"...all my vital memories are of these first years. These were the days when I smelled the bread, I saw my first red poppy, the moon, the innocent seeing. Since then these memories have become iconography, the shapes even the colors: millstone, red earth, yellow wheatfield, apricots etc."
Reading this I was reminded of my grandfather, Janus, of Latvian decent who was a farmer. As a child I would carefully walk through the massive vegetable garden he grew. For me it was like a buffet, picking a carrot here, a radish there, a green onion, quickly rinsing them before I ate them. Not to mention all the wild blueberries, raspberries and strawberries which grew in abundance in and on the periphery of the dense forest surrounding our cottage. These I ate directly from the plant, until one late afternoon I saw the drunken neighbour pissing on my favorite blueberry patch. Lesson learnt. The innocent seeing. A powerful phrase.
As I drove towards the Centre du Québec region with Fromagerie du Presbytère in mind, I had a few other places I wanted to visit beforehand. I had quickly jotted the address and phone number of a company in Pierreville who pickles fiddleheads and cattails (quenouilles). Down highway thirty I decided that I would get some more asparagus from La Sublime Asperge. Why not. I pass by, but there is a shortage because of the weather. I buy a mere 5 lbs at 3.50 a lbs. Normal production he tells me is around 1500lbs a day. I leave surrounded by immense stretches of farm lands which seem to me to be vast expanses of mono crops, corn, soy, corn, soy. I thread through a few minor highways, along the Yamaska river again and see a sign announcing asparagus for sale. I U-turn and pull in. A tall young guy looking like a hockey player comes out with a friendly smile. Funny I thought, not the build, the 'type' I associate with asparagus, but then what type should be selling asparagus? He presents himself immediately as Julien and asks me my name. One of the few, and we talk. There is none of the bustle of La Sublime Asperge, or the decor. The point of sale is his garage with a fridge in the back. Nothing kitsch, no frills, no campagnaisms. I see a paper tacked to the wall. Ferme Besner Pagé, Julien Pagé, élevage de lapins, culture d'asperges. Rabbits. I taste his asparagus. It is true. It tastes like a great asparagus, but there is something more complex to the Sublime Asperge`s, which are delicious. Price too. Julien has them at 2.25 a lbs. I buy 20lbs for the resto, and a couple of lbs for home, as well as a whole rabbit and a few rabbit chorizos. In the car I tear open one of the chorizo and devour it. Beautiful. Something one realizes is worth the voyage.
Off again over the bridge at Yamaska, highway 132 east in Odanak, Pierreville region. At a stop sign I read; Channa, Arrêt, Stop. A trilingual stop sign. I look over and see a sign Indian Reserve Abanakis d'Odanak. Driving thr0ugh the reserve along the Saint Francois river with a delicate sun over everything. A sublime moment. I kept on driving expecting a sign for the fiddleheads. Nothing. I pulled over and ask a Québecois man who scratches his head and tells me that the address that I have might be the right one 'Nothing here is what it seems.' Ok. I go back to the address, someone's home and ask two guys fixing a car if this is Fougère et cie. Oui. He disappears in the house and out comes a short woman with a generous smile. The company, she tells me, no longer exists. All the labeling laws....the cost of analyzing all the products for labeling of nutritional value etc...So now she takes care with a local community center. Just as well. Nonetheless she takes me across the road into the bushes and schools me on fern plants edible and not. The one we can eat in Canada is the ostrich fern (la fougère à l'autruche) I look through the bushes, the bramble with little plants popping up everywhere, and don`t see any. The season is already finished. She shows me different varieties, and the differences meticulously explaining the differences, which one's to 'cultivate' although wild. 'those which look like a mini celeri rib are the one's we want and those we eat are the sterile ones'. They will return year after year in the same place. We walk through a fern patch which is already more than knee high. I turn and Yolande opens her hand. A fat green fiddlehead. Ah. 'These are really the last ones of the year.' We spend 10 minutes looking close to the ground for more, easier I must say than morel hunting. This year they cultivated for only 10 days. A ten day season! I was more determined than ever to find some, any. In the end I had 12. At least she tells me I have my entree when I get home. She invites me to come back next year a little earlier to pick them. As for the cattail, there are none yet, but if I gave her my number she'll call me when they are ready. Yes, I will be there. I ask her about the Channa. Québec she tells me voted to have unilingual Stop signs in 2004. The law does not apply on an Indian reserve. Pretty cool I thought.
I navigate through the web of byways and little towns consisting of a couple of houses, past another dozen villages with the Saint something name. Started thinking about empires. I was amazed to think that the world was not made up of one race or one language. Incredible that through all the brutalily of empires whether Roman, Turkish, or English... that they really never succeeded. I was amazed to think of the variety in the world, so many languages, so many cultures. There is something comforting in that, the history of resilience humanity has....this intense history of opposition seems to be humanity's real history. I turn onto the 259 south and down to Saint Perpétue. I ask around town where to find rang St-Edmond. Someone easily indicates a right at the store, and a left. When I get there it is closed. Shit. The chances one takes sometimes. Stupid I thought. Could have called. So I call. Hello, yeah, are you open, no, domage, when would you like to visit, well, uh, I am standing in front right now. Wait a moment. Two minutes later a woman comes walking down the highway to meet me. Down to business. She unlocks the store and after an elaborate ritual of changing according to the MAPAQ norms she brings out a little tasting platter. Goat yogurt, 3 day old goat cheese, a sort of strong camembert with a washed rind still with no name reminding me of something out of the Haut Savoie mountains, savoureux de biquette and délice de Fiona an incredible mix of yogurt and fresh goat cheese perfect for a dessert with maple and rhubarb. Maryse and her husband originally arrived from Switzerland 17 years ago and have been raising goat and cows for some time and began the fromagerie in 2005. Their cheeses are great, but the yogurt spectacular. No gelatin, no thickening agents, just a straight slightly acid yogurt, so far the best that I have ever tasted. I fill up the cooler with as much as I can and looking at my watch realize I am going to miss le Presbytère. In twenty they close and Maryse tells me they are about 40 minutes away. Fuck. I through the cooler in the trunk and race.
I call the fromagerie and tell the young girl who I am and if I can pass a cheese order. They close at four. Oh please, I know Jean Morin, tell him it is me, it is a tradition, somehow I am always late. She sighs. I pass the order and begin to speed. 10, 20, 30, 40 over the speed limit. J man, relax, you are in the country. Then, paf, I hit a bird. I slow down. Feeling like shit. I hate being late. I hate the thought of the bird's mate flying around maybe strangely wondering about the disappeared mate. Ok, don`t get too emotional, things happen. I cut through a few rangs, the farmer way as they say, and arrive 20 minutes late, but Morin is changing the recycling bin and waves. Inside, he pulls out a 5 kg piece of his Louis d'Or and a few beers and chat in the late afternoon sun. He is in fact one of the founder`s of Ancêtre, and realized that one of his passions was to make fine cheese. The fromagerie`s building which they bought in 2004 is the old town's presbytery which is in fact still shared with the local parish, the priest's office upstairs He giggles, full of blessings, and cutting me a piece of cheese calls it my communion. After having visited the Jura region for technique and friends from Gré des Champs he decided to begin his own. Along with his brother they were well aware what the touristic value of having a good artisanal cheese can be for the region, a region they love enormously. We talk of organic in general, and how since Québec has no real form of AOC or certification, organic at least is an assurance that many European countries have. His cows, Jersey and Holstein, are fed entirely with what they grow on their land, We drink more beer, and he brings out his Bleu d'Élizabeth, one incredible bleu cheese, creamy, less salty than most, piquant, with the right amount of rot. One of the best blue cheese's in Québec. Some clients come, and although he is closed he serves them, and that is what I realize with Jean Morin, he loves what he does. It is not simply a way to make money, it is a lifestyle, it is the fabric of life, the love of meeting others and the sharing of the effort of his vision of thing, the language of a good cheese.