At first glance, Quebec is more French than France. But its intriguing hotchpotch of Anglo-French ancestry is not quite as simple as it seems
Ooh la la! Le poutine! Nothing is quite what it seems in Quebec, an island within a state. If you have been misinformed into thinking that Canada is boring, then I invite you to visit Montreal.
The closest comparison you could get to Montreal is New York City – another island city of migrants that froths with diversity. But despite the bustle, Montreal is a calmer place. Rough around the edges, absolutely, though you can nevertheless walk the breadth of the city back to your hotel late at night without fear of being mugged or attacked.
Not that it doesn’t have an edge. While its parks and gardens and grand mansion houses still glisten regally, downtown Montreal resembles downtown Manchester in the 1980s before it all got spruced up. Arndale-Centre-tastic. But even its ropier environs conceal a warm and beating Gallic heart.
During prohibition, booze-hungry Americans headed north to this jewel on the Saint Lawrence River for alcohol, dancing, music and an all-around good time. They still come in their droves for the same reason. In summer the city blossoms with festivals everywhere from French music to comedy, drag shows, gay parades, beer, fireworks and jazz. In the winter the city is no less frenetic, warming itself up with concerts, balls and fine food.
Which brings us back to the Quebecois national dish, poutine. Probably the least French thing about this strange little island. A messy slop of French fries (ie chips) slathered in squeaky cheese curds and drowned in a rich beef and red wine (usually) gravy. It really is as if Britain and France had a precocious love child.
It’s delicious. My stomach is rumbling just thinking about it. It comes in about 300 different varieties throughout Quebec and Montreal. Yet the highlights include the classic, Italian poutine, with Bolognese sauce and Italian sausage slices. Another popular version is Poutine Galvaude, with shredded chicken and green peas. But it’s basically anything you want as long as it includes those squeaky curds, chips and gravy. It’s essentially every Manc’s wet dream.
The exact provenance of the word poutine is disputed. Some days it is just a Gallic version of the English expression: “Put in”. My favourite is that it relates back to the English word pudding. The word French word pouding, borrowed from the English original, is a synonym which has a pejorative meaning in both languages. Ie fat person. I like this version the best. Certainly, if you eat enough poutines, you will end up very large and very happy.
Apart from the fact that Canada doesn’t have Donald Trump and still appears to respect human rights, the other major distinction between the country and their southern neighbour is their fine cheese. This is, naturellement, thanks to the influence of France.
While squirty and processed cheese still lives on in America’s bible belt, it’s a non-non in Le Canada where cheese is treated with a godlike reverence. Americans have cottoned onto this and you can finally get decent cheese in the States, much of it imported from Quebec.
There are incredible cheesemakers all over Quebec. If you station your trip in Montreal (and it’s well worth a week or two lingering around this city), there are nearby fromageries which can give you a glimpse of the province’s milky bounty. You will also have a chance to get a taste of the beautiful Quebecois countryside.
Fromagerie Ruban Blue, which makes goats cheese, and Fromagerie Au Gre des Champs (raw cow’s milk cheese) are both in the Montregie region. The incredible L’Abbaye de Saint-Benoit-du-Lac produces sublime blue cheese in the Eastern townships around 25 minutes trip from downtown Montreal. Fill up your suitcase with these cheesy delights then head into Montreal to pick up a bagel.
The Montreal bagel deserves as wide an audience as its New York equivalent, crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside with a subtle sweetness. They require good cheese but ought also to be just be tasted with the local creamy butter to appreciate their finesse and elegance.
Venturing out of Montreal, you should surely stop by the province’s ancient fortress Quebec City. Comparing Quebec City to Montreal is like comparing Edinburgh to London. It’s a cats and dogs thing. You’re either a cat person or a dog person, an Edinburgh person or a London person, a Quebec City person or a Montreal person.
Like Edinburgh, it may look quaint on the outside but it still has a very distinct creative and artistic edge. It is dreamily beautiful, especially in the snow. Same as in Montreal, good food tumbles at you from every corner. However, since it never had the waves of international immigration of its southerly sister, this place is distinctly more Gallic. It looks definitely more French than France.
Similarly to Edinburgh, it is regal, classy, and not-at-all interested in the outside world. Occasionally it’s a bit snooty, in a kinda cute way. It is a self-contained universe, and wandering around its gorgeous ancient streets you really can forget that the outside world exists.
Your best base is the Old Town, divided between the Old Upper Town (Haute Ville), standing above the St Lawrence River on the Cap Diamant cliffs and the Basse Ville (Old Town). The first French settlement arose there in 1608. If you think there is no history in North America, think again.
Rammed with cobblestone streets, bistros, museums and art galleries, it’s as idyllic a spot as you’ll find anywhere in the world. Yes, quite like central Edinburgh, it’s a bit touristy, so you perhaps don’t get to feel the raw edge of a city like you might in London or Montreal. But who can blame them for coming? Find a late night bar and meet the locals. You’ll soon escape the hordes and get the true flavour of this glittering northern jewel.
Outside the walls, after leaving the town gates of Porte St-Louis and Porte St Jean, there are the additional neighbourhoods of Montcalme, St-Jean Baptiste, Colline Parliamentaire and St-Roch. These are wonderful places to explore and offer a lot more colour than the charming but perhaps a little-too pristine Old Town.
Fresh air is abundant in Quebec; I actually felt quite dizzy getting used to the clean oxygen after London. For the freshest air of all head to the expansive Plains of Abraham. It is the place where the British defeated the French in 1759 and Quebec Province’s status as a state within a state was finally sealed.
The Quebecois are certainly not as chippy as the French or English can be, about their often tragic past. They are generally very smooth customers … But when you get into late night chats, you soon see that the past remains unforgotten or even unforgiven around these parts.
Discrimination against French speakers is still well within living memory and to a certain extent goes on today. Some say the reverse discrimination has been even worse. Whatever the truth, this is a peaceful but complicated place. Which only adds to its appeal in my book.
Facing Rue St Paul, the heart of atmospheric Old Montreal. This hushed and restful conversion of three historic warehouses kept the personality but added 21st-century comforts in the 105 rooms and suites. With two restaurants, a bar, and a rooftop terrace with gorgeous views, its only drawback is that you might never want to venture out. Doubles around £175
Located in the business district among 11 acres of landscaped gardens this is a stylish bolthole with an outside pool and spa. Doubles around £130.
Awesome poutine. Tiny place which is almost dwarfed by the super-cheap portions. Book a cab back to your hotel. You won’t be able to walk.
Great charcuterie, fine wine and artisan beers – this is a marvellous place to sample Quebec from age. Try the legendary beef stew or the Canadian fondue.
Inspired by speakeasies, this local gem is a great place to mingle with the Montrealers, sink a fine whiskey or grab a ladle of potent booze from the punch bowl.