Legend has it that you return from the Magdalen Islands a different person. The thought enters my mind just as I spot the first signs of terra firma on the horizon. Five hours have passed since the ferry set sail from Souris, Prince Edward Island, on its way to this tiny archipelago of 14 islands (six of which are joined) in the heart of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
In the distance I spot the magical mix of quartz and iron oxide that makes up the Magdalen Islands’ red sandstone cliffs. The deep striations and spectacular geometric shapes created by erosion show just how relentless the sea’s assault has been on this part of the earth. Further on, the hills and cedar clapboard houses, despite their cheerful paint jobs in red, blue and mint, are pounded relentlessly by a wind that rarely stops to catch its breath. Here, nature never sleeps. It whips and whirls everything in its path, leaving its trace everywhere – including on the local bounty I’ve come here to discover.
Feeling like I have one foot in Quebec and the other on the edge of the world, I disembark at the dock in Cap-aux-Meules, a town that serves as the gateway to the islands. The air is dense, infused with the mineralized smell of the sea. I take a deep breath: It’s been a long voyage, but the islands’ remoteness makes me feel that I’m on a genuine expedition. One full of possibilities.
Ship in a bottle
My first port of call is the Chez Denis à François inn, in Havre-Aubert, on the southern tip of the archipelago. It’s painted pineapple yellow and has the look of a miniature manor, with its dormer windows jutting out proudly. It’s steps away from the historic site of La Grave, protected since 1983, the former centre of commercial fishing activities in the area. You can still see the original wooden shacks where fish was once salted before being dried in the sun on the pebble beach.
I get out of the car and stand captivated by the view of the ocean before me, as far as the eye can see. My host doesn’t seem surprised when he finds me in this enraptured state, a piece of luggage in each hand. He grabs my bags and cheerfully beckons me inside. Denis, who lent his name to the inn (the “à François,” a local way of tracking lineage, means “son of François”), leads me to my room in a newly opened wing. It’s homey, cozily decorated in country style.
No sooner am I settled than I head out again, back onto the main road, the 199, in search of P’tit-Bois Nord lane, which runs through the village of Bassin. I’m expected at the Poméloi orchard, where for over 20 years now Éloi Vigneau and Monique Solomon have miraculously managed to grow apples under the most rugged conditions. Apple trees are fragile, and not supposed to withstand short growing seasons, violent winds and the salty sea air’s tendency to burn foliage. “The project developed over time,” explains Éloi. “As the years went by, there was a period of natural selection. Only the varieties able to survive without chemical fertilizers have endured.” He climbs the hill of the steep orchard at an athletic pace, excited about showing me the 550 trees planted tightly side by side, as Monique lags behind in an effort to slow him down. I trudge along between them, panting slightly and listening to their story.
It goes like this: One season, having harvested so many apples that they didn’t know what to do with them, the couple was encouraged by a local seaman, a Breton who had relocated to the Magdalen Islands, to make cider according to traditional Brittany methods. The experiment was a success. Today, they create, not one, but four elixirs in their small cider house, including the flagship Poméloi, a mixture of cider and apple eau-de-vie. Every narrow-necked bottle contains a whole round apple, a clever trick they pull off by growing the apple inside the bottle right there on the tree.
Early the next morning, I’m motoring along the Pointe-Basse coast on Havre-aux-Maisons Island, on my way to the Léo & fils farm, home since 1998 to Pied-de-Vent cheese. I find Dominique “à Jérémie à Léo” Arseneau in the stables, herding his dark, sturdy Canadian cows. Their bovine ancestors arrived here by boat along with early settlers. Curious about the newcomer, the beasts give me the once over with big brown eyes before filing out over the hillock that leads to their pasture. They’ll spend the day grazing on the dry grasses that are sown by gusts of sea breeze – it’s the salty secret behind the unique flavour of their rich and creamy milk.
The cheeses produced here – in particular the signature Pied-de-Vent, a washed-rind cheese with delicate notes of hazelnut and mushroom – have greatly contributed to the reawakening of the local economy and have gone a long way towards putting the Magdalen Islands on the gastronomic map. As he closes the gate behind the cows, Dominique explains that this culinary renaissance has created a spirit of solidarity among islanders. Here, nothing is wasted. The whey – the liquid left over after the milk has coagulated – is used to feed the wild boars raised by Jeannot Aucoin. The calves from Léo & fils farm are sent to be raised by their neighbours, the Nathaëls. Johanne Vigneau, who runs the Gourmande de nature boutique as well as the acclaimed Table des Roy restaurant, two essential stops in L’Étang-du-Nord for those looking to taste the delights of island heritage, creates ice cream flavoured with local cheeses.
Atop a windy hill on the farm, I look to the sky in search of a pied-de-vent, the local French expression for the phenomenon in which a ray of sunshine pierces a cloud to form an impressive beam of light. To sailors, the sight is welcome. It indicates strong winds ahead. But no such luck today: The sky is clear and a brilliant blue.
Here, nature never sleeps. It whips and whirls everything in its path, leaving its trace everywhere.
Nearby, a free-spirited black Lab named Smokey welcomes me to the Fumoir d’antan with a wagging tail. Behind him, a tall man with an anchor tattoo on his arm appears in the doorway. It’s Daniel “à Ben” Arseneau. In 1996, he and his brothers restored one of the two smokehouses owned by their grandfather, structures that were able to survive the near disappearance of herring fishing in the 1970s. (The other building now houses a small museum.) Today, the smokehouse is more of a craft operation than a large commercial one, explains Daniel in his singsong accent that tends to skip over Rs.
Thousands of golden fish speared on spokes as high as the ceiling shimmer in the large wooden hangar. The maple-wood smoking fires that flavour them have to be fed night and day for two long months. The Arseneaus specialize in herring, mussels, salmon and mackerel, but they also smoke the cheddar created by their neighbours at Pied-de-Vent and the malt used by local microbrewery À l’abri de la tempête. (The brewers make a strong, woodsy barley wine with grains that have roasted alongside the fish.) Clearly the islanders’ location, so far from the mainland, has moulded this crafty community into a strong, tight-knit circle.
Edge of the world
The next day, I head to Auberge La Salicorne in Grande-Entrée, at the archipelago’s northern tip. To get there, one must cross Grosse-Île, one of the area’s two English-speaking villages (the other is on Île d’Entrée island), mostly inhabited by the descendants of Scottish shipwreck castaways. After 80-odd serene kilometres bordered by sea on both sides, I reach Grande-Entrée Harbour, where lobster boats bob on the water. It’s the first week of May – the official start of lobster season – and the fishermen have spread out into the bay to launch their traps. The seabed here is rocky, not muddy, which is what aficionados say makes Magdalen Islands lobster the very best in the world.
Soon, I reach the end of the 199. The road ends abruptly in front of me, giving way to an enormous lagoon. By my side, two intrepid cyclists stop to catch their breath and take in the view before turning back. (The islands offer nearly 100 kilometres of cycle-friendly roads.) I’ve got that strange feeling again that I’m standing at the edge of the world. Moved by the thought, I make a U-turn and notice an impressive lime green building on my left for the first time.
La Salicorne was set up as an NPO in an effort to create jobs in this wilder, more tucked-away part of the islands, where fishing is still the primary pursuit (70 percent of jobs in the Magdalen Islands remain in the fishing industry). The inn specializes in nature expeditions: underwater cave explorations, kayak excursions, diving for shells.
“The inn practically appeared out of nowhere!” I say later to my hostess Lucie Longuépée, who smiles sympathetically. I’ve only just finished my plateful of Coquilles Saint-Jacques when she (an energetic spitfire of a guide) tells me to follow her. She takes a look at the sky and puts on a thin summer tuque. “There’ll be a chill later today,” she decides.
Lucie knows the Magdalen Islands by heart and gives me a crash course on how they formed atop salt beds. She recounts the history of shipwrecks in the area, too – there have been over 400, which has given the islands an unfortunate reputation as a marine cemetery. Lucie takes me to the Grande Échouerie, where seals come to sunbathe on the big flat boulders, and teaches me to identify local marine plants like sea rocket, beach grass and Scotch lovage. They grow in the dunes all over the islands and are highly prized by local chefs.
On the way back, we stop for a visit with Lauréat Déraspe, a lobster fisherman from a family of lobster fishermen, who’s been in the business since the age of 14. Out in his shed, he passes the time between expeditions by sewing nets for lobster traps. “They’re as sturdy as the foundation of a house,” he says, and I have to agree as I watch Lauréat’s large callused hands work the delicate strings of the net. His repetitive movements, the cumulative results of nautical wisdom passed down over generations, are a mesmerizing sight to behold.
I spend my last afternoon strolling the marina, reading boat names. I was told that, ironically, while islanders are known by their fathers’ names, the boats are named after their kids. My wandering brings me back to Havre-Aubert, the starting point of my journey. From the beach, I hear music wafting out of Café de la Grave, a defunct general store that was turned into a bistro in the 1980s. The café breathed new life to an all-but-forgotten part of the island and quickly became a meeting place for both tourists and locals.
Inside, the air is thick with the mouthwatering aromas of cod cakes, clam chowder and pot-en-pot (a local specialty resembling a seafood pâté). These classic dishes have graced the menu for over 30 years. Sitting on an old piano bench, Sonia “à Denis à François” Painchaud plays a haunting melody on her accordion. She announced just this week that after eight years, she’s ready to pass the family restaurant torch in order to focus on her music career.
Tonight the place is bouncing with islanders, including, to my happy surprise, Monique and Éloi from the Poméloi orchard. They invite me to join their table, demonstrating once again why the islanders have such a friendly reputation.
The yellowish light of dusk is falling on the café’s mix-and-match furniture and jumbled bookshelves. Tomorrow’s departure is weighing on me. After days spent living with the rhythm of the tides, I feel like I’m coming down with a reverse form of seasickness – a fear of missing the unique, magnetic beauty of the ocean. Its pull influences everything on the islands, including people’s moods and temperaments, and I’m definitely no exception.
After days spent living with the rhythm of the tides, I feel like I’m coming down with a reverse form of seasickness – a fear of missing the unique, magnetic beauty of the ocean.
I think back to the artisans I’ve met who work against the unstable elements, and conclude that this island’s wild nature is both a blessing and a curse. If the very act of cultivating food in such a rebellious and rugged environment is itself a miracle, then the ingredients themselves somehow become imbued with some of that magic. They carry the flavours of their place on earth.
Sonia, who has joined us after giving up the stage to a pianist, catches my eye and seems to read my thoughts. “You’ve caught the bug!” she declares, with the certainty of someone who’s seen it happen a thousand times.
You return from the Magdalen Islands a different person. Those words echo in my mind that night, as I retreat to the Vieux Couvent, a luxury hotel located in a former seminary where the sisters of Notre-Dame used to train young schoolteachers. And so I fall asleep with the windows wide open, so I can wake to the tide’s wild roar one last time.