Travel: Quebec City: A haven for history, poutine
This article appears in Sept. 5 Travel page.
I’m standing on land where, in 1759, British troops equipped with muskets vanquished French soldiers in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, historically famous for lasting a scant 30 minutes from surprise attack to victory.
Today, this tract of land is home to myriad festivals, including July’s 10-day Festival D’été de Québec, that has been held here every summer since 1968. The Bell Stage is one of the largest in North America, and is where bands Lynyrd Skynyrd, Imagine Dragons, Mariah Carey and Buddy Guy performed this year. The performance I watched was led by Jason Bonham, son of the late John Bonham, Led Zeppelin’s legendary drummer.
The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, talent-wise, and in between songs performed by Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Evening, Jason shared “growing up Zeppelin” anecdotes with the audience. He knew John only as “dad” and was mostly unaware that his father was one of the rock world’s most celebrated drummers for many years. When John passed away from acute alcohol poisoning during a band rehearsal in 1980, the teenaged Jason picked up the drumsticks and began to play.
Attending rock concerts left me hungry to explore the food scene of Old Quebec City. First stop: a dish of poutine. An iconic Quebec specialty, poutine can be found at almost every local restaurant within this Canadian province. The following evening, I sampled Quebecoise cuisine at La Buche on Rue Saint-Louis. This renowned local favorite opens for dinner at 5 p.m. and not one milli-second before. As I waited patiently in line for 5 p.m. to arrive, I noticed a cannonball lodged into the base of a nearby tree. I was told it was a memento from that oh-so-brief war back in 1759.
If you go to La Buche, order a cast iron skillet of poutine, a delicious mess of squeaky cheese curds, heaped with ground pork and French fries swimming in a deep brown gravy. If you feel daring, dine on venison tartare. But whatever you decide to order, be sure to save room for dessert of maple syrup taffy — made by rolling a stickful of syrup in a trough of fresh snow until it’s stiff and frosty.
On my final day in Old Quebec, I walked the curves of Parisian-style cobblestone streets, stopping in countless specialty boutiques selling fur. Fur hats. Fur coats. Fur earrings. Fur blankets. With the St. Lawrence River as my backdrop, I ascended my own stairway to heaven inside the stone walls of the old city until I reached the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, a magnificent, castle-like hotel that dominates the hillside. I had hoped to learn more about the imperious Count of Frontenac and the colorful history of the castle from the 17th to 19th century. Alas, guided tours of the chateau were fully booked throughout my stay; I regretted not making a reservation in advance but assuaged my disappointment by spending a few idle moments watching a street busker balance himself on a stack of chairs.
Lunch beckoned and I took a seat outside at Don Vegan, a 100% plant-based restaurant on Rue du Sault-au-Matelot. This delightful find serves a hearty vegan carbonara pasta made with smoked tofu (as bacon) marinated in a mix that contains liquid smoke and topped with a velvety cashew and soya cream sauce enhanced with sprinkles of vegan Parmesan. I attempted to clean my plate, but simply could not.
A few more hours of window shopping later, I caught up with a friend over cheese and charcuterie at the revolving restaurant on top of the Hotel Le Concorde. My room in this hotel was a bit tired, but its revolving Ciel Bistro Bar on the 28th floor is the perfect spot to sip a glass of wine while enjoying a bird’s eye view of the bustling Grande-Allée of sidewalk cafés in this charming city to our north.
Charlene Peters is a culinary adventurer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.