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Photos and text: Maureen Littlejohn
The call came at 3:30 a.m. I pulled on my jeans and sweater, wrapped a scarf around my throat and headed outside. The night air was crisp and my friends and I were all a little bleary-eyed as we drove down to the Ile de la Grande Entrée wharf. Pick-up trucks were scattered about and a few bright lights sliced the dark. Cameras in hand, we were ready. This was a scene we wanted to capture. Engines throbbed, water splashed and we started snapping as around 100 lobster boats headed out to the Gulf of St. Lawrence to scoop the day’s catch.
The Iles de la Madeleine, also known as the Magdalen Islands, are home to the biggest lobster fishing port in Quebec. During the 9-week season, from May to July, 325 boats go out to fill their quota. Snow crab is also abundant and much of what is caught goes to the Chinese and Japanese markets.
The history of the islands is deep. Jacques Cartier landed there in 1534 and Basque fishermen started coming to the area in the 16th century. For centuries prior, the Mi’kmaq people visited seasonally to catch walrus. Acadians came in the 1700s and Scots settled on the islands in the 1800s. Scanning the Grande Entrée wharf, I noticed the boats were named in French or English, often for the owner’s children. My favourite was Little John.
Shaped like a fish hook, the Iles de la Madeleine are made up of eight major islands (and many smaller ones), connected by sandy spits. Although they are part of Quebec, the islands are closer to Prince Edward Island. To reach them, most people drive to Prince Edward Island and take a five-hour ferry from the town of Souris. There are also scheduled flights from Quebec City and in the summer there is a one-week St. Lawrence CTMAcruise option departing from Montreal.
We flew, so to get around we enlisted the help of guide, driver and musician Gilles Lapierre. “Here on the islands we don’t have the hour, but we have the time,” he cheerfully told us, explaining that it was OK to slow down.
I have to admit I was there with a mission: To eat as much fresh seafood as possible! Our first lunch at Vieux Couvent in Havre-aux-Maisons did not disappoint. I opted for mussels that were fat and sweet, and washed them down with a refreshing local brew from À l’Abri de la Tempête. The former convent is also an inn with 11 rooms and six apartments in the presbytery. I was lucky enough to stay in Mother Superior’s room with a spectacular sea view.
Beaches are plentiful on the islands and I was eager to see Old Harry Beach, named by National Geographic as one of the best in the world. It was too cold to swim, plus there is a dangerous undertow, so we wandered among the craggy red cliffs that skirted the sand and learned that the islands, long denuded of forests, have serious erosion problems.
“They’ve even had to move some houses back from the edge or they would fall in the sea,” Gilles explained.
Having worked up an appetite with our beach explorations, I was delighted to dig into luscious crab cakes at the Auberge La Salicorne, a restaurant and hotel that specializes in outdoor activity packages with hiking, biking and kayaking.
You might think that a group of islands with a total population of 13,000 would be bereft of certain food groups, such as dairy, but you’d be wrong. At Fromagerie Pied-du-Vent on Havre-aux-Maisons we tasted delicious soft, creamy cheeses including one of raw-milk with a lightly washed rind. Through a glass wall, I could see the cheese maker surveying his moulds. Small exhibits throughout the shop explained why the ancient Canadian or “Canadienne” breed was chosen as a milk producer for this cheese operation. “The breed is small and hearty and came to Canada from France with the first settlers in the 1600s. They produce less milk than other dairy breeds, but it is higher in protein and fat – perfect for cheese!” said company spokesperson Rachelle Savoie. She also pointed out that in the summer the cows eat timothy, brome grass, red clover, fescue and hawkweed, and their hay is lightly dusted with sea spray. “This gives their milk a unique salty, herbal flavour.”
Revival of old methods is trendy in the food world these days and at Le Fumoir d’Antan we tasted smoked herring produced the old fashioned way – in a smoke house. “From 1940 to 1970 there were 42 smokehouses on the islands, employing 1,000 people,” explained Sebastien Cyr, who gives tours of the operation. “The present owner’s grandfather used to smoke a million pounds of herring here. The stocks were decimated by overfishing at the end of the 1970s and it wasn’t until the 1990s when the fish returned that the owner could restart the business.”
I had not forgotten my mission and at Gourmande de Nature I had a hands-on cooking lesson featuring my favourite crustaceans. Owner/chef Johanne Vigneault her colleague Évangeline Gaudet showed us how to tell male lobsters from females (different spindly bits on the underside), and how to use every part of the creature, including boiling the shell for an amazing bisque. “We say lobster from here is the best. Why? The water is cold and there is a rocky bottom. The meat is sweet and clean with no muddy taste,” Vigneault explained. Sampling some of the freshly boiled beasts, I had to agree.
Dinner was a sublime tasting menu at Johanne’s dining establishment Table des Roy. We nibbled on scallop sashimi and foie gras, beef tartar, sweetbreads, local halibut, and wild rose hip and Pied-de-Vent cheese for dessert. I thought I would burst but every forkful was magnificent. Johanne’s nephew Sebastian Vigneault made sure the service was impeccable.
Another highlight was the Musée de la Mere. Walking through the front door, I looked up to see a huge whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling. Archivist and guide Michel Boudreau, told us the whale had been found dead on a local beach and experts were brought in to clean the bones and move them to the museum. His stories of the area were mesmerizing. “There are 1,000 shipwrecks around here. Many survivors ended up settling on the islands. We are the second biggest ship cemetery in North America, after Sable Island.”
I discovered there is another sea creature eaten by Madelinots. Seal. I was apprehensive when I saw it on the lunch menu at Café de la Grave, but decided to be brave and ordered the seal poutine. It was surprisingly unsalty and very chewy. Located in a former general store built around 1865, the café was warm, cozy and filled with locals, some of whom were also eating seal. It wouldn’t be my first choice, but I’m glad I tried it.
Our final night was spent at Auberge Havre-sur-Mer – a heavenly perch over a beach with wraparound balcony. I had a long, relaxing soak in their hot tub, overlooking the sea and mused on my experiences on these remote islands. The people had been warm and friendly, the scenery stunning and the lobster had been out of this world.
What a wonderful hidden treasure. The Iles de la Madeleine are not easy to get to, but worth the challenge for the seafood alone. My mission was complete.