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2000s Archive

Mountain High

Originally Published December 2006
How can you feast on wild boar and farmstead cheese and never gain an ounce? Pack your skis for Quebec’s Laurentians, where table and trail collide

True to their gallic souls, the Quebecois see absolutely no reason why going back to nature should entail leaving urbane pleasures behind. Especially when it comes to food. So it was particularly bad timing when, just as I was dutifully trying to shed a few pounds last winter, I was invited to spend a long weekend in the Laurentians, an expanse of hills, lakes, rivers, and gently rounded mountains that begins just beyond Montreal’s northern doorstep. I could already envision the slabs of foie gras, great piles of succulent, fatty smoked meat, groaning boards of locally produced raw-milk cheeses, beignet-like “beaver tails” the size of porterhouse steaks, sweet glassfuls of ice cider, and veritable oceans of fine French wines.

Fortunately, the Laurentians (in French, les Laurentides) provide a means of atoning for gastronomic sins. Crisscrossed by some 750 miles of trails, the region offers some of the finest downhill and cross-country skiing in the Northeast. But as I drove north on the autoroute, I realized that my resolve was going to be sorely tested. The thermometer, which had been flirting with zero Fahrenheit, went into free fall—5 below, 10, 15, finally settling at 20 below by the time I reached L’Eau à la Bouche, which, happily, isn’t a ski resort but a highly acclaimed restaurant in Sainte-Adèle. There, chef Anne Desjardins’s deft hand with local ingredients has made her something of a north-woods version of Alice Waters.

For Desjardins, the motivation for sourcing close to home is her firm belief that Quebec produces the best foods she can get—anywhere. The first course, duck foie gras, came from a farm 25 miles south of Montreal, and it was the perfect antidote to the sub-subzero temperature outdoors. A crisp seared crust put up a moment’s resistance before the warm, puddinglike interior burst inside my mouth. The wild boar I had next, its tenderloin seared, its shoulder gently braised with maple and thyme, also came from a local farm. As did my companion’s guinea hen. Its roasted breast was served with confit leg, and braised carrot and turnip napped with pan jus, a dribble of cream, and a few truffle shavings. We ended the meal with five Quebec cheeses—two goat’s-milk, three cow’s-milk. About the only thing that wasn’t from Quebec was our bottle of Côtes du Rhône, selected from a huge list of French wines on the advice of our waiter, who, like every full-time server there, had taken 400 hours of wine courses.

When we awoke the next morning, a fine windblown snow was falling, and the temperature had risen to five below. We gamely put on ski clothes and drove to the small town of Morin-Heights, which offers easy access to over 90 miles of cross-country trails. For once, I was glad to confront a long uphill stretch. As we climbed through a spruce and pine forest and past a series of small ponds, our bodies warmed and stayed that way until the final long downhill run, which ended with both of us sporting bushy white ice crystal beards made entirely from our frozen breath.

And so it goes in the laurentians—days on the trails; nights at the table. One afternoon we skied at Centre de Ski Far Hills, stopping for a snack on the bare summit. A tapestry of hills, valleys, and lakes spread out below us, and the cawing of a lone raven was the only sound disturbing the snowy silence. The next day we chased a bounding herd of white-tailed deer down an ungroomed trail at Ski de Fond Mont-Tremblant.

That evening, at Le Cheval de Jade, Olivier Tali, a young French chef, prepared a bouillabaisse for us that tasted exactly like one we’d eaten beside the Mediterranean, in Provence, which made sense; his fish is flown in from France. Another night, we followed a winding back road through the woods, and just when I thought we were lost, we arrived at Bistro à Champlain, located in a former general store. Inside, we chose from a wine cellar that housed an astounding 35,000 bottles of more than 3,000 different wines.

I’d say the Quebecois have a pretty good handle on how life in the country should be lived, and I succumbed to the rhythm of it. At the end of my days in the Laurentians, tucked into my large, soft, and very warm bed, I slept soundly, as only those with untroubled consciences can. I could repent for any overindulgence—and then some—another day.