs Restaurants and Créateurs de Saveurs shops and markets. And, just to get you in the mood, the local Chefs créateurs, Cafés de village and Créateurs de saveurs have compiled a fabulous little on-line recipe book here: Ingredients to make your mouth water (Recipes), where one of the specialities of the region is the Boston style Steamed Brown Bread, that Puritan pilgrims made when they came to America. The influence of the New England states across the border is evident, but in a very Québecoise way, with French being spoken and lots of French recipes being served in the numerous eateries.
My itinerary for two days and a night in the area comprised:
- Visit and tasting at Vignoble de l’Orpailleur (winery) – L’Orpailleur is located in Dunham, in the Eastern Townships, near the American border. This beautiful winery and vineyard is where I became a Maître-Sabreur – a master of the sword! I took the neck of a champagne bottle off with the cork, using an old sword, in one clean sweep, and was awarded the order of a Maître-Sabreurs, as you can see by my certificate below! I was shown around this pioneering vineyard by Edith, my guide and professeur de sabrage; L’Orpailleur is Québecs first winery and is co-owned by vintners Hervé Durand and Charles-Henri de Coussergues, and Frank Furtado and Pierre Rodrigue. A dégustation was arranged for me, and I have to say that the wines were as good as any I have tasted in France, with the L’ORPAILLEUR ICE WINE, L’ORPAILLEUR ROSÉ and LA PART DES ANGES DE L’ORPAILLEUR being my top three favourites. L’Orpailleur not only grows and produces wine, but they also have an excellent restaurant, where seasonal meals are offered, as well as all year round banquets.
- Visit and tasting at Domaine Pinnacle (ice cider) – Domaine Pinnacle is a family-owned orchard and cidery located on a beautiful heritage property near the historic village of Frelighsburg in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, which is dedicated to creating the world’s best Ice Apple Wine. And, I can vouch for the fact that their ice ciders are DIVINE! The Domaine sits within a 430-acre apple orchard, on the southern slopes of Pinnacle Mountain, and it being located on the 45th parallel – the same latitude as the world’s renowned winegrowing regions – the south-facing orchards benefit from a micro-climate that is particularly well suited for apple production. The estate’s apple orchards were planted nearly a century ago, but it wasn’t until 2000 that Domaine Pinnacle created its very first ice cider. I was treated to a dégustation that took me through the complete range of ciders on offer (and yes, I was a bit woozy afterwards!)
- Lunch at Le Cafetier de Sutton (Café de village) – Café, bistro and restaurant. After a morning of wine and cider tasting, I was more than ready for something to eat, and so we (Marouan my guide and companion) stopped at this delightful little Café in the village of Sutton for lunch. The menu was varied and offered: Coffee roasted on site, eggs, omelettes, eggs Benedict, home-made muesli, French toast, St-Viateur bagels, pastries. Soups, sandwiches, paninis, veggie-burgers, bagels with smoked salmon. Beer and wine. I opted for a Melted Brie and Apple Croissant sandwich, and Marouan tucked into a Chicken and Brie Bagel with Spicy Potato Wedges…..the Café was packed, the atmosphere was warm and friendly, and the smell of the coffee being roasted on the premises was intoxicating. We both enjoyed a coffee after lunch with a dessert of Frosted Carrot Cake, which we shared! There is Wi-Fi available, which I greedily used, not being on data roaming and the Café is open daily from 7 am to 7 pm.
- Abbaye de St-Benoît-du-Lac (visit and cheese tasting) – Starting in 1912, Benedictine monks from France built a monastery overlooking Lake Memphrémagog. The modern Saint-Benoît-du-Lac Abbey, designed by Dom Bellot, pays tribute to the harmony of natural geometric forms and makes splendid use of multicoloured bricks. Services in Gregorian chant. As if I’d not eaten (and drank) enough, the next stop at the stunning Abbaye de St-Benoît-du-Lac not only offered a chance to talk to one of the oldest Benedictine monks in the abbey, but also a chance to taste some cheese, which I am always more than happy to do! The cheese from the abbey is famous, and I’d already had a chance to taste some when I was in Montréal; the monks make a variety of cheeses from Bleu Bénédictin, a delectable blue cheese, to French Moine style cheese as well as Fontina and goat’s cheese Ricotta. They also make apple sauce, cider and jams and the shop was a hive of activity when I was there. The shop is (obviously) closed during Mass, which is at 10:45 am until 11:45 am. As well as my cheese tasting, I was taken on a tour of the abbey, including the immense and well stocked library, which holds books in many different languages.
- SPA Eastman (dinner, overnight stay and breakfast with spa activities) – Divine peace! Nestled mountainside facing Mont Orford in the Eastern Township, the Spa Eastman offers pampering for both the body and the spirit. After a hectic day of drinking wine and ice cider, as well as enjoying the local produce and cheese, I was relieved to arrive at my destination for the night, the tranquil and idyllic SPA Eastman and Hotel. The Spa is set in several hectares of stunning woodland, with walking trails and lakes, as well as numerous outdoor Nordic baths, steam baths and plunge pools. Awarded “The Best Spa in Canada” by Spafinder’s 2015 Wellness Travel, it’s not hard to see why – with its contemporary accommodation, spa facilities, natural beauty spots and excellent “tonic” cuisine, it was a fabulous way to end my time in Québec. I met the executive chef, see below, for a chat and a tour of the kitchens, and was very impressed with the innovative and healthy menus. I dined in the restaurant that evening with Marouan and Danie from Tourisme Cantons-de-l’Est, and we were treated to a spectacular “tasting dinner menu” with an emphasis on gluten-free, dairy free and plant-based food. The soup and salad bar was a wonderful idea for the starters, with your main meal and dessert being served at the table. Accompanying our meal was a selection of paired organic wines, which complimented each course perfectly. Breakfast was just as impressive next morning, with the signature dish of POACHED EGG WITH VEGETABLE “HOLLANDAISE” SAUCE being served, which was delicious. As well as all of the “treatments” in the spa, you can also indulge in a manicure and pedicure as well as facials, massages and a make-over for your hair at the on-site hairdresser. My room with a view was large and airy with a balcony and am en-suite spa shower and a separate WC and handbasin. The whole Spa Eastman experience was one of pure indulgence and relaxation from start to finish.
- Meet Mr. Kevin Belisle, Executive Chef at Spa Eastman – Kevin Belisle, a committed chef aware of his responsibilities for a fair, just, and healthy society, has been the head chef at Spa Eastman since December 2012. He was honoured as Chef Santé 2013 at the Société des chefs, cuisiniers et pâtissiers du Québec’s Gala du président. An interview was arranged with Kevin and he kindly gave up an hour of his time to talk me through the menu planning, recipe ideas and also took me on a tour of the kitchen. Kevin creates the recipes and menus with allergies, health and well-being in mind, and so lots of the meals on offer are “raw”, pickled, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, dairy-free and low in calories and fat. You can however, enjoy a steak or a piece of locally caught grilled fish as well as duck and poultry. I enjoyed a superb meal at dinner later that eveing, RED DRUM- a local White Fish With Flaky Texture served with Artichoke and Yellow Zucchini Sauce, Oyster Mushrooms from “Les Champs Mignons”, Cipollini Onions, Comfit Tomato and Black Olive Salt. Kevin was charming and very modest about his success – he has been a professional chef for the past 14 years, including a year spent in France in order to refine his craft. In 2013, he is named Health Chef during the SCCPQ’s 60th Gala.
Having enjoyed a fascinating and relaxing day and a night in the Eastern Townships and at all the locations above, it was time to move on; Marouan drove me back to Montréal the next day, where I caught a flight back to Toronto, and on to my next big Canadian adventure, a trip on the famous “The Canadian” with VIA rail across Canada from Toronto to Vancouver, vis Winnipeg in Manitoba. So DO pop back in a week when I will be sharing my experiences on this most iconic and famous of trains and train journeys. If you are ever in Montréal, DO try to make time to visit this gem of a region, especially in the Fall when the trees are a blaze of colour………See you later this week with more traveller’s tales and some new recipes too, à bientôt, Karen
Disclaimer and thanks:
I was the guest of the Destination Canada, Keep Exploring Canada, Tourisme Montréal, Tourisme Quebec, Tourisme Cantons-de-l’Est and Tourism Eastern Townships, as well as various hotels, provinces and restaurants that I will mention in my individual posts: all my flights, transfers, train journeys, accommodation and meals were included, as well as all trips, excursions and special cookery sessions with local chefs. With profound thanks to all the people and organisations that looked after me and made my trip so memorable and exciting.
This trip could not have been possible without the following people and organisations, as well as others already listed above:
The Eastern Townships (French: Cantons de l’Est) is a tourist region and a former administrative region in southeastern Quebec situated between the former seigneuries south of the Saint Lawrence River and the United States border. Its northern boundary roughly followed Logan’s Line (or Logan’s Fault) ‒ the geologic boundary between the St. Lawrence Lowlands and the Appalachian Mountains.
The region comprises counties that were originally divided into townships after the traditional method of land grants of the original New England and New York settlers. Earlier French settlement along the Saint Lawrence River had divided the landscape into parishes andSeigneuries. The tourist region now covers most of the region. The administrative region, officially called Estrie, is slightly smaller. The principal cities are Sherbrooke, Granby, Magog, and Cowansville.
The towns of Drummondville, Victoriaville, and Thetford Mines are part of the historical region. The region has summer colonies used by vacationing Montrealers and several ski resorts, including Mount Orford, Ski Bromont, Mount Sutton, and Owl’s Head.
As of 2012, the entire region is almost entirely Francophone (even more so than other regions of Quebec), with the notable exception of Lennoxville; Lennoxville is evenly divided between English and French speakers and hosts the region’s only English-speaking university, Bishop’s University. Even though the region is now predominantly French-speaking, the influence of the Loyalists and settlers from New England can still be observed in the architecture of older buildings and the names of various towns.