2000s Archive

Brome Sweet Brome

Originally Published September 2002
Topography, climate, and a certain sensibility create a small paradise for the palate in Quebec's Eastern Townships.

Traveling from Moston to Montreal, we’d grown weary of the freeway and turned off onto one of the thin gray lines that meander across the map of Quebec, following not some engineer’s survey but the contour of a ridge, the curve of a stream. As we headed west through the village of Dunham, the landscape gentled and the maple forests pulled back, making room on the hillsides for long thin spines of grapes belonging to a dozen or so small wineries.

It was lunchtime, and one of the wineries, L’Orpailleur, promised both tastings and a restaurant. We were a little disappointed when we found that, it being the off-season, the restaurant offered only two choices: a cheese plate or a charcuterie plate. We ordered one of each, expecting the standard wedges of Brie and Cheddar, a few predictable slices of deli meats.

What arrived was an artisanal feast. Duck breast smoked to the color of cranberries, sliced as thin as prosciutto, every morsel a history of wood fire and waterfowl. Rabbit terrine studded with pale pistachios, spiced with a warm, fruity liquor. A confit that yielded to the fork like pâté de foie gras. A Gruyère tasting of hazelnuts. Soft sheep’s-milk cheese, sweet as cream. A tart, crumbly chèvre. A veined blue cheese with a pungently addictive edge. Where had this cornucopia come from?

“It’s all from around here,” the waitress said, gesturing vaguely toward the hills to the south and west, an area known as Brome-Missisquoi. “Farms in the neighborhood.”

On the back of a napkin she sketched a map that started us on a two-day pilgrimage in search of the sources of our lunch.

Nestled in the lee of a northern arm of the Appalachians, cosseted by Lakes Champlain, Memphremagog, and Brome, these few square miles are the balmiest in the province, a bit of backcountry where the blossoms break first and the harvest lingers longest. Topography and microclimate and a certain sensibility in those who work the land have combined in Brome-Missisquoi to create a sort of nascent Napa or an eastern version of the Willamette Valley (minus the crowds)—a small paradise for the palate.

Our first stop is Françoise Bardo’s farmhouse, where confits, magrets, and terrines heap the counter. She makes it all herself, using ducks she raises on the property. Moulards, she tells us, an especially plump Muscovy-Pekin cross, not the Lake Brome ducks the region is famous for. Too skinny, she scoffs. True confit and magret can only be made from ducks fattened for foie gras, which also happens to be on her list of wares.

The confit is made the way her grandmother taught her in Bordeaux. “In the old days,” she says, “there were only two ways to preserve meat: salt and fat. No chemicals.” She simmers her ducks slowly, then lays the pieces in a crock, pouring in the rendered fat that will keep them fresh until she sells them over the kitchen counter or serves them to guests who stay in the rooms upstairs or who reserve a place for dinner.

There is no meal scheduled for that evening. But she offers us a small Styrofoam cooler, which we pack with containers of potted duck, confits, a smoked magret, and a rabbit terrine made with a local apple liqueur called Pommeau d’Or.

“You haven’t tried Pommeau d’Or? But you must!” she insists, and on the napkin she adds a few more lines and a star to our map.

We follow it through the village of Frelighsburg. The Brome-Missisquoi region is barely more than 30 miles across and 20 miles top to bottom, yet there are dozens of villages, some no more than a crossroads with a church, a few having disappeared altogether except for a road sign and a graveyard of rakish stones bearing names such as Smith, Edwards, and White. The mailboxes along the road are more likely to read “Lajeunesse” or “Coté,” for although the area was settled first by United Empire Loyalists from the “Boston States,” the Quebecois moved in later in great numbers. Now, nearly every village has two spires, Catholic and Anglican, and the houses are alternately tall shiplapped Georgians and low stone maisons with the ski-jump roofs typical of early Quebec.

Around Frelighsburg, vineyards vie with orchards, but the apples were here first, acre upon acre of thick, twisting trunks. At Au Coeur de la Pomme, we knock on the farmhouse door. “This is the vinaigrerie. The store is up at the cidrerie. It’s closed,” says Hélène Levasseur, “but let me get my keys. I’ll take you there.”

Hélène and her husband, Steve, cultivate more than 10,000 apple trees, pressing the harvest into juice they ferment into cider. (In Quebec, cider is always hard. The unfermented juice is called jus pur or jus brut.) In the store next to the Cidrerie Fleurs de Pommiers, we find several apple “wines” aged in oak and the Pommeau d’Or, a Calvados-like delight inspired by an old family recipe from Normandy, as well as jus and a fine cider vinegar.

At the main crossroads in Frelighsburg, we had passed a hand-drawn sign with an arrow: “La Ferme du Wapiti.” It would only take a minute, we told ourselves, doubling back toward the village on one of the rangs, the narrow country roads that crisscross the townships, flanked as often as not by low drystone walls that keep nothing in or out but stand witness to two centuries of struggling to turn these rock-strewn fields into farms. The road weaves back and forth across a lazy, looping river. Just beyond the last crossing, we spot the elk, grazing placidly as if they’d never been hunted off these hills. We pull up to what looks like a child’s playhouse beside a farm lane and are barely out of the car when a woman appears, pulling on her coat with one hand, pulling her young daughter with the other.

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