Fear and Loathing in Quebec: A Savage Voyage to the Heart of the Quebecois Dream
We were someplace around Concord when the snow really began to take hold. Sheets of whipping white temporarily obscured the world outside of my silver bullet Subaru. Ian and I were on a mission, one most treacherous and fraught with peril—one of noble ambition and primal mammalian drive. Screaming through one of what would be repeated blizzards we were northbound, to the land of the ice and now—Quebec—and the ice castle of the Bonne Homme. Our mission? Simple, we were on a Savage Journey to uncover the icy heart of the Canadian dream: hockey, beer, poutine, gorgeous women with accents and, first in my mind, the quest for a good Canadian Whisky. Perhaps we were overzealous, overly bold and unprepared. Perhaps we were just too fucking cold. But this, my friends is our story—two mediocre young men in the Great White North.
The road north was the first of our great trials, as my dramatic introduction has stated without exaggeration, our Subaru steed Cecilia was tasked with the possibly fatal undertaking of passing through Friday ski traffic north on 93 in the midst of a snowstorm, which would ultimately leave roughly a foot of snow. A New Hampshire man my whole life, I’ve learned many things about driving in the snow—much like dealing with any beast of nature the first key is to avoid any sudden movements, the second key is to avoid any motherfucker dumb enough to ignore the first rule. We saw several such motherfuckers being plied from each other’s bumpers and towed from snowy medians as we ourselves rode in relative comfort, Little Walter honking through the stereo, the speedometer reading a cautious 65mph (in a 70?! Madness.) Passing beyond New Hampshire’s mountainous interior toward the Connecticut river we faced very little danger due to Cecilia’s sure-footed all-wheel drive—suffering only a few times from those asshole puckering moments when the vehicle is no longer fully within your power, and the helmsman becomes the passenger. As we passed into the People’s Republic of Vermont the snow showed little sign of abating, but with a quick fill and a cup of coffee we had to soldier on, northbound still, on roads less and less trod as the forests thickened around us. The signs and towns began to disappear, until finally, slightly behind schedule but well ahead of blizzard time we reached that great imaginary dividing line. That point where men cease to be free ‘Muricans, and become citizens of the United States, the point where we enter a foreign country. Canada.
On arrival in Canada the boarder was disarming—far from literally. I smoothly floated into the inspection port in neutral, awaiting the pounce of the border agents eager to strip us, so I was told, of all foreign produce—all our dark illegal contraband. The Canadian Border guards did not pounce. A friendly man with a jaunty speech and easing accent beckoned me to back up my car, and pull in again—like this was some kind of toll booth rather than the DMZ. I did so. We handed him out passports—exchanged greetings.
“Where ye headed, eh?” (I may be exaggerating the Canadian…)
“Quebec City, we’re in for the Carnaval.”
“Do you have anything to declare, any produce, fireworks, liquor?”
“Yeah, we’ve got a bottle of liquor…”
“Okay, here’re your passports, have a fun time in Canada boys—Ian you better sign that passport.”
Bafflingly simple. They had not taken any of our (not present) potential weapons—they
had merely disarmed our American paranoia and fear of the paramilitary Gendarme. Soon we were ticking past each kilometer, passing silly signs with ludicrous and hardly descriptive images, and maintaining a constant and sensible 130 toward the goal. After a brief, terrifying and confusing hunt for poutine in Drummondville, where the lights have inexplicable blinky green lights, we again found the highway, and with the snow continuing lightly we reached city limits just after check-in began and promptly spent 30 minutes driving around looking for a parking spot anywhere within reasonable distance of our hotel. That didn’t go so well, but we trudged through ankle deep slush, checked into the hotel, moved the car, etc., etc., until I was able to wash down some of the sacred nectar Old Forester 100 the Canadians had welcomed in with open arms. Ahh, warmth flowing through our veins we were prepared to face this foreign city on the hunt for our first of the weekend’s pleasures.
- Hunting the Bonne Homme
One of the things that does not come to mind when planning your great Canadian adventure is accessibility to the modern age. No, I’m not saying Canada is behind the times. Canadians are a thoroughly modern and intelligent people; however, their phone networks are likely not going to match up with yours. If you’re young and hip like Ian and I, you may have grown a little dependent on your phone network not charging you hundreds of dollars in roaming fees when you’re looking at Google Maps. Fortunately, we were warmed, and had thus rendered our phones into useless brick-watches with wi-fi only available when networks were unlocked. This became our great barrier, as thoroughly bundled we climbed the cliffs to Old Quebec and the Rue St. Jean, in search of our first round of beers and poutine. Without our Google Maps and Urban Spoon at the ready our numbed feet dragged block by block, past poutinerie, restaurant and bar completely bound only to the book’s cover, unable to google a yelp or zagat rating to salvation. On our second round we settled for Snack Bar, a mellow restaurant offering over a dozen of poutines piled with meats, gravies, sauces and dreams. Molson exports, poutines with meat and gravy and curds oh my. Ahhhh, the crisp fries, the gentle squeak of curd on tooth and that rich liquid roux that would soon pulse slowly through my coagulated veins. Our first poutine was all that was promised in this city of snow, hearty and filling warmth—fuel in our hearths as we prepared to hit the streets again, more quests and necessities in mind. We made way towards the Plains of Abraham—the site of Montcalm’s defeat and death in the war against the Brits in 1759, and home of the Quebec Winter Carnaval. To enter the Carnaval, one must have Le Bonne Homme, the good man, the creepy light up Snowman emblem of the Carnaval who hangs from every zipper—yet, to have the Bonne Homme, one must have the funny money—of which we had none. Under the safety of hotel wifi I had found TD bank, but in the windswept streets with foreign names, could my boozy brain its ATM find?
We passed vendors, block after block, peddling the little glow Homme for plastic cash. The street side bars beaconed with cute girls in fur gathering at bars of ice, terrible club music and door men barring our way and keeping us on the path to our goal. After a brief foray to the cliff’s edge, high above the St. Lawrence where the wind cut our faces with snow, leaning against the tower defenses to catch glimpse of the haze of lights on the other banks we again hit the streets. My sense of direction, while questionable at times, led us through the streets (did I mention whipping wind and subzero temperatures?) and to the shelter of—me glory be, the heated, unlocked TD bank ATM antechamber! Plasticy, colorful money spit into our hands at $1.26 to the dollar, filling our pockets with liquidity and power. Now, dear reader, it is time we too get glowing pendants. Wrong. Time for a fuckin’ beer. Now fortunately, I am a man who came just barely prepared for this trip—mildly warm clothing and a list of bars and addresses programmed in my phone notepad. Back on Rue St. Jean, we found a great one.
III. Beer, Hockey, and Broken Dreams.
Bateau De Nuit. Through a door into a dank opening, and up a winding flight of stairs you pass through the curtain into another dark room, illuminated by a drifting curtain, with astral projections of Canadian glory—hockey. Was it the Devils and Penguins? It wasn’t important, it was their sport, and my miniature companion with his expertise of the game, and fuming vitriol for the Canadiens of nearby Montreal threatened to pour gasoline on our whole sub-polar journey. In generous English the beard behind the bar introduced me to the supra-local tap menu, more my expertise, and I readied to mellow over a warming barley wine. Ian’s inborn hatred of the Bruins longtime deadly foe, however, did not back-fire. It broke ice. Then shaved it up, poured some warm water on it and smoothed it over like a Zamboni. We were in. The local beers flowed, we made acquaintance with these northerners of this half-metal, half-hockey, wholly dive-bar. We discussed youth and sport, and built bridges. This, I felt, was the moment. We have hockey, we have beer. I have a pint of 9% milk stout from a farm in Phillipe’s village that is quite simply sublime. Where can we find the best of the rest?
My first question, that which had been burning in my mind for weeks rose, directed at the man who must surely know, the beardtender, the bar-keep.
I shall paraphrase, because, barley wine, imperial milk stout, and much more lingers heavier on my memory:
“Now, of anyone here, you’re the man who I know will know. In the US, pretty much all the Canadian whiskey we get is shit, Crown Royal, which everyone seems to like—shit. Where can I get a good Canadian whisky?”
“You don’t want a Canadian whisky man, US has all the good whisky.”
“But I came here in search of a good Canadian whisky, to prove it exists!”
“Man there isn’t any good Canadian whisky, you guys have more whisky in your stores then we do and it’s all the same shit, Royal and Club, tastes like sawdust.”
So there it was. The hunt for the great northern dram, defeated in one fell swoop. A man of clearly distinguished tastes, a countryman, probably a proud Canadian; has conceded Canadian whisky is shit. I didn’t push the point. Perhaps deeply I had suspected it all along, sure, Whistle Pig, a beautiful Rye if there ever was one, is distilled in Canada. When it comes down to it, it’s a product of Vermont in the end.
Perhaps this is something I should have mentioned sooner in my introduction to the glorious Bateau de Nuit, or perhaps I did with my description of a dark, metal, hockey and craft beer bar…this wasn’t exactly the place to meet women. Being red blooded American men with booze and cheese curds in our arteries we asked these proto-Canadian males, where, oh where, can my bébé be? But again, dreams dashed, they directed us to the clubs. We instead had a couple more beers and staggered through slush filled streets once again towards le hotel. We put on the Frenchie History channel, I poured a bourbon, oh sweet liquid of home, and promptly fell asleep on my bed fully dressed.
IV: A Hazy Shade of Winter (Carnaval)
As you can imagine, dear reader, I awoke drenched in sweat in a less than pleasant state of being. I tore down to base layer and promptly got back to bed—because, fuck morning—and struggled to forget my throbbing head long enough to fall asleep. Hours of blinding daylight pouring through the window succeeded in rousing me and my comrade, him somewhat less battered than me, and while he showered I quickly finished my evening’s bourbon to ease myself back into pace. After I too was less reprehensible in appearance, we set off in full layers to meet our hierarchy of needs. First stop, coffee. Camel fuckin’ Christ the magic a hot red-eye can work on a broken body—then onto a local favorite, the much touted and well-distributed chain of Chez Ashton, which many claim serves the finest poutine of Quebec.
Chez Ashton, chain though it may be, did serve up some damned good poutine. The fries were thin, crisp, the gravy beyond all expectation of what fast food gravy could conceivably be, the curds? Alchemy. Perhaps of all the curds we meet in many days of curd chewing, the curds d’Ashton were the squeakiest, with that light lovely fresh crisp funk that comes straight off the farm and quickly degrades into something less rubber and more mush. It was something to soothe the soul, however, I must offer warnings.
- Pass on the sausage. Sausage is Chez Ashton for a hot dog of questionable provenance chopped up on top of your poutine. It’s not terrible, but it certainly isn’t good. It’s unnecessary, and it slows the curd delivery.
- Pass on the burger too. Chez Ashton is poutine and they do it rather well, quickly and cheaply. If you’re thinking to yourself their burger is probably going to be a bit like McDonald’s—shitty, but not entirely dissatisfying, you are incorrect. It is shitty and entirely dissatisfying. It’s a centimeter thick, dry and sadder than a pound full of puppies.
Welp, I’ve done it. I burned a local institution, please don’t ban me Quebec, I love you, and I truly did enjoy the Chez Ashton Poutine!
Chez Ashton brought me back to life, and another quick bourbon pit stop brought my back to a jaunty rhythm and effervescence, which led us back up the cliff face, and emboldened us for a chilly stroll the old citadel, the tourist district and the like. We took in the sites, and when our skin threatened to fall off we stepped into the warm shelter of the art galleries for a momentary respite and a bit of culture. In this journey Ian and I wended past the Auberge Saint-Antoine and along the colonial fortifications overlooking the St. Lawrence in its vast glory, ice breakers clearing through the clusters of jagged natural buoys. From the walk along the walls we found ourselves emerge into the outskirts of the Carnaval, among the snowshoe and ski trials we wandered our way into the center. Now armed with those plasticized bills (the ones we hadn’t drank) we were able to obtain the elusive glowing Bonne Homme, and gain entry into the main festival grounds.
Bonne Homme affixed, we set about exploring the excuse for our misguided, or perhaps completely unguided flight of escapism. The grounds of the Winter Carnaval in truth encompass most of the sprawling Plains of Abraham—with the snowshoe trails and cross country ski paths intersecting walking path and one another, large tents for eating and escaping, snow-packed avenues of vendors selling all natures of maple, warm beverage and pastry treats. There were ice luges, ice sleds, mini hockey rinks and ice bumper car…things. Ice and ice and more ice—ice bars, ice shot glasses, ice sculptures and all other manner of icy quasi-wonderland (my instinct is still to say hell.) Oh, did I neglect to mention snow? Spectacular blocks of packed snow were being carved before our very eyes into detailed replicas of less ephemeral sculpture, and among our first activities was the diabetes laden activity of pouring hot maple syrup over snow. This is then let to set and rolled into a lovely Canadian lollipop, which then becomes a sticky sugar strand mess that tangles sweetly in your beard. Yep, my blood sugar levels needed that. After our little tour of the grounds, which I can only imagine probably expanded following our weekend there, (the first of the festival) we made our way to spectate sport, in the form of a snowshoe 5k. Yes, in the season where many of us simply give up and embrace morbid obesity some people are out there on specially designed snowshoes that strap to their running shoes, in some kind of spandex gimp suit, (hardly enough protection when the high was -4 Fahrenheit before the wind) running a goddamn race. Of course while these warriors of winter probably ran 5k times that would put high-school cross country running me to shame, Ian and I felt a shot of “caribou,” a mulled and fortified wine in a chunk of ice, seemed a suiting surrender.
After cheering on our fellow countrymen in skin tight red, white and blue, my lowering core temperature and BAC led us off again, to obtain more funds in the super-heated ATM parlor and regain strength at the hotel, down again along the Rue St. Jean. Before our return we found fit to visit another of the highly rated beer destinations, where I gathered a fine selection of high alcohol dark beers to warm my blood, and a nice glass to go along. Somewhere along the way Ian saw fit to buy a 40 of 10.1% Molson Dry, which is basically Canada’s solution to the problem of Colt 45 not getting you drunk quickly enough. I imagine you can gather where things will go from here…