A foodie retreat in Quebec
Christina Reynolds takes in the Eastern Townships—a land of verdant hills and delicious bites at every turn.
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 seven course 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.
Manoir Hovey has 37 uniquely decorated guest rooms. Book either the Oriole or the Heron Vista Suite; they share a private, gated pool and are accessed via a wooden boardwalk that leads you up a hill through the fragrant forest behind the turn-of-the-century main house. (Or, if you’re feeling a bit tipsy, you can take a chauffeured golf cart.)
There are dozens of local tasting opportunities within an hour’s drive of the hotel. Here are “food sherpa” Blais’ top picks:
The Domaine Bergeville winery (domainebergeville.ca), just outside North Hatley, specializes in organic sparkling reds, whites and rosés.
Abbaye St-Benoit-du- Lac (st-benoit-du-lac.com) is known for its blue cheeses, which are handcrafted by monks. Stay to hear the daily Gregorian chants.
FOR MORE CHEESE
Pick up a block of the organic unpasteurized Chemin Hatley at the family-run Fromagerie La Station de Compton (fromagerielastation.com).
Boulangerie Artisanale les Miettes in Compton bakes beautiful sourdough loaves and is also known for its croissants and amandine pastries.
Locals stock up on hearty homemade apple pies and dried apple chips at the Gros Pierre (grospierre.com) orchard near Compton.
FOR ICE CREAM
Get a strawberry cone at Laiterie de Coaticook Ltée (laiteriedecoaticook.com), where they still use an original recipe from the 1940s.
The Drouin covered bridge, located on Drouin Road in Compton, dates back to 1886 and makes for a picturesque picnic spot.