Published: March 10, 2007
In the first year of his new post at Le Massif, Paris-born chef Guy Bessone commuted from the village of Petite-Riviere-Saint-Francois to his job at the top of the mountain in an old school bus loaded with weekend skiers. Bessone would head to the kitchens and his bus mates would take to the six ungroomed trails, enjoying the highest vertical drops east of the Canadian Rockies, on a direct and dramatic path toward the ice choked Saint Lawrence Seaway below. At the base, they’d remove their skis, clamber back on the bus, and do it again. Maybe three times again. Maybe four.
Those days are gone. Now you can get from top to bottom three, maybe four times an hour. The first ski lift went up in 1992, and when Cirque du Soleil co-founder and former president Daniel Gauthier bought Le Massif in 2002, he injected $25 million into the mountain resort. Today, Le Massif boasts 43 runs, five lifts (three are high-speed quads), a couple hundred snow guns, a national alpine ski training centre, plus a remarkable annual snowfall (something like 270 inches), and unquestionably one of the most splendid views of any ski hill around. And mid-week in February, not a line up anywhere.
But Le Massif is still a topsy turvy kind of mountain: you park your car at the top. You ski down to the lifts.
That was just one of the happy oddities of my adventures in the Charlevoix region, an hour east of Quebec City. Two weeks ago, a massive dump of fresh snow – 65 cm in 24 hours – was drawing me, white-knuckled on the wheel, and thousands of other balaclava-covered skiers to the only Quebec ski resort I have ever encountered that does not sell poutine.
The skiers at Le Massif have Chef Bessone, the man in charge of all food service on the mountain, to thank for that. Forget for a moment the zaniness of a ski resort where base camp is at the summit, where the highest verticals east of the Rockies are queue-free in mid-winter, notwithstanding all that fresh powder frosting their edges. No, to my mind what really makes this place stand out is that Le Massif has declared itself fast-food free. No deep fat fryer in these kitchens. No burgers, no hot dogs, no French fries, and yes, no poutine. Walk into the cafeteria and see the box lunches for the kiddies: carrot sticks, a hard boiled egg, a ham sandwich on whole wheat, fresh fruit, carrot cake. The special for the day is veal (from Charlevoix) in a citrus sauce with roasted green beans and potatoes ($10); pasta with escargots and wild mushrooms ($8) a smoked meat panini ($9) For dessert, an apple tart with Migneron cheese. By the cash, impulse buys of organic chocolate bars. I kid you not. You eat these meals in a vaulted cafeteria dining room framed with local works of art, all originals.
There’s a mid-mountain soup shack, selling steaming bowls of homemade soups and chilli. Or you can head to the Summit Creperie for sweet and savoury crepes.
Le Massif’s commitment to healthy choices and regional ingredients is most obvious in its fine dining room.
Le Mer et Monts Restaurant
The dress code at Le Massif’s fine dining restaurant seems to be polypropylene and Rossignol suspenders. Chef Bessone’s three-course table d’hote ($22 to $26) is a parade of local ingredients – duck, lamb, organic pork, hatchery trout, local cheeses, root vegetables. The producers who furnish the raw materials are listed on the menu. The drinks list includes a variety of beers brewed 20 minutes away in Baie St-Paul. The view out the picture windows is dazzling: skiers poised at the top of a run, ready to take the 2,500 vertical feet plunge to what appears to be a direct landing on the icy Seaway. A lone ice-breaker crunches its way through the frozen waters of the St Lawrence. And all around, the snow-iced, dark-green Group-of-Seven-famous forests of Charlevoix, a World Biosphere Reserve that bears the fascinating stamp of a fallen meteorite some 350 million years ago.
The Flavour Trail
Mer et Monts is one member of the Route des Saveurs de Charlevoix (The Flavour Trail) a gastronomic road map and an alliance of producers and restaurateurs promoting and showcasing products from Charlevoix’ rich soil.
When skiing loses its appeal, or when the aching knee and burning thighs need a rest, a pilgrimage along the Flavour Trail is delightful. It’s also doable as a one-day-trip from the mountain during winter, when a number of the producers (notably the farms) are closed for the season.
Still, there’s a lot to see and taste. If you begin in Baie St Paul, stop at Le Saint-Pub for a flight of its own beers (all brewed on site) and for a bowl of pea soup and local duck confit. Then cross the street to La Chocolaterie Cynthia for a mug of home made hot chocolate-milk and some Charlevoix truffles. View the process of cheesemaking at La Laiterie Charlevoix where windows overlook the factory floor, a museum of cheese describes the history and practices of the craft. Sampling is encouraged and all is for sale.
I bought a Lacoste hothouse tomato at La Laiterie and munched it like a peach. The flavour was of August sunshine and the pink juices trickled down the sleeve of my down-filled parka. I ate this treat along with a day-old hunk of cheddar and the finest smoked sturgeon I have ever had (caught in Montmagny, cured and smoked at Le Fumoir Charlevoix) while watching the men of Baie-St-Paul shovel the two feet of fresh snow from the roofs of their homes.
A few kilometres to the north is La Ferme Basque, where Isabelle Mihura and her husband Jean-Jacques Etcheberrigaray raise their 2 daughters and 3000 ducks, supplying all manner of duck meat and products (including foie gras of a quality I have rarely tasted) to area restaurants and shops.
Gingerly picking my way around the snow drifts, along the Route du Fleuve that winds its way through the rugged beauty of the St Lawrence River’s north shore from Baie St Paul to Baie Sainte Catherine, I follow the pictograms of a toque blanche on an orange square. Other than the company of snow ploughs, I have the route pretty much to myself. From Baie St Paul down to pretty little Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive, to Les Eboulements where Les Finesses de Charlevoix sells regional products and where, in softer season, you may picnic overlooking the St-Lawrence. Twenty minutes later, I am at La Malbaie, where the Trail takes me to Le Veau Charlevoix, a specialty shop which offers a complete range of veal products, as well as organic meat, local emu, cheese, duck, smoked fish, preserves, ciders. Next, I was on to Fromagerie Saint-Fidele, which sells daily fresh cheddar, and Swiss cheese.
My last stop was at the Fairmont Manoir Richelieu, a splendid property on the cliffs of Pointe-au-Pic, with excellent winter rates for any of their 400-plus recently refurbished rooms. A package of bed and a generous breakfast in a sun-filled dining room overlooking the River, was $183.
In a few months the Flavour Trail will be fully open, every one of the 35 businesses in full bloom, and it could well occupy your time for days.
Until then, consider the Trail a delightful distraction from the hill – or just a tasty way of fuelling up between runs.
If you go…
Fly or drive to Quebec City, then follow highway 138 east for forty minutes to signs for Le Massif
Twenty minutes back along 138 east straight to Baie St-Paul.
Where to stay:
La Maison Otis www.maisonotis.com or 1-800-267-2254
In La Malbaie
Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu www.fairmont.com/richelieu
or (418) 665-3703
Other sites to explore for rental accommodation
Where to eat:
For Mer et Monts 1-877-536-2774 (ext 4047) or (418) 632-5876
Restaurant Le Saint-Pub 2 rue Racine, Baie-St-Paul (418) 240-2332 www.microbrasserie.com
For restaurants along the Flavour Trail:
In La Malbaie:
Vices Versa, 216 rue Etienne (418) 665-6869