Diving into the Creative Spirit of Charlevoix

Artisanal delights abound in this compelling Quebec region.

An hour east of Quebec City, along the St. Lawrence River, lies a region of shimmering water, ancient mountains, carefully crafted cuisine, and artists bursting with talent.

Charlevoix is filled with untamed nature and charged with an energy that many attribute to the crash of a meteorite 400 million years ago. This giant space rock slammed into Earth with the force of the universe, resulting in a 55-km crater better known as the Astrobleme de Charlevoix.

Some say the meteorite is the cause of positive, creative sparks that attract a plethora of people who want to dive into the Charlevoix experience.

That’s exactly why I drove there a few years ago.

My first encounter with Charlevoix’s joyful spirit was in Baie-Saint-Paul. Strolling along rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste, I was flanked by gallery after gallery overflowing with vibrant artwork, often created in onsite studios. Even though the sky was grey, the street popped with beauty and good will.

Making my way among the bustling shoppers, I spied a quiet flagstone path, leading to an ancient, crumbling house. Maison René Richard was a gallery and museum where Richard, an artist renowned for his landscapes and depictions of Quebec life, spent 43 years of his life until he died in 1982. The house, built in 1852, was now owned by Dominique Stein, widow of Richard’s nephew to whom the home had been bequeathed.

Curiosity got the better of me and I cautiously entered. The living room was chock-a-block with dusty ephemera and bright canvases, including some of Richard’s. After standing there staring for a few minutes, an elderly voice called out from another room to “look around.” Stein, who must have been around 80, shuffled in and asked me how I liked the paintings. They were magnificent. She told me influential Quebec landscape artist Clarence Gagnon had been Richard’s mentor. Gagnon knew the Group of Seven and encouraged some of them, including AY Jackson, to come and paint the area.

Stein passed away in 2020, but I recently learned that the building is being preserved by the municipality as a historical/heritage site.

All this art appreciation left me hungry and I stopped in at the Orange Bistro, located in a cheery yellow ancestral home with wrap-around glass windows. My pizza with trio of piquant and gooey Charlevoix cheeses, plus local sausage, was delicious.

The Charlevoix Flavor Trail is famous, and after one meal in the region I was eager to try a few more home-grown products.

At Laiterie Charlevoix, known for making some of the best fromage in Quebec, Sylvain Hamel welcomed me and took me on a tour. “The cheese here is made from different breeds including Jersey, Holstein and Canadienne cows. We don’t mix it,” he explained, offering delectable samples of Hercule de Charlevoix (similar to Swiss cheese), Le 1608 de Charlevoix (also a mild, hard cheese), and L’Origine de Charlevoix (soft and creamy).

I had never heard of the Canadienne cow and Sylvain explained the origins of the breed came from animals imported from France between 1608 and 1660. Eventually, a new bovine evolved, the only one ever developed in North America. “It is a tough little cow that thrives in rough, mountainous regions, so it does well here.”

My education continued as I learned one pound of cheese is made from 10 pounds of milk. Even so, there was very little waste at this dairy. The liquid whey (a cheese by product) was turned into methane gas used to fuel their cheese production operation.

Another highlight was Centre de l’Émeu, the largest emu farm in Canada. Owner Raymonde Tremblay, a former dietitian, told me she is the sixth generation to have farmed the property. “Formerly it was a dairy and poultry operation, but I knew how lean and tender emu meat is. It tastes like a cross between beef and duck and is very healthy.”

Offering me a sample of emu tartare, I found Raymonde’s description fitting, slightly dark in color, little fat and tasty. The meat products she produces are only available in Quebec, but the skin care side products have found markets all over the world.

“We make creams, soap, shampoos and lip balms from the fat under the hump on the bird’s back. It is very healing and good for anti-aging,” she explained.

After an hour’s drive east along the river to Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive, I boarded a 20-minute ferry to Isle-aux-Coudres. The 23 km-island is popular for cycling and kitesurfing. After burning a few calories on a rental bike, I headed to Les Moulins de l’Isle-aux-Coudres, a museum with a functional watermill (1825) and windmill (1836).  Jerome, the miller, pointed to the mill stones where small grooves crushed the buckwheat while larger ones expulsed the flour. “We get our grain from the island. Buckwheat flour has no gluten so you can’t use it for bread, only crépes and to stuff pillows.”

Cidrerie Vergers Pedneault was the place to find exceptional cider, and samples. The fruit is gathered from a 100-year-old orchard and the cider’s effervescence comes from the traditional champenoise method called riddling.

Back on the mainland, I discovered an evocative place to quench my thirst for libations and history. Maison du Bootlegger was tucked away in the woods 15 km from the town of La Malbaie. A former speakeasy, it was honeycombed with hidden doors, concealed bars and secret passages. Owner Johanne Brassard noted the colorful steak house/supper club was crowded every night of the week. “We get 150 people a night, matter what night and that we are hidden in the woods.”

The club started out as an old farm house that was bought by Pennsylvanian businessman Norie Sellar, who came up in 1930s to hunt and fish. Sellar loved to party, and since it was during the American (and the region’s church enforced) prohibition, Sellar built a maze in the basement to hide alcohol and a casino.

Guests over the years have included former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien, John F. Kennedy, and Elvis, who signed his name on the wall.

“Elvis’ wife Priscilla had a step-father with French Canadian ties,” explained Brassard.

Looking this up, I discovered the step-dad, who was from Connecticut, had a grandfather who was born in l’Isle-aux-Grues.

Charlevoix has no shortage of accommodation and my favorite spot was Le Germain Charlevoix Hotel & Spa, set on a working farm with top-notch restaurant and bucolic outdoor Nordic spa.
If grand, historic hotels are more your taste, the Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu can’t be beat.
Art, food, history and nature are in Charlevoix’s DNA. There’s nothing like a meteorite to spark a little joie de vivre.

Photos and text: Maureen Littlejohn

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