Exploring Quebec’s Eastern Townships
Head outside of the big cities and see what there is to taste in the smaller country villages
Saint-Benoit-du-Lac Abbey in autumn
Montreal is a mecca for food lovers — but, for a taste of Quebec beyond the big-city bustle, head to the Eastern Townships.
Located in southeastern Quebec, between Montreal and Quebec City, the Eastern Townships run along the American border. Just 80 kilometres southeast of Montreal, this bucolic travel region, dotted with farms, orchards and vineyards, is cottage country and a popular place for urbanites to escape to.
It’s long been on my radar — the land of Benedictine cheeses, Brome Lake duck and charming country inns, and a mysterious sea monster that’s said to live in the depths of Lac Memphrémagog in the town of Magog. The 50-km lake snakes through the northern Appalachian Mountains and into Vermont, and, as we cruise its shores, I’m on the lookout for signs of another kind of mystery.
Where to stay
Award-winning writer Louise Penny lives in the Eastern Townships and sets her popular whodunits here. As a long-time fan, I have my eyes peeled for anything that resembles Three Pines, the village at the centre of many of Penny’s mysteries, or anyone who looks like her protagonist, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.
Though my hosts assure me it’s all an author’s invention, when we check into the lovely Manoir Hovey outside North Hatley, I feel like I’ve been here before. Like the posh country inn where Penny’s fourth book, A Rule Against Murder, unfolds, Manoir Hovey is set in a lovely lakeside garden. And, like Gamache, Penny’s savvy French-Canadian detective and gourmand, I’m looking forward to the haute cuisine.
photo courtesy of manoir hovey
Manoir Hovey's garden.
The more than 100-year-old Manoir was modelled after George Washington’s Mount Vernon home and today is part of the Relais & Châteaux group. Outside, there’s room to sit on the lawn in an Adirondack chair, or you can lounge in a wingback in the library, sipping something from the Manoir’s 900-label wine list.The property offers an eclectic collection of rooms and cottages, and mine is a stunning mix of old and new, with French doors opening onto a wide verandah, a contemporary free-standing bath and bold, modern furnishings inside.
Chef Roland Menard has been cooking here for more than 30 years, with his young sous chef, Francis Wolf, alongside him for more than a decade, and their cuisine is a similar balance of traditional and cutting edge. The dinner here does not disappoint, from local foie gras en torchon, wrapped in a towel or cheesecloth for cooking, with elderberry flower bread and angelica ashes, to Appalachian venison loin with onion gnocchi and sea buck-thorn tart.
Eating in the Eastern Townships
Marinated Brome Lake duck breast.
Quebeckers appreciate good food and have mapped several culinary trails through the Eastern Townships. Look for the Créateurs de Saveurs (Taste Creators) logo on menus, markets, bakeries and food stores to point you toward the best places to shop, and the Chefs Créateurs or Cafés de Village signs for the best places to find local cuisine. But, in this rural region, there are more tastes to explore. The noise and stress of the city melts into the picture-postcard landscape, with the white steeples of country churches rising above the fiery fall colours and the apples piled in bushel baskets at roadside stands. And the menu gets instantly local — rare breast of Brome Lake duck washed down with sparkling pink bubbly or ice cider, lavender scenting the lamb, maple butter slathering your morning French toast or melting into the traditional French-Canadian Chômeur pudding.
If wine tasting is on your list, explore the 20 wineries on La Route des Vins. A stop at Vignoble de La Bauge is a must for the wine and food pairing experience that includes terrines and pâté made with wild boar and deer raised on the property. At nearby Domaine Les Brome, farm-raised beef and maple syrup production complement the pinot noir and marechal foch plantings.
What to know about drinking in the Eastern Townships
Back in the town of Magog, we hear about the boats that plied these waters, loaded with Canadian alcohol, during prohibition. Today, it’s bubbly, not bootleg whiskey, that’s making its mark. At Vignoble Le Cep d’Argent, the winemaking brothers François and Jean-Paul Scieur (from Champagne in France) make their bubbly the traditional way, even filling and riddling each bottle by hand, and a stop to taste in their “cave” is on the agenda.
The dry sparkling rosé is a winner, the perfect patio wine to mix with a little local cassis from Domaine Ives Hill for a Kir Royale, or pair with the local cheeses we encounter further south along the west shore at Saint-Benoît-du-Lac Abbey. Here, the Benedictine monks celebrate the Eucharist at 11 a.m., daily, all in Gregorian chant, and work together to produce the ciders, jams and famed Bleu Ermite and Bleu Bénédictin cheeses for sale in the abbey shop.
Combine dinner and sightseeing
photo courtesy of Escapades Memphremagog
The Escapade Memphremagog dinner cruise begins on a picturesque dock.
Our next stop is Compton, where former Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent grew up — his father’s general store is now a quaint living museum and national historic site. Step across the street to Le Cinquième Élément for chef Corine Descampe’s Belgian bistro fare, then stop at Verger Le Gros Pierre, a local apple farm for freshly pressed juices and fruit pies.
This is the area for farm-to-table fare. You’ll find garlic and asparagus growers, beef and lamb producers and cheese-makers like Fromagerie La Station, where the family milks its own Holsteins for raw-milk raclette and nutty Alfred le Fermier cheese, named for great grandfather Alfred Bolduc.
The Escapade Memphrémagog is a dinner cruise, complete with a laser light show projected across the dark water that depicts legends of the reptilian sea serpent, Memphre, rising from the deep. It’s a fitting end to our tour of the Eastern Townships.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of Louise Penny’s prose, stop at Brome Lake Books in nearby Knowlton for a signed copy of one of the novels in her Inspector Gamache series, the 10th, The Long Way Home, which was recently released. It’s a great way to uncover even more mysteries of this tasty corner of Quebec.