Being Canadian, my first real experience with French food had nothing to do with France. I’ve never been to Paris, and unlike many other food writers, have no tales of eating Oysters straight from the sea, or standing in lines at posh bakeries.
My first sampling of what I consider really great French food came rather unexpectedly on my first night in Quebec City.
I was 18 years old, and had just taken my very first trip by train. It had been a 12hr ordeal involving a transfer in Toronto and Montreal. It was February, and I realized just how different French and English speaking Canada were when I switched trains in Montreal. The station was crammed full of fur coats and cigarettes. Both have been all but abolished in Ontario’s public spaces.
When I finally got to Quebec City, it was well after dark, and I was able to see very little of the city as I rolled into the station. I had a long wait at the “Gare du Palais” because my ride was expecting me to come by bus for some reason.
After a snow-silent trek into the city’s suburbs (Ancienne Lorette), I was ushered into an upstairs apartment and introduced to my host with a kiss-kiss to the cheeks. I’m convinced Quebecers do this to shock and embarrass Ontarians, whom they tend to consider stuck-up and puritanical.
Inside I was treated to what I still consider my benchmark of French comfort food. Hot bowls of onion soup sat at each place around the table. Warm French bread was sliced and spread on a platter, and different pates and spreads had been placed haphazardly around the table. The lights were dimmed, candles were lit, and conversations were carried out in a broken French/ English hybrid. This is the moment I fell in love with French food.
I’ve travelled many times since to Quebec City, Montreal, and once even managed to make it as far east as Rivierre-du-Loups. During each trip I’ve managed to improve my French, make friends, and have new experiences with food.
While still a starving student with very little money, I had my first escargots in the beautiful dining room at the Chateau Frontenac. We filled up on bread and left a pretty lousy tip, but felt like we were among the nouveau riche as we left.
That same trip I was introduced to “Fruits de mer”, a mixed seafood dish presented in a dinner plate sized sea shell.
The thing I love most about Quebec is that the best food turns up in the most unlikely places. I had the very best poutine I’ve ever tasted in a bus station, while sitting on my luggage waiting for a bus. For anyone who doesn’t know what poutine is, or has only had a cheap imitation, real poutine is made using fresh cut french-fries, cheese curds, and beef gravy. I think the key is that the cheese can’t be of the processed variety, and the fries and gravy have to be piping hot. Quebec has some of the best cheese producers in North America.
Montreal has it’s own food culture.
Based heavily on both French and Jewish traditions, Montreal is the best place in Canada to get smoked meat sandwiches and bagels. It is also a good place to explore the more cutting edge modern French Canadian cuisine.
Je me souviens