Feast of fresh Seafood Awaits Cyclists Spoiled for Choice
In the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte remarked that an army marches on its stomach as French forces stormed across much of Europe. Some 200 years later, it might be said that cyclists ride on their stomachs as well as seven of us pedalled through the Bas St. Laurent (Lower St. Lawrence) region from Lévis to Sainte-Flavie, just inside the Gaspé Peninsula, and back in eight days.
Along the way this intrepid crew ate like kings feasting on an array of seafood pulled from the briny lower end of the St. Lawrence River as it mixes with the waters of the Atlantic Ocean in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
We were spoiled for choice with a fish store (poissonnerie) in just about every town that we passed through and sometimes two or three in bigger centres like Rimouski and Rivière du Loup. Many restaurants – and even a roadside snack bar – that we patronized offered fresh seafood choices. We ate lobsters, haddock, cod, clams, shrimp and mussels, most of which were pulled from the cold water nearby.
After pedalling from 70 to 100 kilometres a day – often against stiff head winds or through rain – we were looking for pampering and tender loving care at each destination. People of a certain age will remember the old Quebec tourism slogan Hospitalité Spoken Here. Well, it’s alive and well in the Lower St. Lawrence – in fact, in every region of the province that I have ventured into.
There was courtesy and thoughtfulness at every stop we made. At Motel de la Falaise in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, we were provided with rags to clean our bikes and at a restaurant in Rivière du Loup, the waitress brought a bag of ice to soothe the injured ankle of one of our group. At the Auberge St-Simon, the charming Heidi Leduc gave us the run of her kitchen to whip up suppers on two occasions.
Our first day on the bikes after leaving the starting point of Lévis, where we dined on all-you-can-eat mussels the previous night, was promising. We passed through several villages, all dominated by parish churches, and sailed through Berthier-sur-Mer. The St. Lawrence River was to our left, but the name of the town and the tidal flats along the shore were undeniable evidence that we were beside the ocean and that seafood awaited us.
Good to Go: Resto Details:
We arrived at the Motel de la Falaise in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli after 97 kilometres on the bikes feeling like we had conquered much of Europe with appetites to match. The motel manager recommended La Coureuse des Grèves (referring to the local legend of a woman who frequented the shoreline) and we were not disappointed. I later discovered that it’s Tripadvisor’s No. 1 resto of 12 in the town.
I chose the four-course meal for $40 including a bottle of wine, shared with fellow cyclist Doug Taylor who also went for the same option. First up was Matane shrimp with a creamy lobster sauce followed by a delicate broccoli and celery soup. The main course was poached salmon on a bed of choucroute, a pleasant combination that was a first for me. Desert was a three-layered chocolate mousse confection.
Day 2 was a tough one on the bikes as we started in rain. When it let up, we faced stiff head winds from the east. It took 6.5 hours to do 104 kilometres mostly on the shoulder of Highway 132, part of the Route Verte cycling network, before landing at the Days Inn in Rivière du Loup. We were exhausted but a treat was waiting for us.
From the outstanding Poissonnerie Lauzier in Kamouraska, one of our number, Alain Piché, who has travelled through the area with his family, purchased a cornucopia of seafood for a late afternoon snack and appetizer. There was sturgeon, eel and Matane shrimp all smoked in the artisanal fumoir adjacent to the store and bistro of Poissonnerie Lauzier, along with smoked trout from New Brunswick. It was my first taste of smoked Matane shrimp and it’s a must when I see it again.
The fish, accompanied by a squeeze of lemon and capers, was washed down by beer and white wine purchased at a dépanneur. There was no need for perusing the more expensive wares of the local SAQ. After the day we had been through, anything long, cold and wet was heavenly.
For dinner we crossed Fraser St. and strolled past a hotel marquee that blared, “We speak English.” That bold sign might cause a stir in the context of Montreal, but in Rivière du Loup it’s tourist season, all too brief, and everyone is showing off their best assets. The town is a convenient stopping point for travellers heading for New Brunswick and the other Maritime provinces or to the Gaspé Peninsula and everyone is after their business.
We chose the Restaurant Le Saint-Patrice and I opted for the table d’hote. It included a very good leek, potato and bacon soup followed by melt-in-your-mouth halibut with excellent fries. Dessert was a smooth mango-mousse cake with raspberries. This is where the waitress happily obliged Dave Boicey with a bag of ice for his ankle.
After 84 kilometres over five hours the next day, we arrived at Auberge St-Simon. I shared a room with a claw-foot tub and took advantage of it to warm up my weary body. The auberge is
run by Heidi Leduc and Ken Ratte. She’s from Granby and he’s from Winnipeg and they gave us the run of the kitchen in their 183-year-old home.
So we set about preparing dinner. Bob Johnson scraped vegetables, Alain Piché put together a salad and I cut up salmon filets for marinating in a combination of soy sauce, maple syrup, minced ginger and minced garlic, which Heidi just happened to have on hand.
As we went about our business, Heidi told us that she and Ken attend first nations powwows across Canada and the U.S. travelling about 80,000 kilometres a year, selling their artwork and handicrafts.
Their three-story house (the exterior was under renovation) with mansard roof, Ken explained, is made of 10 by 10-inch squared cedar logs covered with a façade of clapboard painted yellow. The interior was made comfortable with tables and chairs and sofas from days gone by and Indian artifacts.
Late arriving was a couple from the Eastern Townships and they accepted our offer to join us for supper. It’s a very friendly atmosphere at the auberge.
In the back yard is a huge teepee, which Ken made, and after supper we repaired there for a post-prandial beer. It was warm in the teepee despite the cool night thanks to the wood fire in the middle and bug free despite the blackflies swarming outside.
Breakfast in the big kitchen consisted of eggs from a nearby farm and bagels from Saint-Simon Bagel+ across the street. It is owned by baker Pierre Varenka, a former Montreal social worker, who left the big city to make excellent bagels – in a convection oven, by the way. The bagels have become renowned in the Lower St. Lawrence and the Gaspé. He bakes 100 dozen overnight Friday and his wife Chantal sells them at the Rimouski market on Saturday.
Our fourth day on the road ended at Sainte-Flavie and we dined at Capitaine Homard, a one-storey white building with lighthouse and a brilliant red roof and trimming. Inside it’s knotty pine and festooned with model ships, pictures of people with big fish and all kinds of nautical bric-à-brac.
Most of the group chose battered cod (caught locally) and chips, which were declared to be excellent. Doug Taylor went with the salmon sauced with orange and ginger while Alain Piché opted for steamed lobster, which comes with a huge bib. I dug into the tasty lobster thermidor, the latter at $39. Also available is lobster poutine for $24, but no one bit on that.
The next day was bright and sunny, but there was a very brisk head wind and it took us 5.5 hours to cover 77 kilometres, which, of course, required sustenance. Along the way we stopped at Cantine de la Mer, about 20 kilometres from Saint-Simon. It being Saturday, it was doing a booming business, mostly from local people out for a ride on their 4 x 4 ATVs.
Besides hamburgers and hotdogs, it has a small menu of seafood and some of us ordered, on the advice of Heidi Leduc, the battered, deep-fried clams, which were delicate and moist.
We had to grind through the last leg to the Auberge St-Simon and for supper feasted on lobsters cooked at the Metro supermarket in Rimouski and steak on the inn’s barbecue. We washed all that down with two bottles of wine left by the couple who dined with us at the inn two days earlier. They were returning a favor.
We arrived back in Lévis three days later and our seafood safari came to an end with a plate of ribs at a local chain restaurant. After all that surf, we were headed back to home turf.