Christina Reynolds takes in the Eastern Townships—a land of verdant hills and delicious bites at every turn.
A delicious adventure in Quebec’s heartland.
marc-André Blais may not call himself a “food sherpa”—the newest term for a specialized local foodie guide—but he is. As the Clefs d’Or concierge at Manoir Hovey, a Relais & Châteaux inn tucked along the banks of Lake Massawippi just outside North Hatley, Que., he knows the area, and its edible bounty, intimately. Blais grew up in this region and, except for a six-year stint working in Europe, has lived here his whole life. “We are located in the middle of nowhere, but this is the most beautiful nowhere,” he says of the surrounding birch, maple and pick-your-own-Christmas-tree forests, rolling meadows, dairy farms, orchards, wineries and quaint little towns that are home to an assortment of unique local bistros.
On warm summer and fall mornings, Blais often directs culinarily inclined guests out on “forage”your-own-picnic adventure drives. (See “Explore & Eat.”) His carefully edited selection of stops for homemade cheeses, butters, breads, meats, wines and fruit culminates with your own gourmet picnic beside an out-of-the-way covered bridge, one of the few remaining in the area. He’ll also encourage you to make one last stop at his favourite dairy for “the creamiest homemade ice cream ever” before returning to the Manoir. He’ll advise a late-afternoon swim in the pool or lake (water temperatures: 27°C and 22°C, respectively, according to a chalkboard on the boathouse when I was there in June) and maybe a nap (or, let’s be realistic, a mini food coma) on the screened-in porch before heading to Manoir Hovey’s Le Hatley Restaurant for the expertly plated sevencourse tasting menu, where every dish is flavoured and garnished with herbs and edible flowers from the property’s gardens.
Before dinner, chef Roland Ménard, who grew up in the nearby town of Magog and has been with the restaurant for 33 years (the hotel has been owned and operated by the Stafford family for 35 years), takes me on a tour of the gardens right outside the kitchen. He shows me how he and his team forage for local plants, like milkweed—his keen eye immediately spots a stalk growing at the base of a birch tree near the lobby entrance. It just might make its way onto the menu. The previous night, my amuse-bouche was a freshly harvested cattail heart paired with flower petals and a touch of warm lavender honey—it tasted a bit like a heart of palm.
“I always look to find something with a different flavour that I can put on the menu,” Ménard tells me. “What I really like is when customers come up the hill here, look at the garden and say ‘Oh, that’s what I’m going to eat tonight’ because they see it is so fresh.” From garlic chives and sorrel to little purple pansies and wild peppermint, each of the garden ingredients Ménard points out makes its way onto my plate at some point during my stay—generating yet another food memory to savour. h
Go to ellecanada.com/blog for three book recommendations for armchair-travel foodies.