Charles de Gaulle once famously quipped, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” (The answer is: with pleasure, of course.) De Gaulle was talking about France, but the same could be said about Québec, which has over 400 types of cheese. For maximum sampling, embark upon a cheese crawl through Montréal and Québec, from stinky fromageries to a quiet abbey in the middle of the St Lawrence River. Bon appétit.
Kick off your crawl at Montréal’s big cheese – Fromagerie Atwater. This perennially popular fromagerie, in the Atwater Market since 1972, sells over 700 local and international cheeses, from crumbly, veined blue cheeses to creamy goat cheeses tangy with orange rinds. A bonus is the excellent selection of micro-brews, which pair deliciously with many of the strong cheeses. Other top-notch fromageries include Fromagerie Hamel, with locations in the Atwater and Jean-Talon markets, and Fromagerie Fritz Kaiser, one of the region’s largest artisan cheesemakers, in Noyan, about an hour south of Montréal.
In most restaurants, cheese plates are an afterthought. Not so in Québec. Many Montréal and Québec City restaurants, particularly those that focus on local cuisine, whisk out excellent cheese plates or carts laden with local produce. In the latter, follow your nose to the St-Jean-Baptiste neighborhood, where you’ll find several historic groceries that feature an excellent selection of local cheeses, including Épicerie Européenne and Épicerie J.A. Moisan. In Montréal, head to Toqué, helmed by master chef Normand Laprise, or assemble your own cheese plate for an impromptu picnic.
A monk’s life is spare, quiet and devotional. But at the Abbaye De Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, it’s also filled with pungent whiffs of cheese. The elegant abbey, topped by white-granite turrets and looming over a placid lake in Cantons de l’Est, is occupied by some sixty Benedictine monks. In addition to their Gregorian chants, they’re renowned for producing the famous L’Ermite blue cheese, and other varieties, at their on-site cheese factory. Stop by the store for a wedge or five, and then stay on for the daily Gregorian chant. (Daily at 11am and 5pm, Thurs at 7pm – though note that the schedule may be different in summer.)
If you’ve ever doubted that organic cheese tastes better, Fromagerie la Station will clear that up. This fromagerie’s signature Alfred Le Fermier, a hefty round of pale-orange, washed-rind cheese, comes from a single herd of Holsteins, which you can see roaming peacefully in the surrounding fields. This is organic cheese at its finest, as its many awards will attest. Four generations of the Bolduc family have worked the farm, which includes pastureland, stables, a ripening room and a store. The farm, southwest of the small town of Compton, offers guided tours through all the stages of production, topped off by sampling.
As you roll through Isle d’Orléans, you’ll see your lunch waddling around ponds, hanging heavy in dense orchards and being squirted from udders into tin pails. This island in the middle of the St Lawrence River, just three miles east of Québec City, is called the “breadbasket of Québec” for its fertile soil and rich seasonal bounty. This is also where, in 1635, the first cheese was made in North America. Les Fromages de l’Isle d’Orléans continues that legacy, and you can sample the semi-soft cheese, which is served hot, after a quick pan-fry. Pick up cheese-to-go, buy a bottle of Québécois white and find a leafy perch overlooking the island’s rolling fields, with the Montmorency waterfalls thundering in the distance.