September 23, 2015

Autumn Outing: Apple Orchards in Saint-Joseph-du-Lac, QC

Despite being mere weeks from my due date, I couldn't resist a prepartum venture to the apple orchards. Fall is just glorious here in Québec, and since I'll be a lactating zombie throughout October I saw apples in September as my last prematernal hurrah. My checklist was simple: doughnuts, cider, within an hour away.

Let me just say that local agrotourism is something that Québec does extremely well. Even before moving to Montréal, we were highly impressed with the top-down promotion of all sorts of local agriculturalists. In the rural county where we first lived, sign posts abounded along the roadsides, guiding any willing traveller along the Chemin du terroir. This scenic route meanders across the countryside and directs you to fromageries, sugar shacks, apiaries, chocolateries, vineyards, boulangeries--any and every small, local agroproducer. Illustrated fold-out maps of the Chemin du terroir are easy to come by, depicting highlighted stops and a bird's-eye overview of the route. Bryan spoiled me last year by taking me for an early birthday ride along it, and we were delighted to have unintentionally rambled upon it again in this fall's search for orchards.

Not even 45 minutes from Montréal, we ventured to Saint-Joseph-du-Lac, a picturesque town nestled among the Laurentian mountains whose orchard-to-inhabitant ratio is just ridiculous. In this self-proclaimed apple country, we found nearly a dozen easily accessible you-pick apple orchards open to the public, all right off the road and within 10 miles of the highway.

Since our excursion happened in early September, only a few varieties of apple were ready. Cider was being freshly pressed from Paula Reds and other early bloomers but lacked the super sweet taste that I prefer. When you've spent the last 10 months kicking yourself for having run out of cider, that's a pretty big bummer. With baby on the way, this was the apple trip of the year: we're hesitant to venture that far from Montréal any later in the month with baby's due date looming large. That meaning that I didn't check cider off of my list this year.

Even though our apple visit was early in the season, we gleaned some new information that will help guide our future orchard excursions. Orchard employees explained that the more sweet Honeycrisp variety is in season closer to the middle of September, giving us a better idea of how to time next year's visit. Turns out that last year's end-of-September outing was perfectly timed for both my preference in cider and for Indian summer sight seeing. Whether late September or early October, my fall dreams for 2016 are already taking shape. Sweet cider, peak foliage, and warm fall sunshine would make for a perfect celebration of our little boy's first birthday.

While Léo Boutin's apple doughnuts remain untopped by this year's discoveries, we did have some noteworthy tastings in Saint-Joseph-du-Lac. For starters, Verger Lacroix & Cidrerie offered a fun selection of fall fast food at their on-site snack shop. Bryan and I both enjoyed their fried apple "doughnuts", apple slices generously coated in a sweet, thick batter and deep fried to perfection. I tried the gaufre aux pommes, too, but the supposed apple syrup was too much for even a sweet tooth like me (think thin corn syrup with food coloring and imitation apple flavoring), not to mention that the waffle was only a step above Eggo. I was hoping to try the barbotine aux pommes (apple slushie), but it wasn't available during our visit. Bryan enjoyed the freshly fried potato chips, even if we both got a chuckle out of his slider-sized pulled pork sandwich advertised as a "burger". If we make it back to Lacroix again, I think we'll forgo the rest of the menu in favor of those fried apple slices.

For those venturing out with little ones, a large plus to Lacroix is the family-friendly atmosphere: frequent tractor rides to picking spots in the orchards, an ample playground, small petting zoo, and climb-me hay bale display.

Further up the road we found Verger Lamarche via the Chantepom entrance. Tucked into the hillside, the orchard's storefront is nestled among the property's sugar bush making for a charming drive from the Chantepom loading site to the visitor center. While the apple doughnuts and cookies weren't worth remembering, the view across the Lamarche's orchards to the neighboring orchards in the valley below makes it worth the detour.

Our last stop in Saint-Joseph-du-Lac was at the Tarterie du Verger des Musiques. Little more than a roadside stand, this tiny open-air shop offered an assortment of apple pies and shelf-stable goods.

Resisting the standard option, I overlooked their tarts and chose instead their pain brioché aux pommes. This apple bread is now on my must list for fall! A sweet yeast bread swirled with cinnamon and topped with apple pieces, the sticky loaf reminded me of cinnamon bread.

It was a bit drier than I expected when cut into, but this firmer texture made for lovely French toast. The apple bread slices soaked up the egg-milk batter without falling apart, browning beautifully on the outside and retaining a soft, chewy interior rather than turning mushy.

If I can get my hands on another loaf, I'd love to try it in this apple French toast bake. I think it'd be equally lovely in bread pudding or simply toasted, buttered and paired with a sharp Vermont cheddar. Speaking of cheese, can you imagine the sweetness of apple and cinnamon paired with savory cheese and slightly salty ham in a croque monsieur? Maybe with some sweet raspberry servees à la Monte Cristo? It doesn't take much to capture a pregnant woman's culniary imagination!

Overall, Saint-Joseph-du-Lac was well worth the trip and gives last year's Montérégie expedition some tough competition. I can't help but feeling thankful for great memories in these special places especially as we prepare for the adventure of parenthood. Bon automne!

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