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Food & Travel

Isles of France where all is hardy

Off Newfoundland’s south coast, with euros, croissants, cod, and rosé

The harbor at Saint-Pierre reflects the French island’s reliance on fishing. The harbor at Saint-Pierre reflects the French island’s reliance on fishing. (Jim Chiavelli for The Boston Globe)
By Jim Chiavelli
Globe Correspondent / September 29, 2010

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SAINT-PIERRE AND MIQUELON, France — “Faux France,’’ Younger Daughter sniffs, jaded at only 14. Eh, de rien. Five and a half days from Boston by car and boat, three time zones away, we saunter through customs in Saint-Pierre and into a small buzz of taxis bearing European Union plates and Gitane smoke.

This archipelago of eight islands off the southern tip of Newfoundland is French, not just by heritage but by law. The territorial collectivity, as it is called, with Saint-Pierre and Miquelon the inhabited isles, has about 6,500 residents, a bustling fishing industry, and several hotels and restaurants. This time of year, you have to take a puddle-jumper from Canada; rather than dodge icebergs, the daily ferry sits idle from September to April.

En route, there’s good Lebanese food in Saint John, New Brunswick — who knew? — and fried cod and poutine, that Canadian marvel of fries, gravy, and cheese curds, in a Cape Breton pub. The eight-hour ferry to Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland and Labrador, is a hiccup — steam-tray chow — but Port-aux-Basques restores faith with breakfast, including fresh fish hash and thick coffee.

Grand Falls-Windsor, Newfoundland, seven hours farther on, offers fried cod and more fried cod until the cod runs out, along with the gin and house red, or so they claim. Less than a day through windswept landscape brings us southward to Fortune; we have stunningly light cod au gratin at Doc’s, where everyone is “m’darlin’ ’’ and they snort if you ask for the recipe. Seems everyone in the province can make cod au gratin, and boy, they should keep it up.

Ninety minutes by ferry from Fortune lands us on Saint-Pierre. This was the first French soil freed from Vichy, and Charles de Gaulle’s 1944 liberation message is reproduced throughout the town, on small white placards against a Mediterranean architectural palate of purples, blues, yellows, and oranges. Patisseries abound, croissants flaky, buttery, never having seen a drive-through window. Businesses close at noon for a leisurely lunchtime, which a croque monsieur and the house white fill admirably.

Saint-Pierre’s failing is an absence of cafes. Instead we wander from liquor store to tobacconist where flocks of day-tripping Canadians shop tax-free. Four blocks uphill from the harbor we find locals shopping and chatting. They don’t chat in English or take Canadian currency (bring euros and a phrasebook, or a gift for pantomime). French wine is cheaper here than at the harbor.

A hotel clerk assures us no reservations are needed for Tuesday dinner during a cold rainstorm. Ah, Gallic humor. The first three restaurant hostesses offer shrugs, not seats. Finally we trickle into the Brasserie Ile de France. A big blackboard testifies to a catch-of-the-day attitude, and recognizing the odd word we point damply, cheering with a carafe of rosé. The waiter-bartender delivers escargot salad with a hint of curry, a sausage-shrimp ragout in creamy lobster sauce, gratineed scallops and a galette — a Breton buckwheat crepe — packed with lobster and apples.

“You like?’’ he says. Oh, mais oui. The secret to his scallops: clam juice in the bechamel. And, of course, buying at the docks.

To say the trip home, including two nights in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador’s capital, and the overnight ferry to Cape Breton, is more of the same is no slight. There are cod cakes and fried bologna for breakfast, with a pile of (American!) bacon as big as a baby’s head; caribou fillet with partridgeberries (lingonberries); fried cod tongues; curried salt cod; cloudberry jam on cream crackers; Nova Scotia wine; New Brunswick cheddar. Now and then we try a vegetable, but don’t make a religion of it.

This is not stereotypically foofy French cuisine. The chow of Saint-Pierre and the Maritimes is built to wrap your bones against foggy days and drizzly nights. You will come home heavier, m’darlin’, but your soul will be lightly singing salty songs of the sea.

Air Saint-Pierre, 877-277-7765, www.airsaintpierre.com (Flights from Montreal; St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador; Sydney and Halifax, Nova Scotia; Moncton, New Brunswick).

Marine Atlantic Canada, 800-341-7981, www.marine-atlantic.ca (Year-round boats from Sydney to Port-aux-Basques, N-L).

St. Pierre Tours, 800-563-2006, www.spmtours.com (April-September boats from Fortune, N-L, to Saint-Pierre).

Doc’s Diner, Bayview Street, Fortune, 709-832-0553 (open year-round).

Brasserie Ile de France, 6 rue Maitre Georges Lefevre, Saint-Pierre, 011-508-41-03-60 (open year-round).

Jim Chiavelli can be reached at jim.chiavelli@gmail.com.