Like most residents of cold climes, Quebecers are experts at sniffing out signs of spring. Not that we don’t enjoy winter—on the contrary, few landscapes are more serene than the gentle valleys, wooded hills and untamed mountains of the Laurentians when they’re blanketed in snow (preferably powdery, ideal for skiing). But by late March, this region, just north of Montreal, is waiting for the thaw. Everyone, it seems, is ready to come out of hibernation. With the melt it’s not just the sap that starts flowing; it’s the conversation, the drink and the good times, too.
SYRUP ON EVERYTHING
Sugaring off is a rite of spring in the outdoor playground of the Laurentians, and that makes it a rite of passage for any visitor. Tramping out into the countryside for a celebratory meal at a sugar shack—or cabane à sucre—goes back to the First Nations practice of tapping the maple trees for the sweet sap. For the past century, the food served at sugar shacks has remained pretty much the same: crepes, ham, baked beans, fluffy omelets and crisp pork crackling (oreilles de crisse), all slathered with maple syrup. No wonder these seasonal feasts have long been synonymous with overindulgence.
It took Quebec’s reigning king of excess, celebrity chef Martin Picard, to put the decadence over the top. Picard (whose Au Pied de Cochon is a Montreal favorite) branched out to the Laurentians in 2009, opening the Au Pied de Cochon Sugar Shack. There he updated and upgraded the classics of cuisine québécoise, delivering heavenly tourtière (meat pie), pea soup with his signature foie gras, and maple-syrup cotton candy. Like the many family-run cabanes nearby, which are equally worth a visit, it operates roughly from late February through April.
Typical sugar-shack dishes are available year round, however, at Au Petit Poucet. It’s set in a Paul Bunyan-esque log-frame cabin built in 1945 on the outskirts of Val-David. Warm up with complimentary hot chocolate while you wait for your name to be called; then it’s on to pigging out—the lumberjack breakfast lets you try it all. Kids love the treat known as tire (pronounced “tier”) sur la neige, available as long as the weather’s chilly enough. A server pours hot syrup onto snow; you wait for it to solidify, then twirl it onto a stick like taffy.
FOREST TO TABLE
Indigenous ingredients also inspire chefs at the region’s more upscale restaurants. Foragers and farmers populate this land, whose stretches of rugged wilderness are interspersed with small-scale agriculture. In recent years, talented culinary teams have left the city to move closer to the natural bounty of wild mushrooms, trout, bison and pristine organic produce.
Food lovers swear by Gaspor milk-fed piglet, raised on Saint-Canut Farms. It only takes one bite to get why it’s sought by top kitchens across eastern North America: It’s a star among pork in a province that loves its pork. The exceptional honey from Miels d’Anicet takes on characteristics of its terroir. The limited-edition spring honey, for instance, reveals hints of early blossoms, like dandelions and wild cherry.
With such ingredients at the doorstep, it’s no surprise that the Laurentian dining scene has become increasingly sophisticated. You’ll find international inflections at Les Zèbres, a bistro in artsy Val-David village, and molecular experimentation at Seb l’Artisan Culinaire in Mont-Tremblant. L’Eau à la Bouche, a Relais & Châteaux property overseen by chef Anne Desjardins, is a pioneer of the forest-to-table movement—a blend of refinement and rusticity that brings foodies flocking.
Quebec has a long legacy of artisanal brewing, and many small-town pubs put their own twist on traditional draft beers. Dieu du Ciel, a reputable regional brand, is headquartered in Saint-Jérôme, in the foothills of the Laurentians. Every March it releases its Spring Equinox, a maple-accented Scotch ale aged for two months with woodsy, malty and delicately sweet results. The Microbrasserie du Diable in Mont-Tremblant pours a bright spring pilsner, along with old-style ales served direct from the cask via hand-cranked pump.
FRESH AIR FUN
While the hearty food and drink will conspire to keep you inside, there’s no need to get cabin fever. Spring brings countless ways to commune with the great outdoors in the Laurentians. On a zipline adventure in Mont-Tremblant National Park (http://www.sepaq.com), you’ll travel from tree to tree on ropes suspended some 60 feet above the ground. In May the park’s 50 miles of trails reopen, offering routes for both casual strollers and hard-core hikers. And cycling resumes on the P’tit Train du Nord, a railroad track turned bike path that gives cyclists intimate views of the area’s charming villages, each of which has its own silver church spire.
If those activities don’t get your heart pumping, there’s always a rejuvenating dip in the icy outdoor baths of the region’s Nordic-style spas. Amerispa just opened its Spa Nordique (amerispa.ca) in Morin-Heights, offering a Finnish sauna, steam bath and more. A plunge under a Nordic waterfall will quickly reenergize you for more sightseeing!