"He stood still, and loved it. Its beauty was paralyzing beyond all words, all experience, all dream."
- Conrad Aiken, Silent Snow, Secret Snow
We've been snow-deprived this year. Some perhaps congratulate themselves on having escaped a more bitter winter; we here at AFIEP have bemoaned the lack of snowy weekend walks, amazing icicle cascades on the rocks in the park and in the tunnels under Park Avenue, and a city that finally slows itself down under a rush of white. We did have that so-called "biggest ever" snowstorm earlier this month, but it was gone so quickly. It just didn't satisfy the yen we've had for frosted landscapes and crunch underneath our boots. G has felt especially bereft of winter; you'd think a Baltimore boy would have a hankering for more heat, but it's just the opposite. Although he loves Baltimore itself, he's a hardy specimen who has no affection for the balmy and sometimes sultry climate in which he was raised. He craves the cold.
So our recent vacation was a welcome antidote to the creeping suspicion that our winter is just a little too (globally) warm. When friends and acquaintances heard that we were planning to spend a week shared between Montreal and Vermont, they all asked right away if we were going skiing. Skiing certainly may have its joys, but we just wanted snow, cold, beautiful landscapes, hearty, wintry meals and the sense of being far away from NY.
Vermont was our stopover point to and and from Montreal. We made our customary Central Vermont rounds, especially on our return journey -- pancake breakfasts at Eaton's Sugarhouse, a lovely dinner at Ariel's, a bit of shopping at the Baker's Store/King Arthur and the wonderful food co-op in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
In Quebec, we were delighted by the snowy beauty of the landscape. I looked at the good boots everyone was wearing, and noticed that no-one seemed particularly bothered by the cold. "People adapt to conditions," G admonished me gently. "It's not like NY, where snow throws everyone into a panic and shuts down the city." G was in his element in Montreal -- so much so that we looked at the ads at realtors windows and marveled at the excellent prices for real estate and rentals. "What about the plan to move to San Francisco?" I asked. I guess that's our current criterion for a good vacation: we have such an extraordinarily wonderful time that we fall in love with the place, and decide we want to live there.
Montreal made some pretty compelling arguments for moving, I must say -- among them being the fact that we did not encounter a bad meal or even a mediocre snack while we were there. It seems to be one of those cities where fresh, well-prepared food is simply the standard, even at a small nondescript place that one stops into by chance, for lunch or a "little something". At one such place, G's request for a lemonade (in the middle of winter, no less) was met with a fresh-squeezed citron pressé, garnished with both lemon and lime slices. In another, a tiny creperie, we were surprised by the good carrot-ginger soup as well as the delicious crepes. The chill from a long walk from the Plateau district to Vieux Montreal had us wandering into a tiny, rustic chocolate shop, where the proprietor and I cobbled together enough Franglais between us to be mutually understood. It was not the least bit posh, not at all like the gleaming minimalist chocolatiers in the Plateau. The proprietor was an older woman who delighted in my poor French, assuring me that I had a lovely accent, and pressed sample after sample of her homemade chocolates upon me. At one point she put her arm around my shoulders and declared "I like you," with a dear smile. G's heart was won when she poured him a tall glass of what he declared to be one of the best hard ciders he'd ever had. And my tiny cup of hot chocolate was aficionado stuff -- pure and intense, a chocolate hit for a serious dark chocolate lover.
And our planned meals were excellent as well. Montreal's winter dinner menus didn't seem to include much chicken or beef while we were there; they were weighted much more heavily toward pork, lamb, duck, lots of venison and other game. This was an interesting and delicious change for us. Friends and bloggers had recommended Au Pied de Cochon and L'Express, where our dinners certainly did not disappoint. We had to try the smoked meat and fries at both Schwartz's and the Main (Schwartz's easily won that competition, as I had expected it would). Another planned excursion came from a brief correspondence with Marcy Goldman. She had, with complete serendipity, sent me an email telling me how much she likes this site. I happened to read her email while in Montreal, Ms. Goldman's own stomping grounds. Quick quick quick I asked her for pastry recommendations, and she suggested that I try Au Kouign Amann. Our bites there were ambrosial, all the way from the eponymous layered butter-and-caramel pastry to G's chausson au pommes, as well as the housemade dark chocolate truffles that I'm enjoying even as I write.
Dinner on our last evening at tiny La Colombe was perhaps my favorite meal of the trip. Although it was a four-course table-d'hote meal, I ordered one of the a la carte appetizers, not realizing that I would still be served the requisite four courses. But the meal was beautifully timed, and I was able to manage it all quite happily. My special appetizer was the foie gras served with pain d'epices and a sauce described as being of honey and spices. Not fond of sugary sauces, I worried that the preparation would weigh too heavily on the sweet side for me. But the skill of the chef was evident from the first bite. The foie gras itself had a crisp crust and a salt edge which balanced the subtle, not-overly sweet dish. It was perhaps the best foie gras preparation I've ever had. We then both had a light, peppery cauliflower soup, which was followed by a salad with some smoked mackerel for me, and wild boar terrine with apricots for G. He's not a big eater of terrines and patés, but claimed that the wild boar gave him a positively Proustian moment by causing him to recall the liverwurst sandwiches of his childhood. We forbore mentioning this to the chef. I thought the terrine was delicious, as were our plats principaux. G had a pork filet with parsnip purée which was quite good. But I had the stand-out entree, a côte de cerf, which turned out to be a lusciously thick, tender, rare and flavorful venison chop, served with an outstanding risotto of black rice. Our pleasure was completed with a blueberry-almond cream tart and a luscious chocolate marquise. The waiter must have relayed our praise to the chef, who nodded and smiled at us through the window of the open kitchen. I had the idea that he didn't want to venture his English, much the same as I felt about my halting, translated-in-my-head French .
The true stand-out of our vacation, however, was our marvelous hotel, Auberge de la Fontaine. The Auberge is beautiful, facing the lovely Parc de la Fontaine. It's also located in the Plateau district, where there are many contemporary and charming shops as well as what seems like most of the best restaurants. All of the restaurants we chose from recommendations and reviews turned out to be within walking distance of our hotel.
We were fortunate enough to have one of the inn's most charming rooms, spacious and attractive with a large terrace facing the park (the picture at the top of the post is the view from our terrace) -- not to speak of an in-room double Jacuzzi, quite welcome during the afternoons of days filled with long snowy and icy walks. A good television (which helped us avail ourselves of both "South Park" and "Law and Order" in French) and an excellent sound system were among the accoutrements. When we go back, which we undoubtedly will, we hope to have the same room in spring or summer whether, and enjoy the lovely terrace even more.
Each morning we came downstairs to an abundant breakfast of freshly baked croissants and pains chocolats, fresh fruit sliced and in fruit salad, as well as to eat out of hand, cheeses, patés, yogurt, hard-cooked eggs, cereals, breads, and usually a specialty like sugar waffles or an egg-and-spinach dish as well as some homebaked carrot bread or date squares. This far exceeded the meager offerings we've encountered at most mid-level B&Bs, which usually seem to broadcast that someone said to someone else "oh yeah, we have to put out breakfast for the guests" -- an afterthought at best. The Auberge's policy is to keep an open kitchen downstairs, meaning that up until midnight you can help yourself to coffee, tea, and snacks: cookies, crackers, and the cheeses, patés, fruit, and baked goods left from breakfast, if you wish. We didn't avail ourselves of this to any excessive degree, since we were eating copiously outside the hotel -- but it was delightful to be able make ourselves tea and have a tiny bite on a couple of occasions. More than anything, we just liked the policy, which speaks to the friendly, open nature of the Auberge in general.
G's feeling that we still hadn't had quite enough snow must have been heard by an unseen power from above. As we made our way home from the second Vermont leg of our trip on Saturday, we ran into a major blizzard. It was cold and crisp, mysterious and beautiful as only a drive in the whirling snowfall can be. We didn't even mind that our progress was so slow -- until we were re-routed. So many cars skidded and piled up all over I-91 (no fatalities, and no serious injuries either, fortunately) that we were sent south on Route 5, to rejoin I-91 quite a while later. Sadly, by the time we hit Massachusetts, the snow was almost gone.