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For every taste: history and food, shops and strolls

By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2011

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QUEBEC CITY — I was in bread heaven in La Boîte à Pain, surrounded by browned-to-bursting and yeast-scented rounds, ovals, and spears of crisped, baked goodness.

“We have the best bread in town,’’ said Annick Davignon. Who was I to argue with someone who refers to herself as “the happiest bread seller’’?

I practiced my high school French by pronouncing names out loud: “baguette blanche,’’ “campagnard,’’ “carre blanc,’’ “sarrazin et miel.’’

“You have to grin more when you speak,’’ said Libby, my pal and traveling companion. Her French language skills mirror mine, so I wasn’t sure if she was putting me on.

We had come here for a getaway weekend. The plan was to walk, explore, shop, and, to be honest, eat. We wanted to taste as much cheese, charcuterie, foie gras, wine, beer, maple butter, croissants, baguettes, and chocolate as possible.

Quebec City was founded in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, and 95 percent of its residents speak French. (Many also speak English, especially in the tourist areas.) The name Quebec comes from an Amerindian term meaning “the place where waters narrow.’’ That water is the scenic St. Lawrence River, which curves past the ramparts of Vieux-Quebec, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The city’s history reflects its French, British, and Amerindian roots. The past is present everywhere: in the restored architecture, the cobblestone paths, the names of streets, the fortified walls, the public squares and parks, and and culinary traditions.

Our history lesson started as we checked into our hotel, Auberge Saint-Antoine, in the Old Port district. Hundreds of artifacts from the French and British regimes were discovered during the excavation to build this hotel. The restored objects, some dating to the 17th century, are enclosed in illuminated glass cases set into the interior walls. We wandered the halls as if in a museum, stopping to admire sculpted clay pipes, wrought-iron fishhooks, brass taps, glass vials, and earthenware pottery fragments.

Of course, history can be static and stuffy, or active and vibrant. Quebec City’s falls in the latter category. It’s a metropolis of many small, distinct, and lively neighborhoods, which make walking around so much fun.

Our first evening, maps in hand, we set out for the nearby Quartier Petit-Champlain, a preserved, colonial-style portside village. Except for people in modern garb chatting on cellphones, we could have entered another century. The narrow pedestrian streets are lined with art galleries and boutiques displaying paintings, sculpture, crafts, jewelry, ceramics, leather, woodworking, clothing, and cosmetics. Cozy, European-style restaurants beckoned.

“Mmmm. Fudge?’’ said Libby.

“Mais, oui,’’ I replied.

We opened the door to La Fudgerie Boutique, a confectionary wonderland. Shelves and tabletops were piled with 80 types of fudge. There was fudge in boxes, fudge on sticks, the weirdly appealing chocolate-covered fudge, even hanging sausages of fudge. We restrained ourselves, tasting only a spicy chili variety, then set off to find a place to dine.

In the morning, we toured Marche du Vieux-Port, an indoor farmers’ market near the river, and ogled the local fruits, vegetables, specialty food products, and crafts. The challenge was to find things small enough, and not too heavy, to squeeze in the suitcase to take home. A bottle of ice wine and pear-brie tart? Sadly, no. A tin of mushroom pate and jar of onion confit? “Certainement.’’

We grabbed a cab to the Saint-Roch district just outside the fortified town walls. We had heard this was the area where young entrepreneurs were opening hip boutiques, galleries, and shops selling local artisanal foods.

We meandered along Rue Saint-Joseph and decided the hype was right. Saint-Roch is an artsy part of town. Within a few blocks we passed an upscale kitchen supply store, thrift shop, concert hall, hotel, bookstore, toy store, kids’ clothing shop, jewelry boutique, art gallery, and a cafe with so many baked tarts, cakes, and chocolates on display that I thought my blood sugar would rise just looking in the window.

A wall of silver metal urns drew us into Camellia Sinensis. The containers are filled with teas from around the world that you can sample at a table in the rear, or purchase to take home.

“More and more people like tea,’’ said Jasmin Desharnais. “We have lots of different styles and ages of customers — students, businessmen — they all want to taste and compare.’’

Farther down the street, we found a Shangri-la of cheese at L’Artisan et Son Pays. “Everyone who buys here is interested in handcrafted products,’’ said salesman Samuel Collard.

An impressive array of cheeses filled a case that ran the length of the store. L’Artisan works with about 40 Québecois cheesemakers, and an additional 80 suppliers of specialty products such as nuts, jams, oils, dried mushrooms, and foie gras.

“It’s a shop with values,’’ said Collard, who is also a musician. “If I weren’t paid for doing this — buying local and looking at ingredients — I’d be doing it anyway.’’

We stopped for a pick-me-up at Le Nektar Espresso Bar where I tasted my best cup of coffee in the city. “We’re the only place in Quebec doing business with these roasters,’’ said Vincent Hamel, one of the owners.

Bags of coffee listed the country of origin, the altitude it was grown, and roasting date. “I like to express the terroir of coffee,’’ said Hamel. “This is my niche. It’s a new and young concept in Quebec.’’

A half-block off the main thoroughfare we discovered Korrigane, a brew pub and beer garden opened last summer by Jean Foster and his daughter, Catherine Dionne-Foster.

A master brewer for 20 years, Foster crafts 500-liter batches at a time, all by hand. Most of the 15 recipes he uses produce English-style beers. Some are produced seasonally, like those flavored with pumpkin or blueberry, while others stay on the menu year round. Since Korrigane isn’t a microbrewery, meaning it can’t bottle or sell beer off premises, this is the only place in town to taste his creations.

Dionne-Foster, who lives nearby, describes the pub as “an extension of our living room,’’ and wants the pub to be “a cultural meeting place, a window for local artists and musicians. We try to be really involved in the neighborhood.’’

From here, it was a 20-minute stroll from the Saint-Roch district to another avenue of great eating, Rue Saint-Jean. We perused J.A. Moisan, an epicurean grocer dating to 1871, and tasted Gaulois, a soft raw cow’s milk cheese. We entered another tea and coffee emporium, kitchen gadget shop, bakery, and discovered a chocolate museum within a chocolate shop.

Passing through an arched stone gate into the heart of Vieux-Quebec, we found another so-called museum within a store, the Maple Museum, and learned about harvesting sap.

We paused where buskers performed on clarinet, guitar, and harmonica, offering a rousing, French-accented rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.’’

A brisk wind from the river was a chilly reminder that evening was fast approaching. Our next destination was the bar at the famed Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, a late-19th-century hotel on a bluff overlooking the St. Lawrence River.

We tossed some money in the open guitar case, and marched like saints down the street in the waning light.

Necee Regis can be reached at neceeregis@gmail.com.

If You Go

Where to stay
Auberge Saint-Antoine
8 Saint-Antoine St.
888-692-2211
www.saint-antoine.com
Boutique Relais & Châteaux hotel with 95 rooms and suites. Fine dining, gym; doubles from $149.
Where to eat
Matto
71 Saint-Pierre St.
1-418-266-9444
www.ilmatto.ca
Italian comfort food in upscale setting. Entrees $15-$32.
Le Graffiti
1191 Avenue Cartier
1-418-529-4949
Romantic neighborhood bistro. Classic French and Italian fare. Signature dish: sweetbreads in filo. Entrees $16-$34.
Le Cochon Dingue
46 boulevard Champlain
1-418-692-2013
www.cochondingue.com
Casual French bistro: steaks, frites, mussels, pate and onion soup. Entrees $16-$23.
Korrigane
380 Dorchester St.
1-418-614-0932
www.korrigane.ca
Brew pub serving artisan beers and light bar menu in casual setting. Pints $6.
What to do
Le Marche du Vieux-Port
160 Quai St-Andre
418-692-2517
www.marchevieuxport.com
Farmers’ market daily, year round.
Viva Cite Trail
www.vivacitetrail.com
Explore five neighborhoods: Parliament Hill and Old Quebec, Faubourg Saint-Jean, Saint-Roch District, Old Port District and Place-Royale, Quartier Petit Champlain. Pedestrian route with markers embedded in sidewalks.
Information
www.quebecregion.com