La Malbaie, part two – Bringing it all back home

malbaie2When our offer to purchase a small barn’s worth of antiques near La Malbaie, Quebec was accepted, we recognized we had two main problems to solve; getting it all back to our place, and having somewhere to put it when we got it there.  The church showroom was already quite full, as was our little storage sheds, so we talked to our friend and neighbor Dave who had a farm around the corner with some unused out buildings, and arranged to rent them at a reasonable rate.

There were many items in the lot that were outside our regular inventory; commercial products mostly like old beer bottles, tins, etc., so our plan was to sell most of this as quickly as possible to realize back some of our investment, and allow us to focus on what we normally sell.  We knew a lot of dealers by this point so we invited them all to come when all the stock had arrived, to have a first pick of it.  This generated a bit of excitement that we all shared.  It felt like Christmas was coming when you were ten, and you couldn’t wait to see what will be under the tree for you.  A date was set in three weeks time.

I rented the largest moving truck they would allow me with my license which was really, really  big.  If I’m not mistaken the box was 20’ long, and 10’ high.  A good friend named Sergio who ran a nearby apple farm offered to ride shotgun.  When I talked to the seller in Quebec I asked if he could hire four strong men to load, and he said it was no problem.  He knew such men who would be happy for the work.  He said he had a motel room waiting for us. Things were shaping up.

Sergio and I set out about 5 am the next morning. A time which allowed us to cross Toronto before morning rush hour, and which barring delays would put us in La Malbaie about 3 in the afternoon.  The  trip, although long, passed pleasantly enough as we chatted about anything and everything and occasionally munched away at our packed lunch.  Sergio is Italian so we spent a fair amount of time with him teaching me swear words, and street sign language. Did you know that if you are walking down the street with an Italian friend and he holds his hand straight out about belt level and waves it front to back it means “I’m hungry. Let’s go get something to eat”?  I didn’t either.

malbaie3We pulled into the farm about 3 as expected and drove directly to the barn.  There was our man with a team of 4 very large men behind him looking tough, and ready for action.  We only took about fifteen minutes to stretch and get our bearings, and then the trucks ramp was lowered and we got started. I stayed in the barn and pointed at the items to be loaded, and Sergio stayed in the truck and arranged the placement.  We started with the big, boxy pieces like cupboards, dressers and sideboards, stuffing smaller items like bicycles, signs, wall cupboards, etc. in all the little spaces.  The guys were amazing. Strong and careful and we filled the truck form front to back in less than three hours. As we rolled down the door you could see that we had taken approximately half on the contents.  We then all went down into La Malbaie where we had a delicious dinner and a few celebratory brews at our host’s motel.  His treat.  What a guy. Then we settled in for an early night and slept the sleep of the dead until about 7 the next morning. We grabbed some breakfast and headed west.  Pulled in at home about 7 pm and went straight to bed.

It was all hands on deck the next morning at 9 am.  It took us about five hours to unload in such a way that everything could be accessed.  We spent the rest of the afternoon looking at all the small treasures that were stuffed in the various drawers and boxes.  I had an early dinner and went straight to bed so that I would be ready to head out with Sergio at 5 the following morning for round two.

Essentially it was the same routine but with the added fun of the scrap metal dealer arriving to haul off all the recent and thus rejected cash registers and the like.  Where did this guy get all those cash registers? He must have bought out a local supplier.  When the truck was full again there was still a small pile of things left.  I said I would probably be back for them with my pick-up, but if I couldn’t make it back, I’d phone and he could call the local junk guy to come and get it.  I wasn’t sure if I had another trip in me.  Turns out I did, and Jeanine and I left a couple of days later in our faithful old pick-up.

Well that small pile turned out to completely fill the poor old thing, and I’ve never seen it sit lower on it’s chassis due to the large number of cast iron pots and pans which dominated the load.  The wheels were practically rubbing on the fenders and I thought I was going to run out of gears and have to back up some of the sharp inclines you need to pass to get out of the region.  Somehow she hung in there and we made it home.  I was so impressed I almost wrote Ford a letter.  We got home and had a few days to prepare for the pick.   We pulled out all the things that we wanted for ourselves and got them back to the church.

When the dozen or so dealers arrived we explained that the procedure would be for them to go through everything and make a pile of the things they would like to purchase.  We explained that as we had known them all for years and had done good business we would trust them to tell us what they would pay based on a reasonable, but not outlandish profit.  In other words “We trust you to be fair”.  Unless we felt we were totally being screwed we would go along with the price.  You know, it worked amazingly well.  Almost everyone was completely fair and the few who were not stood out like a sore thumb. “Oh, so this 100 year old, unopened bottle of Molson Ale in mint condition is only worth $15. I would have thought more, but if you say so.”  There were a couple moments of “I saw it first” tension but they got resolved without fist fights.  Everyone felt encouraged to share in our good fortune and grab what they could use.  At the end of the day we had reduced the load by about a quarter, and the venture was paid for.  A hellish amount of effort, but we continued to make money from that load for years, but I have to say that the best part for me really was the joy of opening everything up and discovering all the treasures inside.  World of Wonder.malbaie5

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When we hit the Motherload in La Malbaie

lamalbaieIn the late nineties when we were making regular picking trips to Quebec,  we would sometimes combine work with pleasure, and take an extra day or two to go exploring after making the rounds of the regular picking barns.  It was on one such trip in mid-summer when we had finished combing the barns around Victoriaville, that we headed up route 183 on the North Shore past Quebec city, to the Charlevoix region, and the town of La Malbaie.   Champlain named this place La Malbaie, or “the Bad Bay” when his ship got stuck in the harbour,  but it was known locally as Murray’s bay for years until 1967 brought a new awareness and emphasis on preserving our history.  Whatever you choose to call it, it is a beautiful and magical region of large rolling hills leading down to the mighty St. Lawrence river.  The wilderness is dotted with tiny, quaint villages made famous in paintings by Clarence Alphonse Gagnon, Marc Aurele Fortin and A.Y. Jackson, to name a few.  It has retained much of its early, rustic charm because the region was not easily accessible until the early sixties when the Quebec Government built the big highway, route 183.  However it has been a summer playground for the rich, both Canadian and American since the early 1900’s because its untouched natural beauty was accessible by boat along the St. Lawrence.  For this reason, you still find many impressive estates, and the magnificent Manoir Richelieu, established in 1899, with the current building being built in the style of a French Chateau in 1929.  It’s a wonderful region to explore, and only a two hour drive from Quebec city.

Manoir Richelieu

Manoir Richelieu

So on this occasion after a full day of enjoying the region we settled on a small strip motel along the river in town, which looked clean and inexpensive.  We had a great meal at the small, attached restaurant and settled in for a good night’s sleep. In the morning, we had breakfast and set about packing up to leave.  I was putting the cases in the truck when a pleasant looking middle aged man approached me.  “So I can see from your truck that you an antique picker.  Would you be interested in looking at some things I have for sale?”  I was a little taken aback as I was thinking about getting on the road, but answered “Well that’s what I’m here for so sure, what are we talking about.”  He explained that the antiques were not at the motel, but in a barn on the family farm, about a half hour drive away.  As it happened they had just sold the farm which had been in the family for years, and before the deal closed in a month’s time they had to clear a barn where they had stored the contents of their grandfather’s museum when it closed in the mid-sixties.  Their grandfather had  run a private museum in an old fishing boat which had been dragged up on shore along the river.  The kind of place you pay a quarter to go through. When they needed the land to build the new highway, he had to close, and at the time just moved everything, lock, stock and barrel to the barn on the family farm.  It had remained there untouched.   He explained that his grandfather was an eccentric who collected and displayed everything he could get his hands on, so that not everything in the barn could be considered a valuable antique.  There is a bit of everything there, furniture, farm implements, old signs,  bottles, eyeglasses,  furnishings, you name it.  Although the time frame seemed ominous, I was curious so we agreed to go and have a look.  What harm could it do.

by A.Y. Jackson

by A.Y. Jackson

We followed him up and down the twisting country road, until finally reaching a charming, old Habitant farm house and barn looking out over a picture perfect valley.  We drove straight up to the barn.  It was not a large barn, but when we opened the door we could see that it was packed from wall to wall with every sort of thing.  So packed that there was no possibility of entering without hours of shifting large cupboards and the like.  And dark.  As our eyes adjusted we could see about a dozen large armoires absolutely overflowing with objects.  The whole space was chock a block with everything you could imagine.  We spotted several old bicycles, one being a tandem. Lots of books and paintings. Right away I spotted several nice old signs, both commercial on tin, and hand painted on wood. There were quite a few cash registers, dressers, tables, and six glass store display cases. There were benches  and beds, and dozens of cardboard boxes filled with God knows what.   . I could see that four or five of the armoires were really nice, and it seemed he was making an honest appraisal when he suggested that about 80% of it was good but not extraordinary, but that there was some very good things in there as well. As he spoke I scanned the room and made a mental note of  everything I could see. malbaie4

“So here’s the deal.  I want $20,000 for it all with the condition being that the barn must be cleared of everything by the sale date.  When you have everything you want, I know a couple of scrap dealers who will come and scoop up anything that is left, especially metal. There has to be about forty cash registers in there, and a lot of them are newer and nothing special, not to mention heavy so I doubt you will want to take them.”  I stood there in the sunshine, looking out over that beautiful valley and thought “this is a tough one. It would seem the value is there, but it is a hell of a lot of work, and this place is a long, long way from home.”   Jeanine looked over at me and shrugged.  “ O.K.”I said, “it’s a lot to take in. We are interested, but we need a little time to think about it.  Give me your number and I will call you back within 48 hours with an answer.”  He agreed and gave us 48 hours.

We then left after saying our goodbyes, turned west and headed towards home.  We didn’t talk about it until we had travelled for a couple of hours and stopped for a bit of lunch at a roadside food truck. When in Quebec I always have to get my poutine and “vapeur” fix.  A “vapeur” being a steamed hotdog in one of those funny Quebec buns. As we sat there at a picnic table looking out over the St. Lawrence towards Ile d’Orleans  we finally got around to discussing the elephant in the room. I started, “So, I’ve been thinking a lot about it, and we have to recognize that it is a rare opportunity to buy so much from one source.  Also, from what I could see there is easily $20,000 value, but how much more I’m not sure, and it is definitely a lot of work and expense getting it all back home. Not  to mention we only have a month to accomplish it.”.  Jeanine agreed and added “well let’s make a list of everything we could see, and assign what we would think to be a low retail value, and go from there.” We did this and determined that of what we could see, there was about $35,000  worth. Of course we also recognized that what we could see was just scratching the surface of what there was in total.  We drove a few hundred more miles and then Jeanine said “I think we should offer him $15,000, and if we get it fine. If he says no then let’s just pretend it didn’t happen.”  I agreed. It was obvious he was under pressure to find someone fast and if we were going to take it on, we had to be sure it was worth all the trouble.  Jeanine phoned him right away on the cell, her French being so much better than mine, and I was surprised to hear her offer what sounded to me like $10,000. Then there was a pause, and she gave me a big smile and thumbs up .  A moment later she was concluding the conversation by saying, “O.K. it’s a deal and we will be in touch when we got home to arrange the details.”  I looked at her and laughed.  “Am I correct that you made a snap decision there to offer him $10,000, and he agreed?” “Yes, well I was going to say $15,000 but then I started thinking it’s typical in Quebec to ask twice what you really want because everyone negotiates so fiercely, and $10,000 just came out of my mouth.  He jumped at it.”  Good work Jeanine.  Now we just have to go home and figure out what we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Next week – Bringing it back from La Malbaie.malbaie7

More about door knocking

truck2Early on in the game I  realized that the truest adventure of the antique business lay in door knocking.  It’s one thing to source from auction, other dealers and collectors you know, it’s quite another to pull up to a lonely,  run down farm in the middle of nowhere, and knock on the door. You don’t know what type of person you are about to meet.  It’s a bit like hitch hiking in that respect.  Most people are o.k. but if you keep at it long enough you are going to meet up with your fair share of weirdos, some who can even be dangerous.

I  was never a full time picker, but I wanted to experience the excitement of it so I would go out for a couple of days to a week every so often, usually with a buddy, and treat it like a  fishing or hunting trip with BBQ and beers, and lots of bullshit stories.

It is always a good idea to be picking with someone else. Not only for security, but for the more mundane legal reason that you have a witness to verify the transaction, should the kids come back at you, or the like.  You have to trust and respect your picking partner though, and have some fair way of distributing the booty.  The ordinary stuff isn’t hard to figure out.  The problem arises when you come upon something wonderful that you both lust after.  You can take turns buying and leave it up to chance, or do what I liked to do  and agree that if you come up with a real treasure that you both want you own it together.  On my picking trips with buddies we came across some nice gear, but nothing that fell into this category.

I would occasionally go out on my own. I liked to go down to Kent and Essex county where my dad had owned and run farm papers.  A lot of people knew my dad and it would quite often be the ticket indoors.  For the most part people are pretty nice around there, and I could leave early in the morning, pick all day, and come home with a fairly full truck the same evening. It also just felt good being around the old parts.  It’s desperately flat country, but it has its charm. I wasn’t like the guys you see on t.v. buying anything that had value.  I didn’t want to haul and distribute a lot of o.k. but ordinary stuff.  I cherry picked. China stayed in the cabinets but I would do my best to leave with that nice wall box found buried under junk in the shed. It’s funny because nobody wanted much for good primitive furnishings but everyone was looking for top dollar for the silver plate.   At the base of it, it’s a treasure hunt. Much like we played at as children. That treasure just might turn up at the next stop.

One thing I noticed early on is that it is not often the house that looks like it would have a 1830 flat to wall in the back kitchen that actually produces much. It’s likely been picked several times. It’s just as likely to be in the basement of the 60’s ranch style house that the farmer built himself next door.  People have been picking for a long time.  Almost every rural property has been visited at least once over the years. Inevitably you would confront the story that it’s too bad you didn’t get here ten years earlier.  But it also worked out sometimes that people would come to regret refusing an earlier offer, or their situation had changed, and you could buy something for what they had been offered. Or at least what they said they were offered.

Looking  mostly for primitives  it is fairly frustrating how many of these turn of the century farms are filled with turn of the century manufactured mail order furniture.  An awful lot of maple stenciled to look like oak. Your best chance was in the basement, outbuilding, or barn.  Not always rural either. Some of the best things I have found came from homes in small towns.

You like to feel that you get a gut feeling, but this is a romance, and often just something you tell yourself to keep pressing after several disappointments.

What’s worse is after hours or days of finding nothing you come across the crown jewels, and they refuse to sell it.  This is when you need to use your head and stay cool.  I never played games with people by feigning disinterest. Without revealing my hand I would show genuine interest in the things I was genuinely interested in. Too emphatic and they might close down and send you packing.  I would never try to belittle the item, recognizing most people can spot a phony.  No, best to tell them that you respect and value an item and offer them a fair price.  You don’t necessarily give up at no. You do your best to keep the conversation open and positive, eventually coming back to a second offer.  Mind you this is just the way I did it because I like to sleep at night. Even if I couldn’t get them to budge after several attempts I always left my calling card in case they changed their mind, and then check back in with them for a friendly hello from time to time.  Just a general chat with a casual reference to how much you still like the piece.  It’s sometimes worth it.   You can go back five or six times unsuccessfully and then be delighted one day to hear that they have decided to sell.  Picking with respect.

Not everybody works like this.  There are some hair raising stories of some legendary pickers especially from earlier days who were essentially bullies.   They would get in a house and aggressively brow beat the poor old couple until they would give in.  Picking using fear.

Like any human endeavor, with picking there is a light and a dark side.

It came with this topper

It came with this topper

Door knocking – picking from the source

cupboard found in back kitchen

cupboard found in back kitchen

People, including myself will refer to a day of going to shops, and other dealer and collector’s homes for the purpose of finding stock as “picking”, but the origins of the word “picker”, and the true meaning of the word “picking” more correctly refers to the activities of the foot soldiers of the antique trade.  The guy or gal who goes out, and “cold call” knocks on doors of people they do not know, in an attempt to buy from the source.  There is a technique to the process of door knocking which can be learned in theory, but the success of a “door knocker” is determined by personality, communication skills and an ability to be rejected over and over again without becoming morose.

The trick is to get inside. If you knock and after a pleasant good day simply ask if they have something for sale, most people will send you packing.  The trick is to engage in some casual conversation and let them get to know you a little before you ask about buying anything.  You need to develop trust.  One technique pickers use is to say that they are a hobby collector of old bottles just out for a drive and they thought you’d just drop by and ask if there might be any old bottles in the basement.   Who doesn’t have old bottles in the basement, so if you seem trustworthy enough you are in. Once down there you can look around and casually notice the old flat to the wall cupboard holding old preserves.  It’s best to start small.  Get them to sell you anything easy to part with. Offer them $10 for something you know is not worth more than $2, to start the process and a little enthusiasm, and you may come away with a full truck.  It sounds easy, but it’s not.  You knock on a heck of a lot of doors before there is even a slight hope of success.  A lot of people these days are not that happy to be disturbed, and if you go to the wrong place, it can even be dangerous.  You need nerve and a thick skin to be a picker.

she's rough but she's a survivor

she’s rough but she’s a survivor

When I started in the business over thirty years ago, there were many of these “door-knocking pickers”.  In Quebec, all the Antique distribution barns had several associated pickers who would head out each day, returning late with their finds. Some pickers developed long standing relationships and sold everything to the same person. Others, acted independently and would make the rounds. Meanwhile, the pickers from Ontario, seemed for the most part to work independently, making the rounds to dealer’s shops, but also turning up with their fresh picked stock at outdoor shows, and markets.  Times and attitudes have changed and now this type of picker is almost extinct.  Another endangered species which is moving quickly towards extinction.

But even thirty years ago, most of the great door to door picking was behind us.  You need to go back to the fifties and sixties to hear stories of the almost endless bounty those first door knockers could come up with.  Rural people, especially on the smaller, less prosperous farms saved everything.  New kitchen table in, save the old one in case you need it to butcher chicken’s on it one day, and so forth.  So, when those pioneer pickers would turn up with a pick-up truck, a smile, and a pocket full of cash, there was enthusiasm to sell them whatever they wanted.  No Antiques Roadshow to fill people’s heads with big ideas.  Here comes a guy who is willing to give me twenty bucks for that old table in the back of my barn. No problem. Here, let me help you load it.  There are even stories of pickers bringing along one of those shiny new, easy to clean Arbourite and chrome tables, and very kindly swapping for that nasty old eight foot pine harvest table that had come with the family from the old house.  It took a while, but eventually word got out after somebody went to town and looked in the windows of the antique shop. Then pickers had to work harder, and pay more.

used to hold old paint until it was found in a garage

used to hold old paint until it was found in a garage

Today, as I said, there is only a small fraction of these ground level pickers in our midst.  People are savvy, or they think they are, and somebody told them that old book was worth $1,000.   You may know that it’s worth $400 so you try to buy it for $300 from them. Good luck. That’s how it is today. Also, people don’t inherently trust one another anymore so if someone they don’t know comes up the driveway and knocks, they are just as likely to phone the security company as they are to answer.  Not to mention the price of gas.

There are some legendary picker’s stories out there, some which I will recall here in the future, but there are many, many more which have disappeared with the breed.  There’s still a few people around who could entertain you for hours with their picking recollections, but they are getting up there.  Best to ask them to tell you some stories soon before they forget.

picker's truck pulled up to an old northern farm

picker’s truck pulled up to an old northern farm

On buying a large collection of Quebec folk art

surrey and driver by  Albert Conrad Ranger, and documentaion

surrey and driver by
Albert Conrad Ranger, and documentation

Collectors collect, and then eventually die, and then most often it is up to the family to decide the fate of the collection.  In the cases were the subject of the collection is dear to the hearts of spouses and offspring things are dispersed within the family.  In other situations, no one is interested, and so it becomes the responsibility of the family to disperse that which had taken their loved one all those years to acquire. Sometimes collections get donated to a public institution for a tax write-off, sometimes it all goes to auction, and sometimes the preference is to sell it outright.

composition vegetale  by Yvonne Bolduc

composition vegetale
by Yvonne Bolduc

It was such a case when at the springtime Bowmanville show in 1999 we were approached by the wife of a well-known Quebec collector and given the sad news that he had suffered a sudden illness and died.  She came right to the point in suggesting that based on several happy past dealings she felt compelled to offer it to us first. We chose to believe her.

muscleman by Leo Fournier

muscleman by
Leo Fournier

She was only interested in selling it all outright, with no picking or choosing. She pointed out that her husband had kept meticulous records on the purchase of all the pieces and realizing the nature of being in business she would be content to recover 50% of the money spent.  It sounded reasonable but we had no idea how large a collection it was, or just what we were talking about.  We knew and respected the taste of the collector, so in spite of the fact that we had just spent a lot of money a few months earlier to buy the Ewald Rentz collection, we told her we were interested and to please send us the pictures and information she had. She warned us that she was busy with other things and that it would be awhile.

About six months later as we beginning to wonder if something had happened, we received a package which contained photographs and information on the 164 items that made up the collection.  There was a package of rolodex cards which carefully listed where and when each piece was bought, and any notes he had about the carver. It was all quite interesting, and at times downright wonderful stuff.  Many pieces by known contemporary artists such as Leo Fournier, J.C. Labreque, Magella Normand, Robert Paradis, etc. but also a lot of older, hard to come by pieces such as a composition vegetale by the highly -regarded Yvonne Bolduc of Baie St. Paul, Quebec. An absolutely stunning surrey and driver made in 1970 by Albert Conrad Ranger (1894- 1973).

a group of the last carvings by Rosario Gautier

a group of the last carvings by
Rosario Gautier

The last 19 pieces created by Rosario Gautier (1914-1994), a primitive master from Lac St. Jean, Quebec. There were 5 wonderful lamps by the previously unknown to us Adelard Patenaude.   Also included were several early carved candle sticks and wall shelves which we knew would fly off the shelves.  The most interesting, but also potentially problematic was a collection of 12 Quebec crucifix of various age. I sense that today these might find a lot of interest, but in 1999 it was hard to sell a crucifix out of Quebec. We knew of only a couple of collectors.  The notes recorded that he had spent a total of about $38,000, so we are not talking pocket change.  Still, when we went through the list assigning modest retail prices, the value was there, so we decided to take the plunge.

one of 5 finely carved pieces by Leo Laramee

one of 5 finely carved pieces by
Leo Laramee

When you take into consideration the hours and the dedication it takes to build a large collection, to be able to buy it all at once at a good price is an attractive proposition; provided you relate to the sensibility of the collector, and there is an active market to sell it in.   That was the case for this collection in 1999.  Quebec was and remains home to many knowledgeable and dedicated collectors of it’s past, and it’s art.   Most everything sold quickly, and the rest in due course.  Even the crucifix sold, although to be accurate the lot sold to the one collector we knew would be interested.  Had he not gone for it, it may have been a different story.

one of 12 Quebec crucifix  by an unknown carver,circa 1900

one of 12 Quebec crucifix figures
by an unknown carver,circa 1900

Frozen hard boiled eggs – Recollections of Quebec in the winter

nice day for a buggy ride in old Quebec

nice day for a buggy ride in old Quebec

It is December 1st and we are still enjoying mild temperatures and no snow here in Port Dover on the “south coast” of Ontario, which is how they promote the region around here.  In actuality, it is not a coast at all but rather the north shore of Lake Erie.  You need an ocean to have a coast, and I bring this up because I am not about supporting the deterioration of the language. In any case, the forecast is for temperatures to drop at the weekend to normal values and then if we believe what we are told we are in for a rough winter.  I was looking at the old Bell line van pictured at the top of every blog and thinking about how cold I used to get traveling in that van to Quebec in the winter.winter1

I did my best to fit trips in between snow events, but it goes to say that when you are back and forth every couple of weeks you are going to get caught.  I can remember white outs on the four lane #20 highway when looking out the windshield was like looking into a snow globe. Everything is white snow swirling and dancing in the headlights; everything is hypnotic and there is no hint of an edge to the road, or white line to guide you.  You are lost, and afraid to stop for fear that a transport will run straight over you, but also afraid to pull over because you have no idea where the highway ends and the ditch begins. A total white knuckle scenario which lasts for minutes that feels like hours.

You know those “bridge freezes over before highway” signs you sometimes see on northern bridges.  Well I can attest to that being true.  Late one December night I headed through Montreal, and on to the south shore with the temperature dropping steadily, and the rain starting to glaze up and turn to snow. By the time I reach the Drummondville bridge it was cold enough that indeed the road before the bridge was fine, but the second I hit the bridge that big old truck thought itself a figure skater and decided to pirouette the entire length of the bridge, spinning gracefully all the way across until it hit the dry pavement on the far end, and miraculously I had completed a turn and  the wheels were aligned so I just stabilized and kept going as if nothing had happened.  Good thing I bring a change of underwear.winter6

Another time when I picked up Jeanine at Mirabelle airport after her spending a few weeks in France, we were so happy to see each other and getting caught up that we hardly noticed the ever increasing magnitude of the snow storm which was coming in.  It just kept getting heavier and heavier but we continued to crawl along in the tracks of the transport ahead of us. We made it like this as far as the Ontario boarder before the front bumper of the van was literally plowing snow and that’s when we decided to call it a night.

The old Bell line van held a lot of gear and you could rely on the 350 Chevy engine to start and get you there and back, but the body wasn’t built for traveling for a long time in sub- zero weather, with it’s non insulated sliding side doors. It was meant to be a delivery van after all   I would wrap up in long johns, two pairs of pants, a pair of insulated cover-alls, and a blanket over my legs but even with the heater blasting full it could get damn cold.  I remember one -30 degree morning when surprisingly the engine fired up after turning over so slowly you would think it was being hand cranked.  After leaving it to heat up for 15 minutes I set off to get on with my day of visiting the picker’s barns with my lunch box on the engine cover.  I got hungry about an hour later and decided to have a hard- boiled egg, only to find that it was frozen as hard as a rock.  It’s amazing what you will put up with when you are young and have lots of blood flowing through your veins.  I could not believe the feeling of absolute luxury when the old van finally died and I started traveling in a pick-up truck.  What was I thinking?winter5

Of course the flip side to this potential discomfort and hardship is just how wonderful and special it is to be in Quebec on a , crisp sunny morning with the snow piled as high as the rooftops. Quebec city in particular is absolutely magical in the winter. To look out your hotel window and see the people below hustling along narrow paths between buildings, with every other inch of space being covered with deep,deep snow is unforgettable, and quintessentially Canadian. “”Mon pays, c’est l’hiver” or “My country. It is winter” is more than a popular Quebec expression. It’s a concept to understand and cherish.

I leave you with one last recollection. That of the Northern lights dancing magnificently overhead as I drive the lonely distance between Quebec city and Trois Riviere late at night listening to the CBC, and thinking about what my loved ones were doing at home.  Loving what I was experiencing with the light show and all, but also thinking about my family and bed and wishing I was home.  winter4

Breakfast in Quebec

One thing that I look forward to when on the road, especially in Quebec, is having breakfast at a little, local restaurant.   Typically, we look for the mom and pop place in a small town with a lot of cars in the parking lot.  That’s a sure sign because the locals know best. I love walking into a lively room full of morning light and people, talking, laughing, and generally getting on with things.  It’s that happy time when you are full of hope and energy before the day has a chance to complicate things and wear you down.  It’s all about that first cup of coffee, filling that empty stomach, and getting your communication skills working.  In Quebec, on a good day, these places are full of noise and merriment, and most often delicious food.

At least I can now by Creton at our local Food Basics

At least I can now buy Creton at our local Food Basics

I like to go with the traditional Quebec big breakfast, a couple of eggs, sausage, toast, baked beans, and a little container full of Creton.  What is Creton you may ask.  Well it’s basically pork fat mixed with bread crumbs, and a little onion and spice, and it is delicious spread on toast. Just the thing if you are going to go out in sub- zero weather to cut down trees.  Maybe a few more calories than you need to drive around and search out antiques, but a great way to start the day none the less. I know a lot of people at this point are crying out “cholesterol alert”, but I have a well-researched theory that a small amount of this type of heavy fat is actually good for you. The operative word being a “small” amount, and provided you are active enough to burn it off. Because you are satiated it cuts down on snacking, and your stomach recognizes the fat and puts out the proper enzymes to digest it. Something that doesn’t happen with “low fat” foods, most of which are filled with dangerous chemicals.  But I digress.

I also love that a lot of these places, although clean, have not been professionally decorated or modernized.   It is one of my greatest pleasures to sit, sipping my coffee, anticipating my food and just taking in the local scene.  Randomly tuning in on conversations of people you do not know and will never see again makes me feel energized, and connected. At one with the world.

When on an antique hunt you are basically driving from place to place, and walking through barns with occasional moments of lifting and loading.  So after a big breakfast we then go through the day snacking on things out of a cooler we bring along.  This is not only cost saving but satisfying because even the little grocery stores in Quebec have a wonderful selection of fruits, bread, meats and cheese that can be munched on between stops, or if we feel like a break at a rest stop.  Not to forget those little packages of delicious cheese curds left out on the counter of almost every little country variety so that they are the right temperature to get every little bit of “squeaky” texture and flavor out. This was then.  I hear that now the powers that be have forced the store owners to refrigerate for fear of us becoming sick. Ridiculous. It takes days for curds to go bad.  It’s like buttermilk.  You can leave it out on the counter and it just continues to be buttermilk for days.  The restrictions on raw milk cheese are also ridiculous,  but don’t get me started.

Finally, at the end of the day it was our pleasure to drive around and seek out a simple meal at some place that looked good and not too expensive. Now days we do a little trip advisor research in advance.  It works and saves some gas, but it takes some of the fun out of it.  Over the years we have found our favourite spots and we look forward to revisiting them.

Eventually we took to carrying two coolers, one for the day to day use, and one for bringing back all the products that we discovered and came to love, and can find only in Quebec.

We always make our first stop at a little place on L’Isle Perrot when coming into Montreal on Highway 20.  It used to be a dairy Freeze but then one happy day it became Smoke Meat Pete.  Their slogan is “you can’t beat Pete’s meat” and I heartily agree.  Pete smokes his own, and it is super delicious.  Second only to Schwartz’s in Montreal and even that may be because Schwartz has the advantage of being the traditional favourite.  We always arrive hungry.  Have a huge sandwich, and leave super full with a big brisket in the cooler to take home.  Yes, gratefully they sell full briskets to go.

Jeanine, full and happy leaving Smoke Meat Pete's

Jeanine, full and happy leaving Smoke Meat Pete’s

Next on the tour near the picturesque town of Knowlton lies the giant Lac Brome duck producers.  A great source for packaged duck confit legs.  Duck confit is a traditional food from Jeanine’s home in the south/west of France and is one of our favourite things, so we usually buy ten or twelve packages containing two legs each, and put them in the freezer when we get home.

Then it’s a short drive over to  the Abbaye De St-Benoit-Du-Lac, a picturesque monastery on the top of a hill which produces and sells many award winning cheeses.  Nearby Magog has a couple of excellent bakeries and specialty shops.  You can buy every kind of pate imaginable from rabbit and duck, to elk and you name it.  In Magog you can buy over a dozen types of pates while here in rural Ontario you are lucky to find anything other than a basic pork pate with pepper corns.  Why is this?

Once while doing the Eastman show we found out about a little bakery about six kilometers south of town on Rte 12 that is locally famous for making the most delicious tourtiere you will ever encounter, and the clincher is they sell them for between $12 to $16 each depending on the type.  We put as many as we can cram into the cooler for freezing back home. Excellent.

When you think of Quebec food, you may think of meat pies, baked beans, poutine, sugar pie and those $2“vapor” hotdog stands with those funny little buns, but increasingly you must also think of world standard cheeses, meats and produce.  All this talk is making me hungry.  It’s time for me to wrap this baby up and go downstairs, and make myself a sandwich. Bon Appetit.food1