We took our Brasstown sensibilities down to Quebec City (anywhere is “down” from Brasstown) to see what was cooking there. We love our country home, but sometimes we go to cities to see art and architecture, meet folks, and learn about their history and food.
You don’t have to be a military historian to see why there is a city on Cap Diamant. It’s where the St. Lawrence is narrowest, where a fort might plug the river like a cork in a bottle. Whenever I visit a battlesite, especially one where dramatic geography was a determining factor, I find myself wishing for a diorama with flashing lights and smoke, like Confederama in Chattanooga. Musee du Fort is exactly that, an old-timey survival, a roadside attraction from the mid-20th Century, a visual, aural and olfactory experience with ships exploding, signals flashing, potatoes frying. I thought the smell was a deeply creative part of the show, maybe intended to drive home the point that battles come and go but somebody has to cook.
It turns out that in 1960 Mr. Price, a civic-minded Quebecer visited Confederama (now known as the Battles for Chattanooga Museum) and realized it was the best way to tell how the terrain affected the outcome of each of the four battles of Quebec. As soon as he got home, he started building Quebec in his basement. The program does a good job of telling a complex story. Part of the fun is seeing this artifact of storytelling. It’s got spiffy new computerized projected images now, but underneath all that are thousands of tiny toy soldiers with little muskets tipped with wee lightbulbs.
I came down the stairs in the Musee building and suddenly discovered the source of the tater aroma. The whole first floor was a poutinery. (“Get thee to a poutinery! To a poutinery go!”—Shakespeare in his little known Canadian period.)
Four battles of Quebec—everyone after the poutine. Nanette joined me at Le Chick Shack.The classic is french fries, cheese curds and brown gravy. Their vegan is sweet potato fries, vegan gravy, tofu-curds, herb pesto, and pickled onions. Many Quebec restaurants, like La Buche where we ate this little skillet of poutine with egg and bacon and Chez Boulay (Bistro Boreal) emphasize local and foraged ingredients from the north woods, and even Le (humble) Chic Shack features La Forestiere: Wild mushroom ragout, Parmesan, cheese curds, shallots, fresh herbs.
Beyond Poutine, (good title for a movie) Quebec is solidly Nordic in its cuisine, with foraging a central tenet.
The seasons, sort of, are Vegetable from May to October, Game and Woods from October to December and Seafood from January to May, all approximate and overlapping significantly. These are the people that invented extending the growing season. Masters of the cold frame, the solar and wind powered greenhouse, the never-freeze hydroponic pond and the red and black checkered earflap cap, they know a lot more about winter than I want to know.
Quebec City, sharp-sloped copper spires and roofs with diagonal tin shingles, is lovely to look upon, especially from a boat excursion to Chute de Montmorency waterfall. It is also an amazing place from which to look out. On fortification foundations they constructed a gigantic deck, the Dufferin Terrace. It is one of the unique urban spaces of the world. At one end, the quiet streets of St. Genevieve and Grisons, where traffic sound overheard in the b&bs are mostly horse-drawn carriages. At the other end of the terrace there are buskers and bustours, the funicular and the Musee du Fort. Quebec is the only city I know whose iconic emblem is a hotel. The Chateau Frontenac rises above all, a baronial romance bristling with turrets, spires, dormers and verdigris copper.
Looking North, downriver is the Isle d’Orleans, a rich farmland producing vegetables, cheese, meat, wine and cider. It is 15 miles by road, and foodie bus tours are available. The Laurentian Mountains rise nearby to about Brasstown elevation (1,800’) and forests and half a million lakes of Quebec Province stretch out northwards to James Bay and Hudson Bay. Restaurants here have their farmers and fishermen, and they probably also have a forager. Nordic or Boreal (which also means North-y) cuisine values wild edibles, especially mushrooms and berries.
We grow some oyster mushrooms. Here’s how we did it, and you can too. When there’s too much shade near your house, cut down hundred foot tulip poplar. Wait five years. Examine stump. If mushrooms, pick. If not wait five more years. Easy.
When we got back to Brasstown from Quebec, inspired by Canadians’ way with a fungus, we set out for our chanterelle patch. They are gloriously orange in color and fairly easy to spot against brown and gray leafmold. Nanette carefully gathered a few here and there, and just enough for the project. We found a few puff balls, and harvested the poplar stump of its latest oyster effusion.
We had to make some poutine. It was really good.
Wild Mushroom Gravy
Makes about 4 cups or enough for 4-5 servings
Pick over, clean and slice or tear into bite size pieces
1 ½ pounds fresh mushrooms
These can be shiitakes, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, morels or a mix of whatever edible mushrooms you have including domestic button or portabella mushrooms from the grocery.
If you happen to be a novice at gathering wild mushrooms find a mentor to go with you to identify your intended harvest. Do not mess around with this.
Saute the mushrooms in a hot skillet with
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/3 cup minced red onion
pinch of salt and black pepper
1 tablespoon minced garlic
Cook the mushrooms over medium high heat for about 5-7 minutes without stirring much more than turning them halfway through cooking. This will allow the mushrooms to brown and develop rich flavor.
At the end of the cooking time pour over the mushrooms
¼ cup dry sherry
Cook just until the sherry is absorbed and evaporated about one more minute.
Remove 1 cup of cooked mushrooms for garnishing and set aside.
Turn the heat to low and stir in
3 cups unsalted vegetable stock or water
2 teaspoons vegetable bouillon base OR 2 tablespoons tamari
1-2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs-
(parsley, chives, thyme, sage, oregano, or rosemary)
Simmer for a few minutes to allow flavors to marry and slightly reduce the stock.
The recipe can be made in advance up to this point. Chill the mushrooms in the stock for up to 24 hours.
To thicken and serve-
Make a slurry by stirring together in a small bowl
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons water
Return the mushrooms and stock to a high simmer, add the slurry stirring well, and cook for exactly one minute.
Cook, stirring constantly , until sauce thickens and cornstarch cooks through.
If over cooked this sauce will loose its texture. Plan to add the thickener just before serving.
To plate individual servings of
Brasstown Poutine with Wild Mushroom Gravy
have ready a stack of preheated dinner plates. Assemble diners before plating.
Hot fries wait for no man, woman or beast.
Pile on each plate in this order
hot home cut French fries
Wild Mushroom Gravy
crumbled cheese curds-Mexican Queso Fresca also works well
Reserved mushrooms for garnish
Thinly sliced scallions, shaved celery and chopped parsley
This dish must be eaten piping hot. Leave some fries on each plate uncovered with gravy so all the textures can be appreciated. I suppose that in a pinch you could use high quality organic frozen French fries baked in the oven. Please don’t tell anyone I said this.