If you Google “The Laurentians”, you are going to encounter a whole whack of attractions that involve skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, hiking, and the like. My advice? Don’t Google.
Because while all of those outdoor activities are undoubtedly fun, if you go up that particular virtual ski lift looking for the best getaways, you will miss what I consider the number one attraction in the beautiful district: Le Chemin du Terroir (“the path of the land”, which does not nearly as evocative in English).
A road trip through foodie heaven, Le Chemin du Terroir includes almost two dozen official destinations — and dozens more ready to be discovered. Most are within half an hour of each other; a few more are a minutes beyond the region’s inner circle. The whole area is just north of Montreal but far enough north that you’re mainly driving through small towns and on country roads.
We’re talking artisanal chocolate shops, boutique restaurants crafting delectable dishes from their own harvests, apple shacks, cheese shops, a honey farm, distilleries, cideries, wineries, and more.
A great way to start your day — although perhaps not recommended by your personal trainer — is with a chocolate “planche” at Fays Terroir Chocolaté in Oka. Everything here is homemade by owner and chocolatier supreme, Mathilde Fays, a native of Alsace, who has created the most astonishing combination of tastes, marrying chocolate with (for example) beets, blueberries, basil, jalapeno peppers, cranberries, sloe gin, and even black radishes. My favourite was a spectacular concoction involving rich chocolate and raspberries.
We sat on the patio with Frank Mercier, who explained the magic of Fays while we sampled everything in sight. We mused about spending the rest of the day right there but no … all things apple beckoned. We headed to Labonté de la pomme, a five-minute drive from Oka.
Labonté is a family business that does darn near everything you can do with apples. Apples, of course, are a major crop in the Laurentians, and many local entrepreneurs have developed apple shops, pick-your-own businesses, restaurants, and cideries. Labonté offers all of those amenites, as well as hiking trails. The pesticide-free farm grows 20 varieties of apples, along with pears, plums, rhubarb, pumpkins, garlic, and cabbage. But for me the highlight was the Apple Shack, where, in the words of our host, Catherine Belanger, “You get the experience of going from the farm to your table.”
Our lunch at the restaurant was launched with another “planche” — a wood board holding smoked trout and Oka cheese — followed by a unique French onion soup made with maple syrup and apple bread. An amazing meal. Or so I thought. Turned out, those two courses were just the start. The Apple Shack version of “country waffles” followed. It is a plump waffle sandwich containing Oka cheese, ham, maple syrup, and apple chutney. Along with a green salad, baked beans, and fat, juicy sausages. Followed by an apple cake and ice cream dessert. Which should have been followed by a nap!
Yes, we were full. Which leads to a key recommendation: Take your time on Le Chemin du Terroir. Don’t rush. Savour the sensations that each stop offers you, and spend at least three days exploring the rich, delicious part of Quebec.
For example, the Intermiel bee farm, about 10 minutes from Labonté, is a sprawling enterprise that offers tours, and surprising tastes. The entire process of producing honey is well explained, and visitors can observe busy bees about their business in indoor glass hives. The tour is just a hint of the enormous Intermiel enterprise, which has 8,000 beehives located around the province. But here, at its headquarters, visitors can actually sample their wares — honey, of course, but also a variety of alcoholic beverages. And that was the biggest surprise – I have sipped mead and expected these drinks to also be cloyingly sweet. But no — mead-maker André Abi Raad has developed recipes that produce tastes that successfully mimic popular varieties of white wine, and that make a selection of spirits, including a frankly delicious gin.
Le Chemin du Terroir includes a number of fine restaurants — and there are many more you will simply discover in the region. One popular stop for food and drink is the Ciderie Lacroix, 15 minutes from the honey farm. Maitre d’ Laurent Bourgeois told me that the Lacroix family has been farming in the region for five generations, since 1879. In 1986, they bought the present location, a former Brussels sprouts farm, and planted apple trees, which now total 5,000. Today, three sisters – Elizabeth, Anne and Gabrielle – own the company and three of the company’s ciders are named for each of them.
In season, Lacroix welcomes pick-your-own customers — as many as 2,000 a day. Half the orchard is pick-your-own, half goes to the Lacroix products, including a variety of delicious, alcoholic cider. And the best way to experience the tastes is to dine at the cidery’s spacious, popular restaurant and order a flight of ciders.
At Distillerie Côte des Saints, half an hour from our original starting point in Oka, co-owner Guy Page met us on the eve of a monumental day for the company: The release of its first single-malt whisky, a moment to be much celebrated, and eight years in the making, from project start to the sale of the first bottle.
In the meantime, like most new distilleries, Côte des Saints had been producing other spirits, including delicious liqueurs made from gin and vodka. A distillery, once operational, can make gin or vodka in a matter of days, but whisky, by definition, demands at least three years in the cask. The first whisky from Côte des Saints has been aged in the barrel for four years.
And ah, the casks – Page and his colleagues have a passion for experimentation with tastes, and have a cellar full of casks from all over the world — barrels that have held port wine, bourbon, sherry, Cognac, brandy, and other spirits. Says Page: “Our barrel program is extensive.” Each cask imbues a unique flavour in that particular whisky, and Page said that in the weeks following the initial release three individual single-cask whiskies would be available.
Distillerie Côte des Saints is another farm-to-table … or, farm-to-bar … operation. Unlike many distilleries, it grows its own barley, and the facility includes a drying floor and every possible piece of equipment essential to producing fine whisky.
“Our dream,” says Page, “is to make the best whisky, the best single malt west of Scotland.”A unique aspect of Le Chemin du Terroir is the collaboration between the businesses, and the farms, orchards and vineyards that surround them. They buy one another’s products, and often, the byproducts of production go right back on the farms as compost and fertilizer.
I experienced a perfect example of this relationship during my final meal in the Laurentians — at Sacré Bistro, the superb restaurant at the Abbaye d’Oka, an event centre and unique hotel. The meal was excellent, the wine was superb, and I, of course, ordered dessert — the special of the day: The exact same chocolate-and-raspberry creation I had enjoyed so much at Fays. It was purchased by one Laurentians’ entrepreneur supporting the neighbouring business of another.
You will find that spirit of mutual cooperation and friendship everywhere along Le Chemin du Terroir. These family-focused businesses understand that their region is really one, closely-knit visitor attraction. That warm, welcoming environment is yet another reason to savour the laid-back, surprising, food-and-drink paradise.