Monday, April 26, 2010

Dining in Quebec

Hey fellow foodies. How has life been? It's taken almost a month to relax from the craziness that was SXSW. I was in extreme party mode all week, and it was glorious... But rather tiring. I don't think I drank any alcohol for 2 weeks after SXSW. Thats a record in my book. I even ate a mostly raw/vegan diet for about a week after to clear out all the effects of my drunken reveries.

But I'm not here to regale you of stories of my SXSW antics. Thats another post. I'm here to tell you about a trip I took in early February to Quebec! It all started around Thanksgiving of last year. My Aunt (who is a fellow world traveler) and I were talking about things on our Bucket list. You know, places you want to travel before you die. And we both realized we shared a common goal, to stay in an ice hotel. Now as some of you may know, I don't like ice and I don't like the cold, so why, you ask, would I want to stay at an ice hotel? Because it's awesome (as you'll see below).

But we couldn't spend 3 days in an Ice Hotel. What else is there to do in the Great White North? So we put our mad internet skills together and planned a trip to Quebec City (and the Ice Hotel). We learned that in February, the city of Quebec holds an outdoor winter sports festival. We added "Winter Festival" to our itenerary. Check. We also learned that Quebec, as you may know, is a haven of french food and culture. So we also added "Eat Tons of French Food" to our itenerary. Check. And then the pinacle of our trip would be a night in the Hotel du Glace outside of Quebec and a ride on a dogsled (I mean, we would be in the Canada, it seemed like the thing to do). Check, and check.

Our first two days in Quebec we spent in the city proper just meandering through the old city streets. Shopping here and there, stopping to eat a pastry, having a warm drink from time to time (because I have to tell you, it is crazy cold there in February, like 5 degrees, and thats farenheight, people). If you've never been to Quebec, you really should, it's lovely. The old part of town is almost 500 years old and has a very French feel to it. The streets are cobbled, there are little wood signs above the shops, and everything just feels old and charming. Plus, everyone speaks French, so you, honest to God, feel like you're in a foreign country (and despite what you may say, when you normally travel to Canada, it just never feels like a foreign country).

We even managed to bundle ourselves up to check out the Winter Carnivale. It was really cool, there were ice sculptures everywhere! It all took place in a huge field filled with every kind of outdoor winter activity you would ever want to try. There was tobaganing, sledding, snow zip lining, ice sliding, ice skating, etc. There was even a tiny round track where you drive a sled pulled by two dogs.

Since we spent all day outside in the frosty air, we felt like we deserved a hot liquid treat. We headed over to the oldest (and largest) hotel in Quebec, the Chateau Frontenac.

The bar at the Chateau Frontenac is breathtakingly grand. It has an old world charm that made me feel immediately underdressed and a little low born. But, whatever, its frickin cold, everyone was in a snow suit, and NO ONE looked high class (note the American in the trucker cap at the bar). The views of the St. Lawrence Seaway are really lovely. I highly suggest a stop here if you get the chance.

Hot chocolate and a hot toddy. The perfect pre-dinner treat in a wintery city.

After we had drinks, we meandered to the small shopping area beneath the hotel. There is a food shop that specializes in Canadian foods. It was awesome! I picked up all sorts of products containing the only ingredient Canadian's seem to flavor anything with, maple. I even got to try the National Drink of Quebec (or so I was told) called Caribou. Supposedly, the Native Canadian Americans would drink Caribou blood in the winter to prevent themselves from getting scurvey. The early French settlers couldn't bring themselves to drink straight blood, so they would mix in wine and spices to make it more palitable. Today it's a mix of red wine, whisky, and, of course, maple syrup. Served piping hot too. Yum.

After our drinks and an afternoon of shopping, we decided to check one more item off our to-do list, eat a ton of French food. We walked across the street to the Creperie La Petit Chateau, one of the more traditional French-Canadian restaurants in Quebec City. The inside has a lovely old brick facade, but the walls are covered in modern paintings.

The Creperie has a nice French menu with every kind of crepe imaginable. There were seafood crepes, crepes with ham and cheese, crepes with chicken and mushrooms, crepes with apples and cheese. There was even fondue and raclette, a sort of hot cheese served with meats and cornichons. .

We started with an appetizer of Feuilleté de fruits de mer which is basically flaky French pastry with an creamy seafood sauce. It was a wonderfully light way to start a meal.


What made this place really unique and interesting was their wonderfully North American spin on French food. They had cheese fondue with boar, caribou, and stag. What we decided on for our entree was something very French and Canadian, Crêpe en cocotte avec poulet, asperges, sauce béchamel et fromage. What a very long name to describe a Crepe casserole. Really. The Quebecois have found a way to "North Americanize" something so distinctly French and turn a crepe into a casserole. It was like a lasagna, except with with crepes instead of noodles and béchamel instead of tomato sauce.


And for dessert, we had crepes, of course. My aunt and I both chose Choix de mini-crêpe au beurre d’érable - a crepe with maple creme. So Canadians have these little jars with heaven on the inside in the form of maple cream. It is a light, sugary confection with the constancy of peanut butter, but flavored with maple, the national ingredient of Canada. It is intensely sweet, but is wonderful when wrapped in a crepe and covered in whipped cream.


The next day we piled into our tiny Canadian rental car and drove to the Basilica St Anne du Baupre. I love a grand cathedral as much as the next history/architecture junkie, but at first I wasn't all that excited to go to a Canadian church. I mean, can you honestly tell me where in North America there are any beautiful old, grand churches? They are few and far between. And I was skeptical until I saw this:

And it was only the lower chapel! It was a beautiful collection of blue paint and gold mosaics. Like the Snow Queen had build a church in the icy climes of Canada. The Basilica proper was even more grand and lovely.

After our commune with God, we (excuse me, I) drove through Quebec (a foreign country) to the Hotel du Glace. And let me tell you, driving was a bit of a challenge, all the signs were in French! The Quebecois are really serious about their French heritage. I was glad I knew ouest was west and est was east!

When we got to the Hotel du Glace, we immediately went to the outdoor pavilion for our dogsled ride. I thought we were going to be assigned a Canadian sherpa who would drive our dogsled, while we enjoyed hot chocolate in a sled. Boy was I wrong. My Aunt and I got a short lesson in dogsled driving and were let loose with our own team of dogs. I'm serious! They trusted us with the well being of 5 dog!

The view from the sled:

After our stimulating ride, we enjoyed a lovely dinner at the Station Duchesney, the year round sister hotel of the Hotel du Glace. The Quebecois have done a fabulous job of maintaining their Provincial parks. Most of them have new beautiful resort hotels on them with 4 star restaurants and TONS of outdoor activities. You could hike 5 miles, ice fish, snow mobile, then have a Balinese massage and enjoy a lovely 4 course meal, and never leave the park grounds.

Thats caribou in a cranberry balsamic sauce folks. Yum!

And for dessert, a traditional Quebec sugar pie, a sort of maple chess pie. It was delicious. A creamy filling and a crunchy maple sugar shell.

After our delicious dinner we checked in at the Hotel du Glace the pinnacle of our trip. We were given a full 1/2 hour orientation on how to survive a night in the hotel. The temperature is toasty 25 degrees (F). They told us to always wear 3 layers (including one waterproof layer), how to zip ourselves into our sub zero sleeping bag at night, and we were encouraged to drink heavily from the Ice Hotel's bar. They also suggested we take a dip in the hot tubs, but considering the room I had to return to was 25 degrees, I thought that was crazy talk.

The whole hotel is reconstructed every year starting with the first major freeze. It takes them roughly 3 months to complete construction every year, but each year most of the hotel's design is completely unique.

Everything in the hotel, and even the furniture, is constructed from ice. Clear ice, cloudy ice, ice sheets, ice blocks, packed snow, loose snow. You name it, if it was frozen, it was used as a building material.

This is the Ice Hotel's wedding chapel. Yes, people really do get married here. Everything from the stained glass window, to the pews is made out of ice.

This is the main hall of the hotel. On either side of this picture were an ice bar, and several ice lounges (with fun lougey European music). Note to ice chandelier. And that chuck of ice in the middle of the photo was the bottom of the 2 story ice slide. Yes, there was totally an ice slide.

The Apple Lounge. Check out the carved tree and the apples frozen in the ice pillar in the ice bar on the right.

An example of some of the furniture made out of ice. My butt totally sat in that sweet ice recliner.

There was even an AWESOME ice bar. People would drive in from Quebec just to party there for the evening. Everyone congregated here for drinks and to chit chat with the other guests (and to dance in the ice disco).

IMG_8909.JPGAll the cold drinks in the ice bar were served in these awesome ice shot glasses. The shape made it a little hard to sip your drink without dribbling it down your chin, but you were drinking out of a block of ice. Who cares!

After we had thoroughly explored the main part of the hotel, we tried to sneak into some of the other guests room to see what they looked like. Check out this sweet, icy love nest:

Or this one. Can you imagine Ron Burgundy or Austin Powers laying seductively on the bed?

This was our more humble room. It was a deluxe sculptured room too, though not as grand as some of the other rooms. The walls were cut into a nicely modern cubist sculpture. And that was our bed. Yes, that bed IS made of ice, yes, that is a real mattress, and no, we didn't actually sleep under the covers. We were each given sub-zero sleeping bags to sleep in, on top of the mattress and the covers. It was actually quite comfy, aside from the fact that your nose was constantly exposed to 25 degree cold and you couldn't turn over in your sleeping back.

There you have it. My Quebec adventure. All in all a great time, full of lots of firsts, and tons of memories. Thanks for putting up with my vacation photos.