Thursday, October 18, 2012

Quebec, Eh! (part 2)

            It’s been a while since I wrote about my recent trip to Quebec.  (Here’s Part 1, if you missed it.)  Luckily, every meal remains imbedded in my mind.  And luckily for my waistline, there were some non-eating moments to report, one of which was on Thursday, with pouring rain.  We ate the special bagels from Montreal—which were delicious, which are being mail-ordered to our house in Virginia as we speak—and stared at the rain.  And stared.  And stared.  Finally—at the moment at which it was at its worst, we decided that would be exactly the right time to venture forth and walk through town, down a steep, scary staircase, and wander around, lost-ish, looking for the Musee Canadien des Civilisations.
            Haha.  The rain looked like it was clearing up until the exact moment we stepped outside, feeling committed, which is when it turned into a drenching downpour.  Anyway, we made it to the museum and spent several hours learning about Canadian culture and history through a rather sociological approach.  For example, there was a lovely (and semi-relaxing) exhibit watching a video about the influence of winter on the culture, with the steps of dealing with winter outlined like this:
--horror/fear: unprepared people freezing/starving, etc. in the very early days
--a sort of surrender: because winter was a time of shutting down, there was nothing to do but go to parties and hang around the house, waiting to see if  your neighbor needed you (lots of sleighs and fireplaces and pots of soup and maple trees…roughly the late 1800s-1920s, it seemed
--fighting winter with fierce desperation:  a modernized society can’t shut down because of snow; lots of snowblowers, car wheels grinding on ice, cold people waiting for buses…looked very grim and depressing…our current state
--and the final stage, one we are advised to move toward:  acceptance.  Winter is a part of life, and we will not conquer or prevail in the long-term.  Pretty scenes of snow-covered trees.  Reflective music. 
            After the museum, we (I) made a rare food misstep.  Even though I KNOW that restaurants smack in the tourist district are often crappy, and I KNOW that it’s very easy to make bad crepes, we went to a crepe/fondue restaurant smack in the tourist district.  I’ll let it slide by namelessly, but when you see it, you’ll know the one I mean.  If you accidentally end up there, maybe try the fondue, because how can anyone screw up melted cheese?
            Anyway, the main food event was dinner at Le Saint-Amour, sitting in an interior garden, contemplating how many ways one might eat foie gras.  I had it seared, and Steve had it five ways.  Oh, yum!  Steve had lamb three ways, and I had sweetbreads (I know, again! But trust me when I say this isn’t a dish I make often at home, haha), served with shrimp and a mushroom sauce.  Oh, yum!  For dessert, Steve had a dessert that was basically chocolate five ways, and I had cheese.  Oh, yum!  Not a cheap place, but a place where the food exceeds expectations, and worth a splurge.
            Friday we took a tour of the Citadelle, a star-shaped stone fort on the top of the bluff.  Beautiful views of the city.  It’s still a working military base, so a sweet young woman led us on a tour.  My favorite part was the last building, which remained from the previous French fort, the building of last resort where soldiers who were about to be overcome were supposed to run and stave off the invaders through tiny, slit of windows cut into five-feet thick walls.  This is where I want to be when the zombies attack—and there was an interesting museum inside, with artifacts from various wars.
            Since it wasn’t raining, we took that opportunity to walk through the park, The Plains of Abraham, and check out some more city views, and then we wound our way through some residential and city neighborhoods, away from the tourist zone, ending up in a cute restaurant with a pig on the sign:  steak frites and a smoked meat sandwich.  The fries were a little disappointing, but both meat products were excellent.
            This dream of mine isn’t up there with winning a Nobel Peace Prize or anything, but I had always wanted to see a Canadian junior hockey team play.  Think of the way small town Texas views Friday night high school football and this is my perception of the general approach to Canadian junior league hockey.  So we got tickets to see the Remparts, Quebec’s team of 16-20 year old boys, and they were GOOD!  If the NHL ever gets its act together and ends the lock-out, I’m certain some of these kids will make the grade.  It was interesting to be way, way out of the tourist zone and to see how some hockey traditions transcend nations:  I assumed the (avid!) fans would yell in French, and there was that, but the main cheer was one you hear at any hockey rink, “Let’s go, Remparts!”  Of course, “Remparts” is shrieked with a beautiful French accent.  The Remparts kept their winning streak alive and won in overtime—after tying the game in the last few minutes!  Very exciting!  Yes, shirts were purchased…  (While in Canada, one of the books I was reading was a hockey anthology called Riding on the Roar of the Crowd, compiled by David Gowdy—highly recommended for fans of old-time hockey!)
            Oh, what’s sadder than the last day of vacation?  We decided to wander around town, agenda-less beyond a desire to buy another round of maple products, and on the spur of the moment, we hopped onto one of the small electric buses that circle the tourist area to see where we’d end up.  What we hopped into was an amusing and embarrassing discussion between a perky Quebec woman and a tight-lipped American Republican couple who didn’t care for her comment:  “You have the most amazing president, Barack Obama.  I am in love with him!” delivered in a charming, effusive, French accent.  After the Americans explained that he spent too much money, she noted, “Oh, but was it not Mr. Bush who spent all that money?” and the Americans noted that, in fact, all the money was spent by Bill Clinton.  (??)  The Canadian woman did not miss a beat and effused, “Oh, but I am in love with Bill Clinton too!  I am simply blind to his flaws!  I love Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both, equally!”  The Americans finally realized they were beat, and exited the bus, good-naturedly (or else filled with stories about that evil socialist country to the north).
            I was able to give directions to another American couple on the bus, which made me feel as though I was a real insider.  Isn’t that the mark of any successful vacation?
            We hopped off at the lower city, deciding to pop into some of the charming antique shops lining the street.  Steve managed to find the only vintage cocktail shaker for sale in the whole city, and I managed to find the CUTEST vintage figurines of the mascot of Quebec’s annual winter carnival, Bonhomme, which will make adorable Christmas ornaments.  (This link to eBay will give you an idea of exactly how CUTE I’m talking!)
            We were near the farmer’s market, Marche du Vieux-Porte,which was much more crowded on a Saturday, filled with tourists off the cruise ships seeking maple anything and Canadians buying produce for Monday’s Thanksgiving dinner.  We bought bread and cheese and maple products and a tiny slab of foie gras.  Of course we had to try a hot dog since there was a stand that sold several varieties.  Ours was spicy, with a grilled bun and sauerkraut.  I could have eaten two without batting an eye…but I didn’t.
            Some more walking and shopping and admiring the St. Lawrence River, then we went to sit at the bar for a last drink and snack at Aux Anciens Canadien before it filled up.   Sortilege for me (I’m sad to say that I immediately recognized the bottle behind the bar!) and another plate of smoked eel and sturgeon; Steve tried the famous grand-mere pea soup.  Back home to pack and enjoy a late dinner of cheese and foie gras from the market.
            You won’t be surprised to hear that at the Montreal airport, we stumbled into a smoked meat restaurant, which eased our way out of Canada and back home.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.