A Taste of Quebec
55 Mill Street, Building 36, 1st floor
In the federal political upheaval of the past weeks, the Tory government has made references to the separatist Bloc Quebecois that made it sound as if they believe everyone who ever defended Quebec’s unique heritage had cooties. And while the rest of Canada may not yet be progressive enough to believe in the idea of Quebec as a distinct culture, in terms of cuisine, Quebec is well ahead of any other Canadian region when it comes to developing and promoting local items: drawing on its unique history to promote its food culture; protecting its products such as ice cider and lamb with appellation controls; and embracing contemporary, globalized ingredients to create new products that still reflect the soul of the province.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in a visit to the newly-opened A Taste of Quebec in the distillery district, a shop dedicated to the wondrous array of foodstuffs from La Belle Province.
Owners Joanne Thompson and Sylvain Landry jumped on the opportunity to open the shop when the space came available earlier this year. Having run the Thompson Landry gallery in the Distillery since 2006, they wanted to do the same thing for Quebec food that they had done for Quebec artists by representing the best that province has to offer.
They brought in Françoix Simard from Charlevoix to run the shop, and teamed up with chef Jean-Pierre Challet and his catering company JP + Co. to run the small but sleek kitchen set-up in the back.
“We almost sold out,” says Simard. “I didn’t expect so many people for the first week – people were waiting for us. All the comments that I got were, ‘Oh my god we’re really glad you’re here.’ It was missing in this area.”
Thompson has noticed people from the neighbourhood coming back two or three times each week, just to check out what new items are appearing on the shelves.
At the moment, the stock is mostly a selection of Quebec cheeses and beautiful prepared goods; mustards, vinegars, dried morels, as well as fridge and freezer cases full of breathtaking smoked salmon, cuts of duck, lamb, venison and bison from a company called Les Fumets Sylvestre; and even a vegetarian pate from Bio Bon.
Simard excitedly shows me a sample of maple syrup from Philippe de Vienne – pure Quebec maple syrup with the addition of a Tahitian vanilla bean. He runs off again and returns with a huge bag of spices designed for tourtière; the store will sell it in jars for people who want to buy the mix for their own pies at home, but it will also be used in the pies Chef Challet and his team will make to be sold in the shop.
Odd import regulations prevent A Taste of Quebec from bringing many prepared dishes into Ontario, so Thompson and Landry have included a work/demo space at the back of the spacious shop. For instance they can sell Quebec foie gras in the store – it will be available in vacuum-sealed packages – but cannot sell a foie gras terrine prepared in Quebec. In many ways, this allows them more freedom as they can tailor the prepared dishes to the tastes of their customers, and this aspect of the shop will be up and running in time for people to drop by and pick up a tourtière or a Quebec sugar pie for their holiday table.
“Now a lot of people are finding us,” says Thompson, “clients in the gallery are coming in and saying ‘are you going to have this’ and they give us little tidbits of information and we track it down and we try it and see if it’s something we want to have here.” Most of the unique products are discovered by chance and connection however; the spice mixes were found at Montreal’s Atwater Market, and many of the exquisite cheeses were found through word of mouth and many road trips to little towns and villages.
More than any other province, Quebec is known for its cheeses and they are well represented here. Simard animatedly slices off samples for customers to try, and there’s a story for each – how it’s made, how they found it, or how to serve it, and it’s this charm and obvious love for the products he is selling that will keep customers coming back.
The exclusivity doesn’t hurt either – A Taste of Quebec currently has a selection of cheeses not available anywhere else in Ontario, from the oozing goodness of Le Secret de Maurice to an ethereal crackly 3-year-old cheddar that tastes like fresh grass.
Customers will be able to try not only the cheese samples but even more of the products in the shop come the new year when A Taste of Quebec opens up their space for a series of events. The back kitchen area boasts a chef’s table that can seat 16, or the whole space can accommodate about 40 for a cocktail-style event, and Thompson and Simard plan on hosting various tasting events as well as allowing the space to be used for private events such as meetings or dinners. They mention the idea of bring in various Quebec wines, beers and ciders and are hoping to find ways to make the import regulations easier to deal with so they can pair these beverages with the Quebec food.
The next phase is to renovate the basement area underneath the shop for more event space. One of the last remaining areas of the Distillery District left in its original state, the space contains an old kiln and catacombs, and once properly renovated would make a lovely area for wine tastings or dinners. Thompson admits its one of the main reasons she jumped on the location in the first place, because she wanted to see that space renovated by someone who cared about the building and would keep as much of it intact as possible.
Given that photos of the basement space are reminiscent of Quebec City or old Montreal – all brick and arched ceilings – it would seem a perfect fit for a shop working to bring a little bit of Quebec to Toronto.
All of the squabbling on Parliament Hill aside, it’s obvious that Quebec has a distinct culture that the rest of Canada does not. With a unique terroir and many artisans working on a small scale to produce so many beautiful cheeses, ciders, beers and meats, you sort of can’t blame the separatists for wanting to keep it all to themselves. Luckily for food lovers in Toronto, we now have a place to find the best of Quebec, right in our own downtown.