05 JUN 2017: The Magdalen Islands (Les Iles-de-la-Madeleine), shaped like a fish hook in the middle of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, have a long, fascinating history. For centuries they were a seasonal destination for Mi’kmaqs in search of walrus meat. Jacques Cartier visited them in 1534, Acadians settled in them in the 1700s and a segment of the population are descendants of survivors of the more than 400 shipwrecks in the area. It’s no wonder a visit here is quirky and fun with abundant tastes of the sea.  

Most of the action happens in the summer months when the population more than doubles from its 13,000 person norm. The islands are remote, so much so that until the 20th century, the islands were completely isolated during the winter by pack ice which made the trip to the mainland impassable by boat. Today you can fly there from Quebec City, after a quick stop in Gaspé on the way or travel via a five-hour ferry ride from Prince Edward Island, the nearest mainland to them.

In the summer months CTMA offers a unique seven day St. Lawrence River and Gaspé coast cruise to the islands from Montreal. It includes a three night stay-over in the Magdalen Islands and can be enhanced with a “Flavours Package” for foodies and other activity packages. Certain cruises available several times in the season are gourmet themed from start to finish.

If you love seafood, this place should be on your bucket list. Fishing is the main industry here. During my time on the islands in late May, it was the start of the lobster and snow crab fishing season. It looks to be an excellent year for the fishermen: lobster and snow crab are abundant and reaching $7.13 a pound for lobster and $4.50 for crab.

The crabs are so numerous that I learned the snow crab quota has been doubled in 2017. Those ten lucky islanders who own a crab licence could technically gross $2 million in seven weeks. The crustaceans from these waters are particularly cherished – the seabed is stone not mud and the sea currents are cold and strong – giving the meat of these sea bottom feeders a pure, clean, delicate taste.

At the Gourmande de Nature cooking school, I enjoyed a hands-on lobster lesson under the tutelage of Chef/owner Johanne Vigneau. The sea-to-table experience covered cooking lobster, how to get every ounce of the meat out of the shell and several delicious recipes including lobster salad bruschetta, Thai flavoured lobster bisque and lobster risotto. All very yummy.

Vigneau also owns the best restaurant on the island, the Table des Roy. The restaurant is in Vigneau’s former family home which was purchased in 1978 by Andre and Francine Roy. The Roys hired Vigneau to work in the place and in 1986 at the age of 23, she bought the business and house back from them.

The restaurant is cozy with real charm and some truly fantastic dishes. My $98 menu gourmand started with scallop sashimi and foie gras. My appetizers were a tartare of beef from a rare cattle breed called Canadienne raised on the island with local feta Les Briquettes à L’air and a dish of sweetbreads, scallop and lobster with two sauces (so delicious it can’t be taken off the menu). My main was local halibut with a curry sauce, green lentil salsa and tempura shrimp. Dessert was wild rose hip with local Pied-de-Vent cheese.

“We eat as well as La Table de Roy” has become the common phrase when locals cook a fantastic feast at home. I can see why.

Elsewhere on the islands, local artisans craft culinary specialties such as award winning cheeses at Fromagerie Pied-de-Vent made using the milk from those rare Canadienne cattle. Le Verger Poméloi makes cider based liqueurs and a dry sparkling cider. Their oak aged L’Enchanteur de Pommes, an aperitif made in the style of Normandy’s Pommeau is especially delicious.

The brewery À l’abri de la Tempête, housed in a former fish factory, uses local ingredients as much as possible in their beers: wildflowers, algae and fresh herbs. Attempts were made to grow local barley and hops but the climate proved too harsh. Among their 25 or so different brews seven in bottle and four on tap are regular brands.

The most unique is Corps Mort made with barley that spends time in the herring smoke house, Le Fumoir d’Antan, absorbing smoke and juice from the dripping herring stacked above it. (During the heyday of herring fishing from 1940 to 1970, there used to be 42 smoke houses on the island. Now there is only Le Fumoir d’Antan.)

At Café de la Grave in Havre-Aubert, local specialities include seal meat poutine topped with Pied-de-Vent and curds and a seal meat tartlet with potatoes. Seal meat has a strong flavour that is somewhat fishy. An acquired taste to be sure but a meat that meant survival in the winter for many Madelinots in the past.

They have a saying on the islands, “Aux Îles, on n'a pas l'heure, on a le temps” which roughly translates as “On the islands you don’t have the hour, you have the time.” In other words you don’t watch the clock, you take your time. It’s well worth taking the time to visit and settling in for a feast.

 

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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