Flavors of Canada > Quebec > Culinary tour of Magdalen Islands
An archipelago in the gulf
The archipelago of the Iles de la Madeleine Islands is located in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, or more precisely: 215 km from the Gaspé peninsula, 105 km from Prince Edward Island and 95 km from Cape Breton Island.
The keys to the originality of Madelinot culture lie in its Acadian and Quebec influences and its history of profound isolation. Once, shipwrecks and maritime commerce were its principle contacts with the outside world. This culture is still vibrant today, whether in the language, the arts, the economy, or in the maintenance and development of the land. This originality gives the Islands a little something …a difference which when coupled with the landscape is a 'breath of fresh air'. At first glance, the visitor may be surprised and charmed by the melodic intonations of the Acadian accent, the marine terminology, and archaic words from ancestral France. In the Islands, the pace of life is different, it is said that time flows in another sense; in the Islands… its not the same…
On the Madeleine Islands, land and sea are so close, you can taste it!
The Islanders are fishermen who follow the rhythm of the seasons. It's hard to know where to start in describing these dozen islands that form a 65 km long crescent, six of which are joined to each other by reddish sand dunes. It is the colour that first strikes the visitor: the red cliffs, green hills, blue waters and the charming houses in rainbow hues! This is an arresting canvas, a breath of fresh air right out in the open gulf.
Just about every local inhabitant has a little salt water flowing in his veins. Everyone is to some extent a fisherman, or the wife or daughter of a fisherman, and not only does this activity generate the majority of the income on the islands, but it also shapes the lives of the population.
During the lobster season, the lobster fishermen leave port at 3 o'clock in the morning to arrive at their fishing area where they pull up and empty their traps. Then they rebait the traps and return them to the sea. With their catch aboard, the fishermen return to their homeports in the afternoon to unload and prepare for the next day's fishing. This is the heart of the Madeleines that beats to the rhythm of the tides.
Life on the Islands changes with the seasons. Let them tell their story…
Winter in the Islands
Seal season - end of February
In the memory of every Madelinot, the seal hunt marks the return to maritime activity as winter draws to a close.
Every year at the beginning of March, thousands of harp and hooded seals come to the ice fields near the Iles de la Madeleine to bear their young. For island residents, for whom seal hunting is one of the oldest traditions, it is the time to go out on the ice.
Seal meat is dark, with a strong taste. It is remarkably tender and its flavour is slightly reminiscent of the sea. Some restaurants prepare it island-style all year round. During the seal season, restaurant owners celebrate this event by featuring dishes made with the meat of this pinniped.
Spring in the Islands
As soon as the seals have disappeared with the ice, nature awakens and a kind of frenzy grips everyone. The herrings arrive from the open sea and teeming schools of them fill Placentia Bay all the way to Havre aux Basques. Herring are usually caught with creels or basket traps, immense nets of thin cord. Though once salted and smoked in huge smokehouses, today most of the herring catch is used as bait in lobster traps.
Snow crab is fished in April or May, as soon as the ice leaves the gulf. Fishermen go out more than 40 km west or southwest of the Islands in 20 metre (65 foot) boats to set their large traps in very deep water, between 45 and 275 metres.
Summer in the Islands
The lobster season: May 10 to July 10
Less than two weeks before the herring returns to the open sea, the lobster season opens. They are caught in lobster traps made from wooden slats and netting, three or four feet long and about a foot wide, with a rounded top. Strings of traps are lowered onto the rocky bottoms, well anchored with flat stones, while the marker buoys float on the surface. The lobster season lasts about two months and sets the tone of the local cooking until the end of July.
Meanwhile the cod arrives, the godsend of the ocean. Though they can be tempted with a piece of herring, cod actually prefer cockles. They are caught on lines throughout the summer, and if the season is good the fishing continues until the fall, perhaps even until Christmas. Salted cod is added to mashed potatoes to make fish cakes (galettes), a hearty meal for winter evenings.
In mid-July, the mackerel comes to gallivant in the waters around the islands, its blue sides sparkling in the sunshine that penetrates the surface of the water. Fishermen prepare a mixture of chopped salt herring and cockles mixed with a little molasses that they drop over the surface to slow down the migrating shoals, and they catch the mackerel with lines or nets until early autumn. In the evening, everyone gets together to prepare and salt the day's catch, which can number into the hundreds.
Fall in the Islands
In the fall, as the light becomes denser and the ocean thicker, the marshes take on a mellow purple colour. Baskets are filled with mushrooms and cranberries. This large berry grows abundantly in the damp meadows near the sand dunes. It is made into jam, jelly and juice.
From the ocean to the plate
The inhabitants of the Madeleines are masters in the art of preparing the products that they draw from the generous sea. Their unique style of cooking makes the most of locally caught fish and shellfish, which is used in soups and stews - even seafood croque-monsieurs! - and myriad other ways in everyday meals. Cooking in court-bouillon is certainly the simplest and most common way of preparing shellfish in order to preserve all its flavour.
There are also some classic dishes, staples of the Island's cuisine. The pot-en-pot, a kind of seafood pot pie, is undoubtedly the signature dish, a savoury preparation of fish or other seafood with potatoes in a flaky piecrust (see recipes).
While cockles are highly prized in the Islands, obtaining these mollusks nevertheless requires some hard work since they have to be collected on the sandy floor of reef flats at low tide. Bouchées ("mouthfuls") are traditional: cockles enclosed in batter and deep-fried.
Scallop fishermen use special drags to scrape the seabed and bring up the shellfish. They quickly shell the scallops before returning to port so that they will only have to unload a few white webbed sacks containing their entire catch. Scallops find their way into countless delicious preparations: they are wonderful grilled on skewers, as an ingredient in the seafood pot pie known as pot-en-pot, or simply served with parsley butter.
Clams are used in a filling for stuffed cabbage: a seasoned mixture of clams, rice and onions, rolled up in a cabbage leaf and cooked slowly in a mixture of pork fat and clam broth.
Halibut is cooked in the oven: halibut steaks are dipped into cream seasoned with salt, pepper and a touch of vinegar, then coated in bread crumbs, dotted with butter, and baked in the oven.
Cockles and mussels, alive, alive-o!
Shellfish lovers will always be able to find blue mussels, clams and cockles. They are sold in fish shops and restaurants but - a nice touch - you can also collect them in designated areas (consult the local tourist information office.)
But enough chat… Come to the Islands to hear some wonderful fish stories and to discover the fine cuisine that has its sights firmly fixed on the sea. Who can resist the temptation of a freshly caught fish, still glistening with sea water? And when you taste it right beside the ocean, as you breathe in the bracing scent of the salt spray, you'll know the trip was worth it…
The only cheese made on the Islands. It is a soft cheese.
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