Food, glorious food, in Quebec City

Date 09/10/2016

Written byTaylor Ireland

Maybe it dates back to the hard early years when settlers in Nouvelle France endured hunger and malnutrition, but Quebecers nowadays sure do love good food and drink, and lots of it. As an adopted Quebecer I quickly, and happily, embraced this enthusiasm for « la bonne table. »

It may say something about Quebec City’s fascination with food that a large swath of the grounds in front of the National Assembly has been given over to a « potager » or vegetable garden. It’s a testament to the abundance of the land, and the hard work and determination that transformed millions of acres of Quebec wilderness into productive farms, growing all manner of things from grapes to wheat. As a prairie boy, I understand and appreciate the satisfaction of seeing what was sown in the spring bring a bountiful harvest in the fall.   

Whether you like to cook, or have someone else do the cooking, Quebec City has almost an embarrassment of gastronomic riches. You might say that when it comes to filling the tummy with good things, la vieille capitale punches well above its weight.

So, let’s get cooking! If you are looking for ingredients for just about any dish you feel like whipping up, chances are you’ll find them at a full range of groceries and markets in the city. Since this is harvest time, fresh produce from farms in the region and beyond is in ready supply at the city’s popular marchés publiques, or farmers’ markets. There are two very large ones serving the east and west ends of the city.

Le marché du vieux port has a long and colourful history. It’s the last remaining such market in the old city where once there had been a series of bustling markets dating back to its founding in the early 1600s. It settled on its current site in 1987 after being housed just prior in the magnificent Gare du Palais train station just next door to it.

The old port market runs year-round offering all manner of vegetables, fruit, fish, meat and prepared delicacies, as well as many artisanal products. At Christmas time it transforms into the marché de noel offering seasonal wares, including Christmas trees.

Plans are in the works to create a giant new public market near the city’s new arena, the Videotron Centre. It’s expected to open in 2018, but the city says it will maintain some form of farmers’ market in the old city regardless.

The other major produce market is in the western suburb of Ste. Foy, and it celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. It’s open from early May until the end of October, when you can bet pumpkins are a hot item.

For a place that’s often accused of being too homogeneous, Quebec City boasts a surprising number and variety of ethnic groceries. The St. Roch neighbourhood in Lower Town alone has a score of charming and aromatic shops selling specialty foods and products from all around the world, from India, to South America, to the Middle East to the Caribbean.

Do you want bread with that meal? Quebec is home to what must certainly be some of the finest bakeries (and pastry shops) in the country, or on the continent, even. One of the ones that gets mentioned a lot in food guides is Le Paillard, in the heart of the tourist district on rue St. Jean, now marking the tenth anniversary of its success in combining European and American sensibilities to produce great baked goods, sandwiches, soups and the like. But great bakeries abound in the city; we count at least four alone in the Montcalm district, including a place whose bagels rival the best of Montreal.

Now we come to the hard part: restaurants. One guide lists more than 1,800 eateries in the city, so obviously it’s impossible to even begin to tuck into the dizzying choices. But, for the sake of argument, we can name some of the restaurants that show up consistently on top 10 lists in a sampling of guides and reviews. For those ready to throw around a little cash, the notables are L’Initiale, Laurie Raphael, and Panache, all located within a stroll of each other in the old port, and all three recipients of high praise in lofty gastronomic circles.

The upper town of the city boasts Aux Anciens Canadiens, Saint Amour and Chez Boulay, each of which offers first rate cuisine at appropriate prices.

Perhaps a revealing measure of the variety of the cuisine available in Quebec City might be the two choices of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain of CNN when he visited the city in 2013. One was the traditional Le Continental in the old city, a formal, well-appointed restaurant with a menu of what Bourdain called « ocean liner classics. » The other was L’Affaire est Ketchup in the trendy St. Roch district of lower town, where the chef whips up imaginative dishes on regular electric element kitchen stoves.

 We could go on endlessly about the joys of cooking and eating in Quebec City, without even mentioning poutine – well, there, I just did. From honeybee colonies on the roof of the iconic Chateau Frontenac, to the « chocolate factory » stores of Chocolats Favoris, to hey, the only Krispy Creme donut outlet outside Montreal, to a selection of food tours to sample local fare, Quebec City is a marvel of delights for foodies.

And we haven’t even had a drop to drink yet – maybe we’ll save the city’s beverage delights for another time.

Bon appetit.