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Bring your sense of culinary adventure to the Magdalen Islands 

 

Gilberte Aucoin pulls back a small door inside his big barn to reveal a litter of striped piglets. They’re the offspring of domestic hog moms and wild boar dads. Some piglets are curled up beneath heat lamps that bathe them and their straw beds in a pinkish glow. Others are feeding with their mothers. 

“They nurse longer than other animals,” says Aucoin through a translator. All of those in the group touring Aucoin des Sangliers, the wild boar farm on Cap aux Meules in the Magdalen Islands, lets out a collective “Awww.”

Outside, a couple dozen full grown wild boars and sows romp around within the confines of a fenced pasture the size of a football field. They’re chomping hay, wriggling into mud baths, and chumming around with chickens. One large part of the pasture is fenced off for a couple of sows, each with a dozen white piglets in tow.

Aucoin poses proudly for photos with all his busy hogs. He wears an unbuttoned red plaid shirt with rolled sleeves over a faded T-shirt. A boar’s tooth dangles around his neck from a silver chain that matches his short-cropped, silver hair.

Following the farm tour, Aucoin leads us to his retail shop where we sample aged ham, mini pepperoni, paté, and other delicious meats prepared from the wild boars he’s taken such care to raise.

Aucoin des Sangliers is an anomaly: one of the few food and drink producers on the Magdalens with no connection to the sea or to island traditions.

Known in French as Îles-de-la-Madeleine, Quebec’s Atlantic Canadian archipelago includes a dozen islands, seven inhabited. Long, narrow dunes link six of the islands, forming wide, shallow lagoons. First Nations hunters and fishers visited the islands seasonally for uncounted centuries, then about 500 years ago, European settlers arrived. Since then, Madelinots have made their living on the waves, hunting seal and fishing for cod, herring and halibut. They planted gardens and orchards, and kept cows and chickens on small farms.



As I tour the archipelago in search of a distinct Madelinot cuisine, I discover that sea and farm heritage can be found pretty well everything beyond the wild boar farm. La Boucherie Côte à Côte, a butcher shop on Cap-aux-Meules within sight of the terminal where the ferry from Prince Edward Island lands, specializes in seal, a food source hunted here for centuries. Proprietor Réjean Vigneau hunts the seal himself.

Beside packages of beef, pork, and chicken, plus sauces and delicacies from around the world, I find links of seal sausage. The label reads “products de loup-marin” or meats made from sea wolf, AKA seal. In the coolers and freezers, I discover pepperoni, burger, jerky, terrine, mousse, paté, stew, and another dozen dishes and preparations made with loup-marin.

Vigneau’s seal meat is also on the menu at nearby Pizza d’la Pointe. A pie they call “Ti-Loup” boasts “loup-marin confit, confiture bacon and oignon, mandarine, Pied-de-vent” — “sea-wolf confit, bacon and onion confit, mandarin, and Feet-of-the-Wind.” I know them as seal comfit, bacon and onion jam, mandarin orange slices, and soft cheese from Fromagerie Pied-de-Vent.

Like Vigneau at Côte à Côte, the Arseneau family at le Fumoir d’antan put traditional foods to new uses. Smokehouses once flourished on the islands, preparing and preserving millions of pounds of herring each year. Workers built the first in Havre-aux-Maisons in 1870. A century later, all 40 of them closed due to overfishing. Salvagers dismantled most for lumber.

But in 1996, an ember sparked to life. The Arseneau family saved one of their smokehouses and started operating it again. Today, le Fumoir d’antan sells smoked herring. However, given recent government restrictions on the herring fishery, it’s switched to smoked scallops, mackerel, salmon, and other delicacies. As human activity changes the oceans, so too evolves the seaside cuisine.

Up the road, I stop at Sylvie Langford’s Le Barbocheux and sample what the Madelinots refer to as “the beer of the islands.” It’s actually strong port-style wine, usually made from local berries. Another great place to whet your whistle À l’abri de la Tempête — it’s the islands’ only brewery, brewing actual beer, and it’s generally considered one of Eastern Canada’s better breweries.

On the same island, I stop for some of that cheese by Pied-de-Vent. Here, about 80 cows of the rare Canadienne breed, developed in Quebec 400 years ago, now enjoy provincial heritage status. The fromagerie is named for that wondrous, atmospheric phenomenon when the sun beams in rays through the clouds onto the grazing cows as if the sunshine is striding over the pasture and the bay beyond.

I drive south in search of the Magdalen’s other cheese maker, la Fromagerie Les Biquettes à l’Air. It’s at Bassin on the southern tip of the most southerly island, l’Ile-du-Havre-Aubert. There, I find Éric Longpré in the barnyard, just up from the beach where he likes to walk his small herd of about 30 goats.

“We offer tours,” says Longpré. “We take small groups and go for an hour walk over the hill to the beach. With 30 goats, it’s quite a trip.” 

After greeting a few of his idiosyncratic charges at his barn, I follow him into his small shop where I find delicious, fresh cheese preparations, some flavoured with foraged sea parsley or dune peppers.

I discover more of these traditional ingredients at my final stop, Gourmande de Nature. Johanne Vigneau and her team forage and prepare wild island ingredients that would be at home in the fine food section of any grocer: comfits, coulis, chutneys, cocktail mixes, aromatic sugars, and salts.

My backpack heavy with cheeses, flavoured salts, boar, and bagoose, it’s time to catch the ferry back to P.E.I. On board, I make my way to the stern, lean on the railing and gaze west, back to the islands where the pied-de-vent dance across the water in the setting sun.

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