Île d'Orléans (Orleans Island) is a small piece of land where the salt water of the Atlantic starts to mix with the fresh water of the St. Lawrence. It was one of the first significant French settlements in Quebec in the 1600’s, and is considered the birthplace of francophones in North America. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a major centre for boat building and fishing, and also has a long agricultural history, contributing to its reputation as the ‘Garden of Quebec’.
Its fertile soils still flourish today, supporting the work of many agricultural producers. It is a pocket of the province where traditional Quebec culture is preserved and celebrated.
Many tourists escape the city to the countryside of the island, and we were fortunate enough to explore the culinary delights of the island with Michelle Demers, a Quebec City tour guide. Orleans Island is a 67 km circuit of artisan food producers, farmers, Normandy-style houses, and pastoral charm.
I adore the thrill and excitement of visiting a city, but I inevitably need the quiet and relaxed pace of the country-side from time to time. Having recently spent a lot of time in cities, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect for a trip to Orleans Island. On a crisp and sunny fall day, we started our discovery of the island.
The island’s micro-climate is exceptional for growing black currants, and these tiny berries are native to the area. One of the first stops off the bridge is Cassis Monna & Filles.
Fourth generation liquoriste Bernard Monna moved from southern France to Quebec in the 70’s and became the first commercial producer of black currant wines and crème de cassis in Quebec. Monna’s daughters took over in 2005 to learn the craft and ensure the family tradition would continue. They opened a new café during high season (summer months) and introduced several new products using the berries including wine jellies, syrups, mustards, an onion jam, and black currant juice.
Cassis is a treat most famously from the Burgundy region of France, and discovering it as a product of the Quebec countryside was a pleasant surprise.
Once we'd sufficiently warmed ourselves sampling cassis, we visited a traditional Sugar Shack, which produces one of the most iconic Canadian items—maple syrup! Early spring is the harvest season for maple sap, and it takes about 40 litres of maple water to yield 1 litre of syrup.
Birch syrup, by comparison, takes about twice as much ‘birch water’ to produce the equivalent in syrup. Maple water is a product gaining popularity, and attending a maple harvest party will have you sipping a fresh glass of the beloved beverage. Michelle says the flavour is like experiencing the comfort and enjoyment of a rich, sweet cream with none of the fat.
Fall is the best time to visit an apple orchard, and we were at Cidrerie Verger Bolideau at just the right time. Thousands of apples, full and ripe, hung awaiting their harvest.
The orchard shop sells dozens of products using the fruit: mustards, jams, jellies, syrups, vinegars, several versions of iconic Quebec ciders and iced ciders, and even homemade apple pie.
Unfortunately, they were out of pie when we arrived, but we weren’t down for too long, because we were then introduced to my favourite discovery of the day: APPLE BUTTER. It was the perfect mix of tart, sweet, and creamy, and I really had to hold back from buying the whole shelf. I left with a reasonable supply tucked into my purse - a safety blanket of sorts.
The island is full of roadside produce stands and, despite the fall temperatures, we were still able to find gorgeous summer fruit grown on the island.
We also discovered cucumber jelly.
With all the jellies that exist in the world, I had never conceived of jellied cucumbers and had no clue what to expect. It tasted a little like sweet pickles which, in hindsight, makes all kinds of sense considering where pickles come from.
Finally, we were able to lift our apple pie spirits at this lovely little produce stand, La Halte des Anges, where farm produce, particularly lavender, is sold fresh and processed, and pies are baked and sold daily.
Orleans Island is a wonderful place to experience historic and contemporary Quebec culture. It will yield many delectable edibles and revive any city-drained soul.
Thanks to Michelle for a fabulous tour!