Discovering the stash

Most people are happy enough to keep their money in the bank but some folks, be it because they have lived through a time of bank failures, or shortages such as the war; or just because they have a general mistrust of institutions, and prefer to keep their money in their sock:  Or hidden in a cupboard, or buried in the back yard, etc.  People can be very imaginative when it comes to squirreling away money.

We live in Norfolk county, where if you ask around, you will hear lots of stories of lost and found money. This is perhaps due to the large contingent of Belgian, Dutch, and other European farmers who immigrated here to develop the tobacco industry. A lot of these people had experienced unstable financial times. Or maybe it’s the same everywhere.

Friends who bought a local farm decided to wash and put back the existing curtains, only to find that when they opened the washing machine to add softener, the drum was full of curtains and floating money.  The old couple had sewn hundreds of dollars into the hem of the curtains.  They had died without telling anyone.  Thus it was just dumb luck which averted their fortune being thrown into the dumpster.  I know a family that spent weeks digging up the back yard when they realized that dear old dad, before the Alzheimer’s had set in, had been burying money in canning jars back there over the years.   It makes you wonder how much money is swept away and forgotten.  The problem with secrets is that they are quite often buried with their creators.

It was on a late fall trip to the pickers barns in Quebec in the early nineties that I had my brush with dumb luck.  I was solo on a quick two day, there and back run to pick up more stock for the then active Harbourfront Antique market in Toronto.  During this period I would often leave our house at 4 a.m. make the ten hour drive to Victoriaville; then see three or four pickers that afternoon and evening before crashing.  In the morning I would make a few more stops before heading home about noon, which meant I would arrive home  about 2 or 3 a.m. if all went well.

On this particular trip I ran into some particularly nice western furniture at the barn of Alan Chauvette.  It turns out that the rumors were true.  One of the local pickers had family in Manitoba, and in spite of not speaking much English, he had returned home with a huge load of western pieces.  Many interesting  Ukrainian and Dukhobor pieces as well as furniture from early French  settler’s homes.  I bought five or six excellent cupboards, and chests,  feeling happy to have arrived at the right moment to have a crack at it.  I also spent a lot of money. More than I had budgeted.  Jeanine has always kept the books, (thank goodness as I am a disaster), and my method was to simply spend all the money I had, and write a couple of cheques if necessary.  I didn’t keep a running balance, but had an intuitive sense of when to stop.  Well, I threw that sense right out the window this time, for the opportunity to buy some good Western pieces. I knew I was pushing it.  We kept a tight operating budget in those days, so if we didn’t want to dip into savings  a big buying trip meant I really had to have a good Sunday at the market.   I wasn’t sure how, but I knew it would work out.

Phil with Marcel Gosselin

I was feeling pretty satiated when I arrived at picker Marcel Gosselin’s barn about 10 a.m. as a last stop before returning home.  I was still picking up a half dozen stoneware wash sets from him every trip, because they were still popular at the market and he was still finding lots of them. He was also my source for Aime Desmeulle’s folk art, which was selling well at the time.  As I finished filling in the last remaining little spaces in the load with smalls, I was about to write the cheque when Marcel piped in “Are you sure that’s all Phil? I’ll sell you that small cottage chest for $175.  You know you’ll get about $400 for it.”  It was a tidy, little 4 drawer pine cottage chest from Nova Scotia which were very popular at the time.  I looked at my full truck and thought about the cheque book.  “Thanks for the offer Marcel, but look, I don’t have room for it.”  The load was already well above my racks. “ Look there Phil, on the right side of your tailgate.  I can put it on its side and tie it on right up there.”  Sure enough, I could see he was right. “O.K. Marcel, throw it on and give me the total.”

I got home very late, and went straight to bed.    Next morning, going into the kitchen for coffee, there sat Jeanine looking at the cheque book, and looking worried.   “I understand this was a great opportunity, but it’s going to have to be one heck of a good market on Sunday, or we’re going to have to dip into the savings to cover ourselves.”

By the time we got all the wonderful pieces upstairs we were feeling good about it, even if it meant cutting it close.   We still have a wonderful four colour Ukrainian  sideboard from that load that I fell in love with while scraping it down.  We had a good dinner,  and I decided to go upstairs to look over the stuff one more time before hitting the sack.  I was excited by the pieces, but also feeling concerned about so completely blowing the budget. I continued to open the cupboards to inspect the interiors, and  when I finally came to the little pine chest I had bought from Marcel, I opened the top drawer to see how well it travelled in and out. What’s this?   I was amazed to see a small plastic wallet lying there in the middle of the drawer.  How did that get there?  It wasn’t there when I looked at it in Quebec.  Then I remembered that we had put the drawer on it’s side to fit it into the load, and sure enough, when I felt up inside under the top, someone had built a little open shelf up there.  The wallet was full of crisp, old issue Canadian cash.  $1,300 in all.   I couldn’t believe the luck.  I could easily imagine that had I continued to carry it upright I would have sold it  full of cash as it were, and maybe even then it would go into a home upright,  and never be discovered.

Jeanine was having one last coffee before going to bed.  Yes, she can do that. She looked puzzled when I handed her the little wallet.  “ I know you are concerned that I spent so much, and I thought this may help”.  It took her awhile to believe my story, and our good fortune.

When I saw Marcel a week later, he was surprised when I shoved a folded hundred in his shirt pocket.  “What’s this for?”

“Never mind.  Just take it and don’t ask any questions.”

Nova Scotia or bust

One summer, back in the late nineties we decided to take a quick trip eastward combining some antique picking and vacation activities as a fun time together with our daughter Cassandra before she left high school to go to university.  The objective was to have no specific plan, and wander eastward as we saw fit buying along the way, with the ultimate goal of reaching Nova Scotia.  Even if we didn’t have the time on this trip to explore further once we got there. We put about $4,000 in an envelope for purchases, packed out bags and food hamper into a full size cargo van we borrowed from our son Brodie, leaving him our pick-up to use while we were gone.  We were not looking for furniture on this trip, and felt it safer to leave our small sized purchases locked up inside a van at night.  We got a good, early start and made it to our regular stomping grounds around Victoriaville in time to do a quick circuit of the picker’s barns there before settling in for the night at our regular spot, the Motel Marie -Dan in St. Eulalie.  We didn’t buy much, wanting to save our money for buying in the previously untraveled regions to the east.

Day two, after a hearty breakfast we shot down #20 expressway past Quebec city until the village of St. Jean Port Jolie.  This pleasant little village on the banks of the St. Lawrence river is the home of the Bourgault brothers, who founded the “École de sculpture de Saint-Jean-Port-Joli” in 1940 with the support of the Quebec government.  The carvings became very popular with tourists and locals alike, and still today the village is chock a block with wood carvers.  To be honest although we greatly respect this form of carving, we were hoping to find  a unique folk artist more towards the lunatic fringe of the spectrum who might be hanging out there.   We had a great time looking at the museum and several shops but didn’t find what we were looking for.

After a nice lunch we made our way along the coast on the two lane Hwy # 132 past Riviere-du-Loup  as far as Trois Pistoles, a trip which would ordinarily take about an hour, but in our case took over four due to several stops at yard sales, markets, and shops. We hadn’t expected it, but we found a lot of wonderful stuff and by the time we stopped for a coffee in Trois Pistoles the cargo area of the van was almost full, and our envelope was over half empty.  We had a little conference, and thinking of Nova Scotia decided that instead of going further into the Gaspe we would turn back to Riviere-du-Loup, hang a left on Hwy #85 which becomes Hwy#2 as soon as you cross over into New Brunswick  and on a good day with steady driving will get you to Amherst, Nova Scotia in about eight and a half hours.  Our goal was to sleep in New Brunswick.

It was dark and raining by the time we had made our way past the endless forests of this part of Quebec and then we hit the construction.  On a 1 to 10 scale of “hairy” driving this was a solid eight. Pounding rain, mud, and lots of starting and stopping. We white knuckled it for about another hour and finally made it to Grand Falls, New Brunswick.  It was pushing ten o’clock, and we really needed to stop.  Turns out there was a convention in town and we were turned away at every motel, and feeling quite desperate before we got the advice that the only room we could get would be at a bed and breakfast in a recently converted old nunnery a few miles out of town.  We’re not big B and B fans but great.  We’ll take any port in this storm, and after a call ahead to confirm they had a room, we went off with the little hand drawn map we were provided.

The storm grew stronger, and the thunder and lightning more brutal, as we wound our way up into the surrounding hills, until there in a flash of lightning worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, the huge, old, Victorian Gothic Institution appeared, with a giant cross above the entrance;  and we drove up the hill and pulled into a parking space, wondering what we had gotten ourselves in to.

I can’t recall, but I’m sure we were greeted by a perfectly nice night attendant, although in my imagination he was someone akin to Igor.  We were lead down a long, dark, corridor to a pair of rooms which seemed to remain untouched from their former life.  I remember the institutional green walls and old steel beds.  They were small, and basic, but a blessing in our situation.  In bed, with the lights out, and the still frequent flashes of lightning and thunder I began to hear people moaning in the distance. It kinda freaked me out, but I had no desire to investigate.  I put the pillow over my ears and did my best to fall asleep.  It was a long night.

Next morning, we met Cassandra in the canteen, and after coffee and hot chocolate decided to get the heck out of there.  “Did you hear all that moaning” Cassandra said.  “It really freaked me out”.  “  “Me two.”  “Me three” said Jeanine.  We saw the caretaker on the way out, and he explained that it had become a B and B, slash old people’s home, and that some of the old dears were restless.  The place didn’t look all that spooky in the daylight.

In town, we sat in a little mom and pop restaurant, finishing breakfast and discussing our plan.  We had learned that the construction which we had only experienced about an hour of, continued for several more hours ahead as they were making the highway into a divided four lane.  Desperately need by this point especially with all the summer tourists.  We sat there for a while discussing our progress, and what lay ahead.  We were grateful for the use of Brodie’s van, but it was noisy and fairly uncomfortable.  We realized we had a full day of crappy driving ahead just to reach Nova Scotia, and then we would only have a couple of days to look around before heading back.  Then our conversation turned to how much we loved Quebec City, and we could be there by late afternoon if we turned back.  It was an easy decision for us.  We called our favorite, cheap hotel in old Quebec, Le Manoir des Remparts and made a reservation for three nights.   We had a wonderful time, and felt happy and relaxed on the twelve hour drive home.  Resolving to make it to Nova Scotia another time.  Perhaps, looking into air fares.

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

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

 

Lunch in St Eulalie

vue-aerienne-ste-eulalie Just as many of the dealers and pickers active in the Victoriaville area in the eighties would meet at the Esso Station across from Kojak’s place on the outskirts of town for breakfast;  the same bunch would  turn up for lunch at a trucker’s diner twenty miles away, on the north side of the big highway 20,  in a tiny place called St. Eulalie.  At lunch time the parking lot of this busy establishment would have from 6 to a dozen pickers trucks lined up, and typically you would find small groups of men checking out what was tied down there, and discussing the possibility of a transaction.  Most of these pickers were loyal to one or the other of the half dozen antique centers in the area, so they would not sell to you directly, but they may tell you where a piece was going and to whom you needed to  inquire about it.   There was always a lot of lively dialogue and laughing going on.  Tips, news and gossip in equal measure.  Sometimes you would witness heated arguments.  Eventually everyone would make their way inside, and take their favorite seat in the crowded dining room, and the talk continued.

I loved the scene.  If we were nearby at lunch time we would turn up there along with everyone else.  After checking  out the action in the parking lot, we would make our way inside  to order a lunch special, or sandwich, followed by a nice piece of sugar pie.  A Quebec delicacy that is as disgustingly sweet as it sounds, but it goes well with a cup of coffee and dialogue.12260907_4_z

It was always crowded with locals, and those who were travelling on the Grand Route 20, and the wait staff was plentiful and efficient. The joint was jumping.

I remember one sunny summer day in particular sitting in a booth looking out onto the parking lot with one of the main dealers of the area, and a good friend, Ben.  Ben was always smiling, and his sunny disposition rarely changed.  On this day however, we were sitting there peacefully having a coffee before ordering when he looked out the window, saw a man get out of his truck, and suddenly jumped up and said” I’ll be right back.”  I watched as he raced out the front door, crossed the parking lot, and went right up to the fellow, parking himself about an inch from his face; and then started yelling.  I could not hear the conversation but you could see that it was heated.  The intense conversation continued back and forth for another moment and then suddenly, bam, Ben hauls off and punches the guy in the face.  The guy falls back a couple of steps rubbing his chin A few more angry words are said, and then to my surprise both of them come together back into the restaurant and sit down at our booth.  “You didn’t have to hit me like that Ben.  I told you I was sorry about the deal.”  “I didn’t have to but I wanted to, and I told you that if you ever crossed me again like that, you’d pay for it.”  Well, o.k. I was wrong but I’ve apologized and now it’s water under the bridge, right?  “ Yes, but don’t you ever try to pull anything like that again.  You know I will find out about it and It’s no way to treat me after all the business we have done.”  “You’re right Ben. I’m sorry.”  After that it was all sweetness and light.  Pleasant conversation, jokes and eating a good meal together, as if nothing unpleasant had happened.  I realized then that the Quebec guys ran a little hotter than we do in Ontario, and they have ways of resolving differences that we wouldn’t consider.  I respected that they could be so open in expressing their feelings, and that  issues got resolved quickly, and then they moved on.  Still, I made a mental note to avoid pissing off Ben.15798173115_46487d98c9

I cannot remember the name of the place.  It was something  generic like Voyager’s Inn or the like;  so I went on to google map to see if I could see the sign out front.  I was shocked to discover that there is nothing there now save for the big paved parking lot and a lot of weeds.  The place must have burnt down.  It made me feel sad that if we were to go there now, we would have to discover where the new place to meet is,  if they are still even doing it, and it would surely not be the same.  That’s the problem with going back after so many years.  Everything changes and some things disappear.  Brings to mind Thomas Wolfe who so succinctly put it in his 1940 novel, “You can’t go home again.”facade-immeuble-commercial-a-vendre-ste-eulalie-quebec-province-large-592792

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