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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.

“Wapiti?” we ask.

The woman nods enthusiastically. She is Lise Beaudoin, mistress of more than 100 elk, as well as sheep, pigs, and a single milking cow. She opens a freezer stuffed with elk filets mignons, chops, mince, roasts, steaks, brochettes, osso buco. She makes elk sausage, too, with tomato and basil, herbs she grows in her garden, and garlic and honey from a neighbor. There is a second freezer of lamb and a cooler of hams and bacon she smokes herself. On one wall, bags of dried herbs and bottles of salad dressing; on another, rows of cow’s-milk soap and vials of elk antler velvet, a calcium-and-phosphorus supplement that she says, shrugging her shoulders, seems to help those with arthritis.

We shift the bottles of wine, vinegar, and cider and the cooler of duck to make room for the wapiti, wave farewell to Lise, and cut across the Chemin du Diable, heading toward Le Pinacle, the mountain that has kept its eye on us throughout our extended detour.

It is cheese we’re after now, the waitress’s map once more in hand. We follow the Missisquoi River as it flows through a mountain pass, then leave Brome-Missisquoi proper to trace the shore of Lake Memphremagog north to St.-Benoît-du-Lac, where Benedictine monks operate a small cheese factory. But at a curve in the gravel called Knowlton Landing, the broad verandas of a stately red brick house reach out to us, and we are waylaid once again, this time for the night.

L’Aubergine has been an inn since the days when the old Boston-Montreal stagecoach was ferried across the lake to the customs agent here. As at so many small inns in the region, the handful of rooms upstairs are just a sideline to the main event, the kitchen run by the chef-owner. In this case, it is Didier Perrault-Rabussier, a young French émigré who hovers by our table as we refrain from licking our plates clean of his specialty, a pâté de foie gras.

The next morning, the pale stone turrets of the Abbaye St.-Benoît rise above the lake like a castle, a fitting conclusion to our pilgrimage. No sign of a shop, but as we ponder how to enter, a door marked “Portier” opens and, “Left and down the stairs,” whispers the kerchiefed woman who comes out. Fifty monks live here in ­silence. Secluded from the world, they tend an orchard and a herd of Charolais cattle and run small factories that convert their harvest into cider, vinegar, and, most famously, cheese. In a basement room we find Ermite, the blue cheese that was stirred into the sauce that bathed my escargots the night before. And the Chèvre-Noit that graced the assiette de fromage at L’Orpailleur. We buy a round of each and also some St.-Augustin, a nutty Swiss cheese, and a firm goat’s-milk cheese called L’Archange.

The shop carries produce from other monasteries, including boxes of chocolate-covered blueberries from the Trappist Fathers of Mistassini, but we already know where we’re going for dessert. We drive cross-country, refusing every sign, the car pointed toward Montreal at last, making only one stop before we leave Brome-Missisquoi, at the tiny village of Mystic. Here, Pier Normandeau has taken over the general store, stocking the old counters and display cases with the chocolate fantasies he concocts in the converted icehouse next door. Unlike many of the restaurateurs, innkeepers, and farmers we’ve met, Pier grew up just a few miles down the road.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” he says, setting down our assiette de dessert, a sampling of tiered cakes, ice creams, profiteroles, and hand-formed chocolates. “Who would want to leave?”