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Gaspé gastronomy

Tiny villages, mountain inns, back streets feature delectable edibles

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A trip to the Gaspé used to involve a debate about your route and which way offers the best views. Now the big decisions are about how many food experiences you can pack into your holiday.

The easy aspect is, whether you drive the north coast where the views of the great river and verdant hills are breathtaking, or approach the celebrated Percé rock by way of the tranquil Matapédia River valley and the Bay of Chaleur, there are delectable meals, snacks and take-home treats to be found all along the way.

Interesting foods for the home cook are another temptation, whether packages of smoked or dried fish, wild mushrooms, or jars of wild fruit jams. On my trip last August, I almost wished I were camping so I could cook up examples of what deserves to be called the new Gaspé gastronomy.

It takes a bit of sleuthing to find it. The roads are lined with outlets offering fast food and many a restaurant menu ignores local specialties. But tucked away in tiny coastal villages, inns deep in the mountains or the back streets of little towns are edible pleasures as delectable as Montreal's finest.

Two guides can be your bibles for the trip.

One is the annual Tourisme Gaspésie booklet, free in French or English from government tourist offices.

The other, focused on food, is Gaspésie Gourmande, an annual magazine available free from Gaspé tourist offices or for $5.50 from stores (see If You Go). In its seventh year, the magazine is a gold mine of food and drink stops for touring or shopping; some English translation is included.

That's where I learned of a chocolate shop called Couleur Chocolat, tucked away on a residential street in Sainte-Anne-des-Monts. I had almost given up my block-by-block search when I spotted the small store with the indefinable look of professionalism serious chocolatiers give to their premises. Nothing flashy but, inside, the cool on a summer day that promised good care and treatment of fine chocolate.

It was hard to keep our buying below $50 each; the chocolates, made by European-trained chocolatier Carl Pelletier, 43, were so appealing. I watched with respect while a local customer placed a $100-plus order from the chilled cases. Not surprisingly, Pelletier turned out to have studied at Montreal's Institut de tourisme et d'h¥tellerie and then in France and Italy before opening his shop in his hometown 16 years ago. Watch for his chocolates in other shops around the Gaspé.

If you take the northern route, which is my choice, you can start your Gaspé food adventures at the Auberge du Grand Fleuve at the east end of Métis-sur-Mer. This small, comfortable inn has big windows overlooking the St. Lawrence River and cuisine based on the freshest fish from the river, plus rabbit and other meats. The cooking stands to be better than ever this summer, thanks to the arrival of a respected Gaspé chef, Marie-Sophie Picard.

Even breakfast is special: crepes bretonnes hot from the griddle, made by Breton-born proprietor Raynald Pay.

When ordering fish in restaurants, look on menus for the words "Fourchette bleue," a movement to use plentiful species from the St. Lawrence River, relieving pressure on varieties that are short (exploramer.qc.ca).

We made it easily to Matane for lunch, stopping just west of town to admire the biggest whale of our tour -- a shop in the shape of a giant whale beside Highway 132 -- and then tour the charming, if frantically decorated, public Jardins de Doris. It can't hold a candle to the Reford Gardens at Grand Métis, but it has charm.

We sought out a back-street restaurant called Bistro Le Saint Georges and found the friendly little place packed with businessmen and ladies who lunch. The boss waitress fit us in at the bar, where we soaked up local conversations along with local beer and watched the chef frantically turning out plate after plate of excellent casual food, including our orders for linguine with shrimps and apples, and salmon braised with lemon and fennel.

Contrasts are plentiful in this region and our night at the GÆte du Mont-Albert was a switch from the Métis inn. It's a spacious, North American-style hotel deep in the Chic Choc Mountains with a big, bustling dining room, uniformed staff, families on holiday and a menu rich in fish and seafood dishes. The best was my halibut, cooked bouillabaisse style with a crouton and rouille.

Pressing on east along the coast, we had lunch in Mont-Louis, a fishing village dating back to 1790 where you'll find another little bistro with fine food called La Broue dans l'Toupet. Run by the Gasse family of chefs, it's another place with that indefinable look of food service know-how. Daniel Gasse, his sister, Anna Nathalie, and their mother share the cooking, serving as much local food -- fish, of course -- as they can get, plus plenty of beef too.

Take note as you come into town of a fish enterprise worth visiting if you want to buy fresh, smoked or canned products: Atkins, which smokes a variety of fish. Montreal shoppers will recognize the company's distinctive black packaging. Chef Gasse likes to combine fresh fish with Atkins's smoked products on his menus, for example coldsmoked salmon made into a tartare with oranges and capers.

Coming south into Gaspé -- you will hear it called Gaspé Town -- you'll pass stone slabs marking the spot where explorer Jacques Cartier planted the French flag, and the Musée de la Gaspésie, which is not to be missed if you are interested in the history of the fishery. We headed for a big 1860 mansion-turnedinn with a fine reputation called the Auberge Maison William Wakefield after its one-time owner, a McGill-trained doctor and federal fisheries negotiator.

This comfortable Victorian decorated hotel has one of the best dining rooms in the region. Owner-chef Desmond Ogden is faithful to local products and offers a menu rich in fish and seafood. His plate of grilled cod on top of sweet chopped tomatoes was a memorable appetizer, as was one of his signature dishes: beef short ribs braised for 12 hours in wine. After four days of fish, it was a succulent change of flavour.

Plan on a day to circle the beautiful point of land off Gaspé called Forillon National Park, where a restored house and store help you imagine the lives of fishing families 150 years ago. They traded their catch for staples, never saw money, and grew their vegetables in tiny gardens. The hardships and rigours of their lives are brought home in the little museum, where you can jot down recipes for dried cod, onions and potatoes or roast pork with yellow potatoes and turnips.

Before you leave the town of Gaspé, enjoy a shopping spree at the specialty food store Marché des Saveurs Gaspésiennes on the main street. Specialties include dried wild mushrooms from Gaspésie Sauvage of Douglastown and two Paspébiac products: Irish moss from Algues Gaspésiennes and Caviar Emerance made from lumpfish.

Two exceptional restaurants are fixtures on the east coast: Auberge Fort-Prevel, a golfer's resort near Douglastown, where the Beland family of chefs have taught cuisine, smoked their own fish, and continue to serve their signature dish, a lavish Gaspé-style bouillabaisse; and Maison du P�cheur in Percé beside the pier facing the famous rock.

The bouillabaisse at Fort-Prevel was created by chef Armel Béland, who went to France in 1972, studied the Marseilles version, and returned to the Gaspé to adapt it to Quebec coastal fish and seafood.

Son Dominic Béland now offers it, and one portion could easily serve two. Other Gaspé treats on his menu the night we dined there were salmon smoked with maple syrup and rum, and cod's tongues on a bed of scalloped potatoes.

Maison du P�cheur, like all restaurants, has had to survive the shortage of cod and has made a specialty of halibut, mackerel and herring.

But owner Georges Mamelonet, a town leader and now the Liberal member of the National Assembly, has made his name with his lobster, scallops, shrimp and crab. He keeps the lobsters in cages 20 metres below the surface of the water off Bonaventure Island. To supply his chef, Sylvio Asselin, through the season, he dons a wetsuit to dive down, feed the lobsters and "catch" just the number needed each week.

Heading east again, history buffs will enjoy a preserved 1928 general store at L'Anse Beaufils just west of Percé.

But, of all the food stops on the trip, the most intriguing was on the grassy slopes of Sainte-Thérèse-de-Gaspé, where, in a custom that dates back 400 years, salted cod was being laid out on wooden racks (flakes) to dry in the coastal breezes. Gaspé Cure is the trademark for the style of production at Poissonnerie Lelièvre, Lelièvre et Lemoignan, and the process is so much a part of the history of the region, Roch Lelièvre also runs an ecological museum showing how the fish are soaked in brine for 21 days, then spread out to sun-dry for two to three weeks. Montrealers will find this fish in a few shops catering to Portuguese people and all who love their baccala.

The day we were there, a sizable quantity of fish caught off Newfoundland were being slapped down on the racks. The fish were 45 to 60 centimetres long. Larger are almost unavailable on the east coast, so Lelièvre fills in with giant (125-centimetre) cod caught in Alaska, frozen and transported east for processing.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

The distance from Ste. Flavie, entry point to the Gaspé on Highway 132, around the coast and return, is about 900 kilometres. The distance from Montreal to Ste. Flavie is about 575 km. Ste. Flavie has a tourism office at 357 Highway 132, 418-775-2223, info@tourisme-gaspesie.com, www.tourisme-gaspesie.com .

Flights:

Air Canada flies to Mont-Joli and Gaspé.

Car rentals:

Mont-Joli -- National; Gaspé -- Budget.

Places to stay and eat:

Auberge du Grand Fleuve, 131 Principale St., Métis-sur-Mer, 418-936-3332, 1-866-936-3332, aubergedugrandfleuve@globetrotter.net, aubergedugrandfleuve.qc.ca .

GÆte du Mont-Albert, Parc national du Gaspésie, 2001 Route du Parc, Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, 418-763-2288, 866-727-2427, mtalbert@sepaq.com, www.sepaq.com/pq/gma .

Auberge Maison William Wakeham, 186 de la Reine St., Gaspé, 418-368-5537, maisonww@hotmail.fr, maisonwakeham.ca .

H¥tel La Normandie, 221 Route 132 W., Percé, 418-782-2112, 800-463-0820, hotel@normandieperce.com, normandieperce.com .

Le Manoir Belle Plage, 474 Perron Blvd., Carleton-sur-Mer, 418-364-3388, 800-463-0780, mbplage@globetrotter.net, www.manoirbelleplage.com .

Bistro Le Saint Georges, 126 Saint Georges St., Matane, 418-562-0261.

La Broue dans l'Toupet, 20 First Ave. E., Mont-Louis, 418-797-2008, info@labrouedansltoupet.com, labrouedansltoupet.com .

Auberge Fort-Prevel, 2053 Douglas Blvd., Saint-Georges-de-Malbaie, 418-368-2281, fortprevel@sepaq.com, www.sepaq.com/ct/pre/ .

La Maison du P�cheur, 155 Route 132 W., Percé, 418-782-5331, www.maisondupecheur.ca .

Shopping:

Couleur Chocolat, 36-Second St. W., Sainte-Anne-des-Monts, 418-763-7535, info@couleurchocolat.ca, www.couleurchocolat.ca .

Atkins & Frères, 1 Chanoine-Richard St., Mont-Louis, 418-797-5059, info@atkinsetfreres.com, atkinsetfreres.com .

Marché des Saveurs Gaspésiennes, 119 de la Reine St., Gaspe, 418-368-7705, mds@cgocable.ca .

Sights:

Reford Gardens/Jardins de Métis, 200 Route 132, Grand-Métis, 418-775-2222, info@refordgardens.com, www.refordgardens.com .

Les Jardins de Doris, 645 Henri Dunant Ave., Matane, 418-562-4342, info@jardinsdedoris.ca, jardinsdedoris.ca .

Lelièvre, Lelièvre et Lemoignan, 52 des Vigneaux St., Sainte-Thérèse-de-Gaspé, 418-385-3310.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 23, 2012 D1

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