The Eastern Townships of the Quebec region, known in French as l’Estrie or the Cantons de l’Est, is a perfect weekend getaway from Montreal. Located about 1.5 hour by car away, this region has Quebec’s wine route, mountains, lakes, and local gourmet food places (think cheese, ciders, and pastries).
Day 1 : Fire cider, ice wine, and setting up camp
The first stop of the day is Union Libre Cidre et Vin. We were warmly welcomed by the lady at the counter, who conducted a tasting of 4 ciders for us for 5CAD, while explaining the different products they have. They claim to be the first to have produced Fire Cider in the world. What is fire cider, you ask? Unlike normal cider, apple juice is heated up and the water content is evaporated, leaving a sugary mix that is then fermented. This creates a drink that while having the name of cider, becomes more like an apératif or a digestif, due to its sweetness.
We tasted two different fire ciders, the apératif and the reserve. The other products that we tried were two ice ciders: created the other way as compared to fire ciders, the apple juice is frozen and remelted, frozen and remelted, until only a sugary mix remains. Traditionally, the apples are left on the trees to be naturally frozen and remelted by the weather. Due to weather constraints and changing climate, it is becoming harder to produce cider this way. Union still does have a ice cider reserve that is produced this way, which I much preferred as compared to the contemporary method, as it had a much richer taste – similar to normal ciders, but with notes of maple and other sweet aromes.
We grabbed lunch at nearby Dunham (at l’épicerie café), and picked up bread, cheese, and cretons (local pork paste) for the evening’s meal at La Rumeur Affamée.
Domaine des Orpailleurs is just across the street from Union Libre, and it was our next stop. The oldest vineyard in the region, Orpailleurs offers guided visits of their vineyards and of the wine making process, for 10CAD three times daily. We followed our guide Pierre around, and being the only ones on our particular visit, got to pose all the questions we had. The incredible challenge of wine producing in Quebec is the weather – when winter comes around, the sensible vines die – they have therefore to be protected from winter snowstorms and also early spring freeze-overs, through different ingenious methods.
The crowning glory of Orpailleurs has to be their ice wine, though – where the grapes are left outside to freeze and unfreeze, producing a same high sugar content as with the traditional ice ciders. According to our guide, the external temperature has to be between -8 and -12 degrees celsius for 3 days consecutively for the ice wine to be harvested and juiced! This was a sweet dessert wine that was very pleasurable to taste.
Camping Havre des Iles was our last stop of the day. A quiet haven indeed, with small streams running just next to our forested campground, and open spaces to relax and finish the day.
Day 2 : Abbey, Bagels and Mont Orford
The first stop of day two is the abbey of St-Benoit-Du-Lac. Founded by Benedictine brothers, the abbey has a colourful corridor with geometrical designs, offers short month long Christian retreats for young men, and also produces cider and cheese, along with applesauce and other jams. I find the (two) cathedrals I’ve seen of Canada very different from those in France in that the interior designs are often without traditional statues and stained glass paintings – but a newer architecture, also designed with the hope of pointing visitors upwards. While the older cathedrals have all their beauty and history, I was also rather glad that in this cathedral, at least, tourists won’t feel the need to photograph everything – and people can be left to contemplate and worship as they would.
In the little boutique underground, we also tasted three of their cheeses and the cider for 5CAD, and picked up a blue cheese for the measure (a traditional Ermite dating from the beginnings of the abbey!).
Next was bagels at Fabrique Bagels Cafe Noir, a tiny shop along the highway nearing Eastman. Bagels were produced before your eyes – we got a half dozen mixed bag (4 types : sesame, poppy seed, onion, raisins and cinnamon), picked up a pot of cream cheese and another pot of salmon paste, and headed out to their terrace for lunch. The sun came out, a little brook was singing next door, and the bagels were gooood.
A quick stop by La Savonerie des Diligences to pick up presents for back home – their (often vegan) soaps each have a character attached, with their own back stories and logos! Do people really get attached to a character that their soap is supposed to represent? In any case, we were soon off to Mont Orford for the rest of the day and the rest of our visit.
We decided to hike the Boucle du Mont Chauve, which was a trek with quite a few ups and downs, and a pretty impressive point of view at the summit. Chauve means bald in French, and the summit was indeed a cluster of huge bare rocks on which you could sit and observe the valley. There is a good walk from the parking lots at the beach to the beginning proper of the loop, and many cross roads on the way doted with funny names such as “carrefour des randonneurs” (hikers) or “carrés des ruisseaux perdus” (lost rivers). We chose to do the east side of the loop first, which was a good choice – as the west side got a little steep at moments and would have been rather tiring to climb up! Both parts of the loop do have many ups and downs though, and we met many other hikers along the way, and happily, no mosquitoes at all!
We finished the trail in about 3.5 hours, cooling off for the late afternoon in the Lake Stukely by swimming out to the little rocky island a few meters off of the beach. It’d been a good trip – if we’d had more time, I’d have liked to see Magog, Stanstead, Bleu Lavande (if in season) and explore east of Sherbrooke as well.