On a whirlwind adventure in the middle of August, my friend and I made our way to the Charlevoix area of Quebec to explore the food related businesses and people there. The natural beauty of the area is awe inspiring and vast. Softly rounded hills, deep rivers, rolling fields of cereal grains and grazing livestock amidst charming old homes with ski jump shaped rooftops dotting the landscape. This popular destination for summer camping and winter ski holidays is buzzing with tourists all eager to experience the tastes, sights, and activities offered in this magical place.
We started our tour at Laiterie Charlevoix. Four of the seven sons in the Labbé family, with Quebecois roots for over 400 years, are involved in the daily operation of the business. We were greeted enthusiastically by Dominic and Jean Labbé, and Robert Benoit, the farm tour guide and museum curator. Starting in the on-site food boutique, offering the products of many of the producers and processors from the surrounding area, the story of this mid-sized and highly successful business was offered openly. Four different cheeses are produced and aged at the laiterie, and one more is started there, but finished by a neighbour. Showcasing the milk of the Canadienne and Jersey breeds of dairy cows, the cheeses are set apart because of the high content of protein in the milk they use, and the attention and craftsmanship of the award winning cheese makers.
The Laiterie Charlevoix is part of a network of handicraft and agri-food businesses that “showcase and transmit traditional trades and knowledge” called Économusée. There are 33 of these workshop-boutiques in Quebec, and several more in Atlantic Canada. Because the business is committed to sharing the knowledge and art of their craft with the public, a large picture window looks into the production facility where the cheese makers are busy working away to create L’Hercule, 1608, 5 year aged cheddar, Le Fleurmier, and the beginning stages of Maurice Dufour’s Le Migneron. Upstairs from the retail operation, Robert Benoit has put together a small museum of dairy related artifacts that animate the history of the farm and of the dairy industry over the past hundred years. This room features bilingual interpretive signs explaining how the artifacts have been used, clearly showing the growth and changes of the industry over time. The tour continued into the warehouse where the process of “affinage” takes place, brining and aging the cheeses in carefully controlled, humid rooms. Every day the cheeses are bushed with milk and handled gently by dedicated staff.
Discussions of how the business is constantly improving and refining its processes included how the Labbés are planning to use the greywater, or “petit lait”, a byproduct of production, which is currently sent to the neighbouring pig farm as feed, to create methanol. This methanol is to be used to power the entire operation, and there are hopes for the future to power the delivery trucks and milk tankers used for distribution. Next stop, and without any warning, we were taken upstairs, to the gallery where Robert Benoit and his passion are on display. Neither my friend nor I had ever seen anything like it; an entire room devoted to the dairy industry.
Robert has been collecting artifacts and paraphernalia for his entire adult life, and pleasing his wife by removing this collection from their home, has been given the space by the Labbé family, to shine. Milk bottles from all over Canada, toys, cheese boxes, glass baby bottles, butter packaging and colour, signs, ash trays, calendars, thermometers and anything else one could imagine with a milk logo or dairy connection attached to it. The gallery has already had hundreds of visitors and it hasn’t even been finished yet. M. Benoit is still creating the interpretive signage and labels to go with each item on display.
At this point we still had not tasted any of the products that we had been admiring for the past couple of hours, and were taken to the ice cream shop on the farm to sample the four cheeses and continue our discussion of the business, the Charlevoix area, and how membership with the Économusée has helped the business attract customers and tourists to the site. In the summer months this operation attracts 2000 visitors a day, which translates into approximately 1000 transactions in the boutique. Not too shabby for a mid-sized family business. The size of the operation is under the radar of large, cannibalizing dairy businesses like Agropur or Saputo because it is too small, but certainly large enough to support the families depending on it for their livelihood. The Laiterie Charlevoix has chosen to continue to use the term “laiterie” instead of adopting the, perhaps more appropriate, term of “fromagerie” to honour the history and character of the farm and previous generations of dairy farmers and milk producers. Misnomer or not, this hasn’t affected the business or the joy the artisans so obviously experience being involved in the production of cheese and offering a meaningful experience to their visitors and customers.
Dominic then drove us to our next destination, our cabin at another one of the other Labbé family enterprises, Le Genévrier, a campground and all season recreation facility busy with families enjoying the August weather. From there we were whisked away to see a century old flour mill, Boulangerie La Remy, where traditional, stone ground flour breads are crafted, carefully restored complete with white picket fence. Unfortunately we did not have a chance to go inside, we were in a hurry to see the cows from which Laiterie Charlevoix obtains its milk. This herd of about 45 head of healthy, resilient, beautiful Canadienne Cows pleasantly greeted us in their barn. The Canadienne Cow is a breed that is almost extinct. There are only a couple hundred head left in the world. They have been phased out by Holstein, bred for its capacity to produce a lot of milk. The Canadienne Cows, however, are a special breed that was developed in New France in the 17th century from breeds originating in France, and boasts a high level of protein in its milk due to the high levels of protein ensured in the feed, very little need for pharmaceutical intervention because of its strong immune system, and longevity, not to mention they are very attractive animals. Mostly dark brown, almost black, the Canadienne Cow has a unique auburn line of fur along its back, a blue tongue, and a charming tuft of hair at the crown of the head and is very important to Quebec terroir. The calves in the barn sucked on my thumbs and we were completely impressed with the cleanliness and sweet smell of the barn at the Ferme Hengil run by Steve Tremblay and his family.
A scenic drive through the hills of the area with views to the St. Lawrence River and perfectly clear blue skies, we were taken to another Canadienne Cow dairy producer, Mme. Breton. Neither the Tremblays, nor Mme. Breton would still be in the dairy industry at all, had they not been solicited to produce this unique milk. Tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and no way out with the Holsteins requiring heavy medication and veterinary costs, and higher feed costs, the Tremblays sold off three kilos of quota to pay off their debts and started raising a smaller herd of Canadienne Cows exclusively. Mme. Breton was pushed out of her farm on the Island of Montreal several years ago with pressure from development and neighbours who could not tolerate the smells and activities of a dairy farm so close to their homes. Squeezed out, Mme. Breton sold off her Holsteins, kept the Canadienne Cows that made up half of her herd and moved up to the Charlevoix area. Because the Laiterie Charlevoix pays a $0.10 premium per unit of milk to the producer directly, these two producers were given an option to stay in the black, and continue to do what they love. These farmers do not have to milk as much or as often to be able to offer their customers a high quality, albeit smaller quantity of milk. This is a much more sustainable model of dairy farming that respects the animals, farmers, and history of cattle in Quebec for hundreds of years.
The next stop on the agenda was Les Viandes Biologiques de Charlevoix. This certified organic hog farm and processing plant is pumping out sausage like the best of them. Using the farm’s own pigs, and chickens, Damien Girard has created a sustainable business The total investment made in equipment, business development and infrastructure was $2.3 only a year and a half ago, and it is already turning a profit. The products that Damien processes include dry, Italian style sausages cased in wild mushroom powder, other types of dry sausages, pork cretons, pàtées, rilletes, and terrines, smoked bacon, marinated and boned chicken parts, pieces of fresh chicken, and a variety of other cured and sliced meats.
The most interesting of his products is the mushroom coated sausage, whereby the mushrooms, foraged from a neighbouring farm, coats the casing on the sausage and wicks moisture out of the sausage, but keeps the casing moist enough not to allow it to dry out or crack. Their market is mostly small retailers in Montreal and Quebec City. Employing mostly young mothers from the community looking for part-time work in a fun and social atmosphere, Damien has created a tightly run ship, turning out products in high quantities, but never losing sight of the standard in quality that he has committed to. After a lengthy and informative tour of the processing building, we were taken to see the fields of cereal crops he grows to feed his 60 sows and 500-600 piglets each year. He carefully rents fields to grow on and nurture so that they will produce high quality feed under his control. On a rotation, these fields are in grain for two to three years and hay for one to two, usually undersown with peas to fix the nitrogen in the soil and add protein and fat to the pigs’ diet. This holistic approach to growing feed is a great example of how processors like Damien can ensure that they do not have to rely on outside sources for feed, or worry about sourcing certified organic feed from far away. With several large silos to store the grains in on his own property, Damien will never be short on good food for his livestock. Amongst his grains is corn to finish the animals, rye, barley, oats and buckwheat. Plans for prosciutto are starting soon, so look out for Les Viandes Biologiques de Charlevoix prosciutto crudo in two years from now, I’m sure they will impress. Even I will be searching for Damien’s hams since I’ll likely be a full-blown carnivore at that point at the pace I’m going. I did try the sausages while I was at the factory and it brought back flavours I have not experienced in over 12 years. The saltiness, oily residue in the mouth, and sweet pork flavours were succulent.
Damien then kindly took us to his neighbour’s farm, La Ferme Basque de Charlevoix. Welcomed to the farm store by an exuberant 10 year old, Isa, and farm employee, Jimmy, we were taken on a tour of the barn, outdoor paddocks and exclusively shown the gavage pens. These ducks are raised as humanely as possible for an operation that produces primarily foie gras and other preserved duck meat products. However controversial, the ducks at La Ferme Basque did not even bat an eye at being force fed reconstituted corn through a funnel about 8 or 10 inches long. Jimmy hand feeds the ducks twice a day gradually increasing the dose for two weeks in total, eventually causing a disease of the liver called hepatic lipidosis, which we eat as foie gras in fancy restaurants. My experience eating high quality foie gras is as close to heaven as it gets, and although disturbed by the invasiveness of the practice of gavage, have come to a greater understanding and appreciation for what I witnessed as just another way to finish an animal for human consumption. Not all foie gras operations take the animal’s comfort into account as well as La Ferme Basque, however, and I would encourage those who would like to enjoy the marvels of foie gras to only support those businesses who raise their ducks with dignity and respect. The Mullard ducks being raised at this farm are an infertile variety, a cross between a Muscovy and Pekin. They are yellow and black, have very long necks and spend most of their pre-gavage life, about 70 days in total, outside. The farmers there were given special permission two years ago in a pilot project to have their birds outside.
There has been a lot of red tape around allowing birds to be raised outside because of the fear of avian flu, but to get around this, the farm implemented a system using fishing line to keep outside birds from infesting the flock. It has worked very well and this pilot project has proven that keeping the birds outside is not only possible, but also better for the animals.
Our next stop was at Maurice Dufour’s, Le Migneron, another cheese maker using cow and sheep milk, from his own sheep dairy. A bottle of wine and many samples later of his mild and somewhat weak cheeses, our conversation lead from the farm store and restaurant to the barn where we saw his sheep being milked and spoke about the Slow Food convivium in the area that had lapsed for lack of membership.
Having had far too much to drink on an empty stomach, it was time to rest from all of the excitement and join Dominic Labbé, Jean-Jacques Etcheberrigaray of La Ferme Basque, Damien Girard, and Maurice Dufour for dinner at Mouton Noir, a bistro in Baie-Saint-Paul, infamous for being where the discussions started to form Cirque de Soleil 25 years ago.
On the menu was Damien Girard’s chicken, local veggies from a market garden in the area, and Charlevoix lamb. We enjoyed the conversation immensely and the jovial company of very well-educated, humble, hard working men, who not only support each others’ businesses, but also make the time to have fun together and enjoy good food and wine. These characters know what happiness is, live the lives they want to be living and appreciate the beauty that surrounds them. It is a perfect example of balance, celebration of food, and making no concessions when it comes to quality.
After a short night’s sleep at our cabin, an early wake up and trip to the other side of the region brought us to La Ferme Eboulmontaise and Les Saveurs Oubliées of Lucie Cadieux. Lucie has been responsible over the past 25 years for forming the first appellation in Canada to protect, recognize and ensure that what is labeled as Charlevoix Lamb, is actually the uniquely high quality Charlevoix Lamb. Lucie has worked tirelessly and with little acknowledgment to form a network of producers who conform to the guidelines of raising lamb in a very particular and special way. Constant government road blocks and lack of support by the province and federally, as well as a lack of access to funding for business improvements has made Lucie’s dream of a protected region and product a difficult journey. For Lucie, she is amongst the few lucky farmers to have an abattoir only 50 kilometers away, but for farmers like Damien Girard, the closest abattoir for his chicken is a two-hour drive away. Without the infrastructure to support small to mid-sized farming enterprises, like public abattoirs, rendering plants, and options for distribution, the government will get what it wants and have all of these family farms out of business favouring the large agribusinesses who produce and process mass quantities of low quality “food”. There are other challenges, however, and many of them are financial. With interest rates for loans at 30% from the banks, because small farms are considered so risky, this seasoned farmer and savvy business woman can hardly catch a break. Businesses only stay “risky” if they can’t find the financing in the first place to help build solid infrastructure or develop effective marketing strategies, but a 30% interest rate would be difficult for any business to turn a profit paying the interest with the little revenue accrued from sales. It was pointed out that the huge aluminum industry near Charlevoix, in Lac Ste. Jean, is getting huge tax breaks for infrastructure and energy costs. Lucie’s energy bills were close to $12,000 in the past year. For a farm with average gross sales of less than $50,000, business is not possible without government assistance or grassroots initiated programs like the formation of the appellation. This initiative is truly exciting as it is one of the first in North America where the farmers have won the right to use the appellation to control their unique product and ensure a premium and fair price.
If you are unable to get to the Charlevoix region, don’t despair, there are Charlevoix branded stores in both Place de la Cité in Quebec City and at the Jean Talon Market in Montreal. Products are also available in small retail shops across Quebec. I’m not sure where to find these products in Ontario, but as soon as I do, I’ll post them! If you are able to get to the region, do not skip a beat and just go. It is definitely worth the trip. Take a car and visit the farms, Économusées, art galleries, and restaurants in and around Baie-Saint-Paul as soon as you can!