Origins: Charlevoix, Quebec - #118

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

About three hundred miles east of Montreal, on the north bank of the St. Lawrence River, is the Canadian region of Charlevoix.  And for almost two hundred years it has been locked in an epic struggle.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A struggle to find a balance between its love of traditional rural values and the demands of a modern industrial society.  The questions are clear.  Can a thousand years of French peasant tradition defend itself against two hundred years of the English industrial revolution?

Will the baguette be freshly baked in a wood-burning stove or defrosted in a microwave?  Could cabernet give way to Coca-Cola?  Can French passion be replaced by a stiff upper lip?  Stay tuned as this majestic battle unfolds along the shores of the St. Lawrence River.

The first European to explore the area was Jacques Cartier, who sailed through in 1535.  He was working for the king of France and searching the northern waters of America for a new route to the riches of the Far East -- the same route that Columbus did not find for the King of Spain while searching in the south.

During the early 1600s France decided to take control of this area and they sent Samuel Champlain over to check things out.  While Champlain was sailing up the St. Lawrence he tried to anchor here and was very unhappy with the little cove he found.  The water dried up at low tide, which would leave a ship stranded.  Not good.  So he marked the area on his charts with the words malle baye, which means “bad bay.”  For the next three hundred years the place was known as La Malbaie.  But it seems unfair to be named after your least attractive feature.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Bad bay or not, the place became a trading post for furs, a district for lumbering and a great spot for fishing.  It was a French colony in the New World with great promise, but the incompetent officials in Paris believed that a colony existed only for the benefits of the mother country, and the area’s natural attributes were ignored.  A little like my family wanting me to be a doctor when it was clear my skills were as a painter.  But when the French screwed it up with North America, it was on a much larger scale.

England, however, had a better grip on the economics of the situation and attacked the French colonies in Canada.  In 1759, General Wolfe, who was not one of my ancestors, stormed the cliffs of Quebec and took control of Canada on behalf of the King of England.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  At the end of the war, each British soldier was offered a grant of property here in Canada.  It was a great way to set up a landed gentry that would be loyal to the King of England.  Two officers, both of Scottish decent, and loyal friends in combat, decided to take their property here at La Malbaie.

One was Captain John Nairne, who clearly could have gotten work as a George Washington lookalike.  The other was Ensign Malcolm Fraser.  These retired officers and a small group of demobilized soldiers joined the French peasants who were already here, and they gave the region a unique character.  Within one generation the Scots were speaking French.

After New France surrendered to England, La Malbaie became prosperous by supplying lumber and foodstuffs to the growing city of Quebec.

It also attracted a small group of tourists who were interested in the charms of unspoiled nature and good fishing.  And while we’re going back to nature, how about making the trip in a floating palace -- a steamer that offered the most luxurious accommodations possible... elegance... refinement... grandeur.  These folks liked a lot of nurture in their nature.

A relaxing view of the St. Lawrence... a little stream for fishing... lots of tall trees in the background... A big summer house filled with your friends and family... Ah yes -- nature.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Up to this point, as I mentioned, the area was known as La Malbaie but, you know, you really can’t have rich people going off for their summer vacation to a spot called “the bad bay,” so the government took this magic moment to rename the area.  And they named it after the first man to take a genuine interest in the history of the French colonies in North America.  It was a Jesuit priest named Francois-Xavier de Charlevoix.  And that is how Charlevoix got its name.

The steamship companies that brought people up and back between Charlevoix and Quebec City realized that they could increase their business by building hotels.  And in 1899 the Richelieu and Ontario Navigation Company put up the Manoir Richelieu.  The architecture was monumental.  The setting was magnificent.  There was a saltwater pool.  Tasteful decorations.  The Manoir orchestra played each afternoon.  The management tried to offer every possible service to their distinguished clientele.

 The Manoir Richelieu is still here and trying to do what it has done from the beginning.  And much of the original artwork is still here and very interesting.  Above the entranceway is a large painting of Queen Isabella listening to Christopher Columbus make his report after the voyage of 1492.  It depicts the dramatic moment when Columbus described the route that took him from Spain to the New World.  “Right, left, right, then straight for three thousand miles.”

Columbus was a lucky guy, and so are many of the guests at the Manoir.  Directly across the road from the front entrance is the Charlevoix Casino.  You can pass a few moments at the slot machines... play a little blackjack... or take a turn on the roulette wheel.  You’ll be pleased to know that any money that you leave behind will be spent on good works by the government, who owns the facility.

Charlevoix has remained an important resort area, and there are many citizens who are dedicated to maintaining its heritage and making it accessible to everyone.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Charlevoix, like many communities around the world, would like to preserve the craft-skills that are a part of its tradition, expand support for its museums, and increase tourism.  Now, on the surface that sounds like three different problems that would require three different solutions, but Charlevoix has come up with a program that handles all three, and at the same time.

It’s called an Economuseum, and it is a marriage between a museum and a small business -- a small business that is based on a craft that is traditional for the area and has the ability to make the entire operation financially independent.  The Saint-Gilles papermakers are a good example of this new form.

Part of the building is a papermaking facility that uses 17th century techniques.  Sheets of pressed cotton are washed, chopped, and pounded into pulp.  The fibers are broken up to the point where they remain suspended in water, forming a kind of soup called “half stuff.”  The half stuff is transferred into a tub that has a mixer on one side.  At this point the papermaker adds flower petals.  The flowers will give each piece of paper an individual pattern.  A wooden frame covered with a metal mesh, like a screen, is dipped into the soup.  As the frame is lifted out it becomes coated with a thin film of the water-fiber mixture.  The frame is shaken to spread the fibers evenly and let the water drain out.  This sheet of newly-formed paper is removed from the frame and placed between two sheets of felt.  A number of paper and felt sandwiches are piled together and placed into a press where they are subjected to enormous pressure, which squeezes out the remaining water.  Then the felt is removed and the sheets are pressed again to improve the surface.  After that they are hung up to dry.

The paper is then made into salable products: writing sheets and envelopes... blank books... flowers... note papers... graphics... all of which are sold in a shop on the other side of the building.

In the middle of the structure is a museum dedicated to the art of papermaking.

And this is not the only Economuseum in the neighborhood.  There are more than two dozen nearby and each covers a different craft that needs to be preserved.  Right across the street from the papermaker is the Economuseum that builds boats the way they have been made here for hundreds of years.  For folks on a more modest budget they build models of the same vessels.  And because Economuseums must plan everything based on generating their own financing, they are very realistic about what they can do.  From the design of the building, to the objects they offer for sale, there’s no room for delusions of grandeur.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Economuseums have demonstrated their ability to provide permanent employment in a realistic business environment, to preserve the craft traditions of the region, to educate the public and to attract tourists.  And surprisingly, they have been able to do all of this with funds that they generate completely from their own activities.

The Economuseums are just one example of the craftwork of Charlevoix.  Standing between the papermakers and the shipbuilders is the workshop of the santon artists.

Santons are small terra-cotta figures that depict traditional aspects of French country living, community folklore, and religious beliefs.  There are over a hundred different pieces in the collection.  The art started centuries ago in Europe with the production of Nativity scenes that included a manger, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and the three wise men.  Eventually people and buildings from the towns were added -- a chapel, a windmill, farmers, loggers, cooks, spinners.  The sculptors tried to include most of the local characters.  They even have a television reporter waiting in the cold for his camera crew.

Each figurine starts as a small sculpture which is used to make a mold.  When the mold is ready, the clay is pressed into one side of the form.  Then the back side of the mold is set in place.  The clay rests in the mold for about ten minutes, during which it loses some of its moisture.  Then the mold is opened and the artist completes the detailing of the form.  After that the sculpture is fired in a kiln.  The kiln temperature rises to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and bakes and hardens the clay for ten to twelve hours.  When the figurines come out of the kiln the clay has turned to terra-cotta.  It cools down and goes off to the painters.  This is a meticulous hand process that represents a craft that has been part of French country life for hundreds of years -- and the artists are determined to preserve it.

Eighty-five percent of the people living in Charlevoix can trace their heritage back to France, a heritage that they honor in many ways -- especially when it comes to food.  To make their point they have set up a program called La Route des Saveurs, which could be translated loosely as “the road of the good eaters.”  It’s a partnership between a group of restaurants and a group of food producers. And their objective is to take foods that are grown in Charlevoix and use them to prepare recipes in traditional ways -- and the older the tradition, the better.

This is the Moulin Banal.  The word banal comes from banalites, which is an ancient grain tax that the lord of the land would levy on his tenant farmers who were legally obligated to grind their wheat at the lord’s mill.  It is a water-powered mill that grinds flour the way water-powered mills have been grinding flour for hundreds of years.  A stream is dammed to build up a supply of waterpower -- power that you can use when you need it.  The pond deals with water in the same way a battery handles electricity.  When the miller wants to mill he opens the gates and lets the water hit the waterwheel.  The wheel turns and in turn, turns a set of belts that power the equipment in the mill.  The miller empties a sack of wheat into the system.  It’s sifted to take out any rocks or twigs that have come along from the field.  Then the wheat is pulled up above the millstones and slowly fed between them.  The stones rub against each other and in the process grind the wheat between them.  The ground wheat is sorted by size, bagged and sent off to the baker.  And if you think the miller is traditional, wait ‘til you see the baker.

Every morning at 7:30, rain or shine, hot or cold, Herve Gobeil gets up, goes out to the oven behind his shop, chops his wood, puts the logs in the oven, and starts the fire.  On special occasions, like the visit of a television crew, he wears the uniform of a medieval baker.  By 8:15 the walls of this ancient oven are sufficiently hot to start the baking.  The flame is gone and the hot coals have been removed.  The loaves of bread go in.  Anthropologists believe that this oven design goes back to the Greeks of 600 BC.  The roof of the oven curves up as it pulls away from the door, which causes the hot air inside to circulate around the bread.  That results in a more even heat and a richer surface on the loaf.

As Herve’s breads come out of the oven they give off a mouth-watering perfume.  They are crusty, coarse and dense.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  On one side of the relationship between the food producers and restaurants you have millers, fruit and vegetable growers, cheesemakers, honey gatherers, and about a dozen other businesses that use techniques that go back for hundreds of years.  On the restaurant side you have a group of what are called Auberge.  An Auberge is traditionally a restaurant in the countryside, what we might call a “French country inn.”  Some of them are very simple, and some of them are very sophisticated.

But either way, when they are on “the road of the good eaters,” their menu includes dishes that are made with products produced by craftsmen working with the traditional techniques of this region.

The Auberge des Peuplier was the first country inn in the region.  Peuplier means “poplar tree,” and the two poplars are right out in front.  You can stop in and taste a local fish called “omble.”  It’s served in alternative slices -- one smoked, the next sautéed.  The garnish is made from turnips.

Next stop is the Auberge des Trois Canard.  I had my first meal here in 1990 and the place keeps getting better.  The original owners were three English doctors, and they called the place “The Three Docs.”  When a Frenchmen purchased it he thought it had been called “The Three Ducks” -- so he translated the name into French as the “Trois Canards,” which means “the three ducks.”  If you like, the chef will present you with a starting plate consisting of smoked local salmon, smoked eel, a local whitefish, local mushrooms, and a sauce flavored with saffron.

Then there’s the Auberge La Pinsonniere.  It’s a member of the Relais Chateaux and has won a number of awards for its cooking.  One of the signature dishes is a trilogy of veal: the liver, the sweetbreads, and a slice of loin.

Finally there is the Auberge de Falaise, which means “the cliff.”  And this particular cliff was the favorite vacation spot for American tourists during the 1800s.  Great views outside... good food inside.  Spiced local lamb on the bone, served with a cylinder of potatoes mixed with local bacon... a pasta flavored and colored with squid ink and saffron and garnished with sea parsley.

Before we leave “the road of the good eaters,” I thought we should do a little cooking with Henry Meesen, who’s the executive chef at the Manoir Richelieu.  Today he is preparing a popular Canadian fish called Arctic Char, but the recipe will work just as well with skinless, boneless pieces of salmon.

Henry starts by carefully cleaning and cutting three leeks into small pieces.  Two tablespoons of olive oil are heated in a sauté pan.  The leeks go in, with a little salt and pepper.  They’re sautéed for two minutes, at which point they are turned out into a bowl to cool.  One-ounce pieces of fish are sautéed in a little oil for about a minute on each side.

A six-inch disc of pastry dough is set on a paper-lined pie plate.  A couple of tablespoons of the leeks go onto the dough.  A layer of half the fish goes onto the leeks.  Then a second layer of leeks and a second layer of fish.  An egg wash is painted over everything and a top disc of dough goes on and is pressed down around the edges with a fork.  A pizza cutter is used to trim the dough.  Then another bit of painting with the egg wash.  A little decoration is cut onto the dough and it’s into the refrigerator for a minimum of four hours -- but it can actually be held in the refrigerator for up to twenty-four hours.

HENRY MEESEN:  Puff pastry cooks very good at 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  In these ovens it should be in the middle, and around the middle, so it cooks evenly from the top to the bottom.  Twenty minutes approximately.

A sauce is made by sautéing two tablespoons of shallots, a half cup of white wine, the juice of three oranges and a cup of chicken stock.  Plus a little beurre manie, which is a mixture of half butter and half flour that will thicken the sauce.  A little salt, a little sugar and a pinch of cayenne pepper.  Five minutes of cooking and the sauce goes onto the serving plate, followed by the fish in the pastry and a garnish of cranberries and asparagus tips.

Henry’s second recipe is for a red pepper soup served in a red pepper.  Two tablespoons of oil are heated in a large pan.  As soon as the oil is hot he sautés a cup worth of chopped onions.  Then in go six sweet potatoes that have been peeled and sliced into small chunks.  Seven red peppers are cored, cleaned, sliced and placed into the pan.  A few minutes of stirring and cooking and in go six cups of chicken stock.  A sprig of thyme and a bay leaf are added and a cover goes on.  Thirty minutes of simmering and the vegetable solids are strained away from the stock.  The vegetables go into a blender and are turned into a puree.  You can add a little of the stock to get things started.  Then the vegetables are returned to the pot along with the stock and heated.  That’s the soup, and it’s served in a red pepper.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Clearly, Charlevoix’s French heritage places a stress on good food.  But I wouldn’t want you to think that everything you’re going to get to eat here is serious stuff.  Charlevoix, like just about every other place in the world, has a series of down-home foods that are thought of as the “local stuff.”  And, as usual, there is a particular place with a reputation for preparing those foods authentically.

Allow me to present Chez Chantal.  Conveniently located next to the train tracks and directly in front of the docks.  In the early 1900s, a Native American woman used the building to sell baskets to tourists.  Wishing to expand her product group, she began serving soup to the local dock workers and ice cream to the tourists.

In 1987, Simon Bouchard saw the potential of the food division and purchased the building.  He dropped the basket line and concentrated on the snack food.  Today Simon and his family run the business and it has become renowned among local gastronomes for two of the great lunch-counter dishes of Quebec.  The first is poutine -- crisp French fried potatoes that have just been made from scratch, carefully blended with small curds of soft, locally-made farm cheese, then bathed in a rich gravy and elegantly presented in a handy container that you can even take with you.

The second is guedille -- strips of newly-harvested lettuce, chucks of locally-grown ripe tomatoes, ribbons of tender baked chicken, and all blended with a velvety mayonnaise and served in a delicately-toasted hot dog bun.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But let me tell you, this food  tastes great and it will stand up to any snack food anywhere in the world.  Simon Bouchard -- keep up the good work.

And before we leave Charlevoix, I would like to show you a few more good works -- works by Mother Nature, which is what originally attracted visitors to the region.

You can take a two-hour boat trip up the Saguenay Fjord, which cuts north from the St. Lawrence River.

You can hike and camp in the High Gorge Park.

You can go whale watching on the St. Lawrence, where six species of whales take up residence from late May to late October.

Charlevoix is located in the Canadian Shield, which is the oldest land formation on our planet.  The landscape is so beautiful that the area has been designated by the United Nations as a World Biosphere Reserve -- and it’s all easy to see.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Quite a place.  The first European settlers to come here were self-sufficient craftsmen and craftswomen, who were pretty much capable of making anything they wanted, and very proud of their history as French country peasants.  The second group to come along were from Scotland, equally proud and independent.  And it is the work of these two groups in preserving their history, their traditions and their origins that makes today’s Charlevoix so interesting to visit.  And I hope this has all been interesting for you and that you will join us next time as we travel around the world looking at the ORIGINS of some of the things that surround us.  I’m Burt Wolf.