Aux Cantons

July 29, 2021

I pulled over next to the Ultramar fuel pumps in Ayer’s Cliff, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, the other day, to top up the oil in our car. Just then a big truck pulled up and the driver made hand gestures from his cab to say, ‘Hey, can you move, because I need to pull in here.” I hadn’t noticed the trucks-only diesel pumps behind the kiosk.

I moved. He pulled in. It was a milk truck: a gleaming stainless steel tank the length of several boxcars. I went over and chatted with the guy. He hauls milk from the farms in the Townships to the dairies in Montreal. His truck holds 37,000 litres of milk.

Let me say this: they have big milk trucks in Quebec.

The bounty of produits laitiers in that part of the province shone through a couple of days earlier, when our family stopped into the Coaticook Brewery for lunch. The waitress, friendly and efficient, brought our daughter a poutine with cheese curds the size of golf balls. (I had a fresh mozzarella ball the size of a baseball, drizzled in pesto and accompanied by tangy, chewy bread).

How fresh were the cheese curds on the poutine? How squeaky? Well, let’s put it this way: the Coaticook dairy is right across the street. When we bit into the cheese curds, they heard their squeak in Rimouski. The five people at the table were not sufficient manpower (mouth power?) to finish that poutine.

Beer and cheese: what could go wrong? Add to it Le Devoir, a broadsheet newspaper of meticulous design and a refreshing focus on the environment. Le Devoir produced a series of articles over several days about how Ottawa had actually permitted higher concentrations of the herbicide glyphosate (i.e. Roundup) in grains and beans grown in Canada. NOt the sort of story you would read on the front page of a newspaper in Ontario.

Did the daily rain dampen our holiday? Not really; the rain increased the verdant green  beauty of the scenery. Plus I found a window2 of dry weather long enough to pick a basket of blueberries; the family together picked a big tub of wild raspberries. My partner grooved on the packaging in the grocery stores; Quebec products truly feature imaginative design.

Quebec has a spring in its step. Everywhere we saw “help wanted” signs; The Gazette, my old employer, wrote a two-page Saturday spread on Quebec’s labour shortage, reporting close to 200,000 jobs listed as vacant. On the highway we saw a billboard for factory jobs, $25 an hour.

Quebec’s emergence from the pandemic added to the festive atmosphere. At the Brasserie St. Michel in Magog, the Maitre D warned me that the kitchen was backed up at supper time. A long-haired crooner on stage on the patio, who’d been around, made good use of his guitar and synthesiser, to help us pass the time. I ordered mussels and the waitress told me,”C’est parti, mon Kiki!” The mussels arrived fairly promptly.

The pandemic restricts travel overseas. Nice to have a place a day’s drive from home that feels pretty exotic, and get a warm, cheesy welcome.