The more and more we set out in the Quebec country side I realize how it is a sort of therapy or maybe it is all the strange artisan alcoholic drinks we are tasting along the way.
Under a slightly grey sky Michele and I set out through the early Sunday morning streets of downtown Montreal via Mont Saint Hilaire. It has been one those weeks and I need my 'therapy'...besides I need some cheese for the restaurant I work at, and might discover some other farm or ingredients I can use. The ice pack in the trunk is filled with random leftovers from the fridge, and by the time of our first visit to an apple orchard we realize that we simply taking our leftovers for a joyride. We arrive at Les Vergers Petit et fils expecting to taste some apple ice cider and instead wandered to the back of the shop...where of course there happens to be the distraction of a kitchy restaurant serving enormous buckwheat crepes with apple syrup, sausages etc....So be it, there has always been a fine line between research and pleasure for us. The leftovers in the trunk will have to wait. We sit. Gum chewing waitress pours each of us a coffee, we order while looking through the window over the budding apple orchard. That orchard the future of tasty apples, tasty apples and tasty drinks!
And what crepes! What a pair of enormousities! Michele finished half the plate (half a crêpe = a whole one but folded in two...so a plate is two half crepes meaning two whole stuffed crepes) and I left some debris of apple, sausage with a tiny pool of sirop. What the fuck I thought, this is obscene and yet with the sun suddenly conquering the clouds, the Quebecois music playing, fuck the kilos, the calories...this is research. We paid and walked out a little dazed from this unexpected brunch, forgetting to try their Petit Frisson apple ice cider. On the way back we say. Now for cheese. La ferme Mes petits Caprices. Goat cheese. Only sold at their farm. Cheese, the staff of life, or pretty close. Somehow though, the 5 minute drive to their farm turned into a quarter hour...another Michele and Jason excursion through the country side.
A wrong turn, somewhere, somehow, every time...a little frustrated (not like we fought or anything!) we pulled into a the driveway of what I thought was a farm that sold ostrich meat. Instead a sign reads that we were at a ceramist's shop. A woman comes out of her garage cum shop 'Bonjour!' She greets us. Above her is the sign which reads Ne faites pas l'autruche (Do not be like an ostrich). I comforted myself with this simple mistake. Where are we from etc...and suddenly we are in her atelier surrounded by pottery done in the Japanese Raku technique. I never set out to look at pottery, but end up always sucked in, falling in love with some piece etc...
description of this technique
Raku is a centuries old firing technique developed by the Japanese. The pieces of pottery are fired outdoors in a kiln fueled by wood or propane. The pieces are heated very quickly to the red hot stage and while the glaze is still molten, they are pulled out of the kiln and into the air. The iridescent colors and/or crackle surfaces are a result of the chemical reaction of the glaze materials oxidizing when the posts are removed from the kiln. To stop the oxidation process and control the surface effects and colors, the pots are then places in a pit or container, covered with combustible materials and sealed airtight with a lid. This is called a reduction atmosphere. This reduction of oxygen stops the flaming and produces thick black smoke which permeates the clay body and produces the unusual, spontaneous surface effects.
all glazed and random sensuous lines with a fossil like look. And as Jose Drouin is explaining this technique to us I somehow had one of her pieces in my hand, a tiny ceramic container with its lid and mentally I already had it filled with my homemade mead wine mustard.
J's homemade mead wine mustard
85g honey wine
90g cider vinegar
55g brown mustard seeds
15g black mustard seeds
1 tbs mustard powder
soak for 2 days in the fridge then blend half of it with
8g mustard powder
mix in the unblended half keeping the seeds whole
adjust to personal taste (adding a little more honey or sugar with make it less fiery, but then why would you want that!)
She tells us of another ceramist who does more restaurant style pottery, Louise Bousquet. Michele is thrilled. We must visit, her work is sublime. I pay for my mustard pot, happy. We set off in the direction of Bousquet's shop and see a sign for La ferme Mes Petits Caprice. Yes! All is ok in this bubble like Sunday in the universe. Before we get there though there is a sign which reads Cryo. Apple ice cider. Open. Why not. I turn in the driveway where we meet owner Hugo Poliquin, animated, lively, smiling, ex-light engineer turned minister of apple ice wine. Now there are a lot of apple ice ciders on the market, even overwhelmingly so, and there are some incredible apple ice ciders on the market, and this will have to be added to that distinctive list. I think Hugo looks at an apple's life cycle differently and has tried to tell that cycle's story through the liquor. This is complex, not overly sweet liquid which we sip, enjoying its slightly oxidized aroma, happy it is good because there was no crachoir in sight. "And Quebec is unique in that we make our ice ciders with the apples that we eat and not only like most others in the world with apples destined solely for the production of alcohol. And the reason for this he explains is in part prohibition. Making illegal alcohol was easier with apples you ate so when the authorities came around there was little suspicion. But that is one long complicated story and an hour later I found myself hungry again and if we were going to see everything we wanted to we would have to go.
I buy 9 bottles for the restaurant and 3 for us already wondering what I can serve it with other than the obvious foie gras.
Off again. Michèle suggests that we visit Louise Bousquet first since the thought of eating more on top of the buckwheat crêpes would probably make her sick. I was hungry already though. She pulls out some almonds she brought back from Lebanon and by the hand full I managed to finish the bag. There are few experiences in life that I can say are inspiring and challenging at the same time but this was indeed one of them. Louise meets us in her store, serene, wizened, soft spoken surrounded by fine porcelain which I can really only describe as sublime. This translucent quality the dishes was something I was not expecting. In one moment I felt like some aesthete lamenting the modern world until I heard Louise mention to Michele that she studied with Raynaud of Limoges who makes plates for Thomas Keller's Per Se. She had a sample plate to show us for the new collection at his New York restaurant. Here, beside Mont St-Hilaire and I was reminded of my trade as a chef, of our struggles, its stress and of one of the best restaurants in the world. We talked for an hour or so and who I saw a caring professional and her art, matured, accomplished, covered in dust. I felt awe and a certain jealousy that she seemed to have found that peace with her material, a comfort I suppose we are all looking for. I also suddenly understood what admiration meant.
And finally...CHEESE. The wonderful simple pleasure of it. We drive 5 minutes back towards the Cryo ice cider and meet Diane (co-owner) of La ferme Mes Petits Caprice. No time is wasted and she cuts a piece of one of her cheeses explaining that this may be the best part of year because naturally the goat's milk is fat because of the winter whereas in summer it is leaner. So instead of having a slightly chalky texture we are used to in artisanal goat cheeses. This first one was the cream of the creamy. Bang on. We then tasted the Hilairemontais accompanied with a little burp of apple ice cider fumes and it made absolute sense. A perfect pairing. It would be a great week at the restaurant although minus the Louise Bousquet porcelaine to serve it on. I bought a few kilos of cheese feeling that something which comes out of these excursions, this kind of therapy, this kind of sharing with people, this deeper satisfaction of connectedness with people with that yearning to return home and taste it all over again. I was ready for another week.