Friday, March 20, 2009

Gluten-free in the Gaspe

Travel is often an uncertain endeavor when it comes to dining gluten-free. This is especially true when outside of the country, in a place where English is not the dominant language (or spoken at all). It was with this degree of uncertainty that I recently traveled to Gaspesie, a region of Quebec, on assignment for several magazines.

The Gaspe is a peninsula in eastern Quebec, bordered by New Brunswick to the south, and the St. Lawrence Seaway and Atlantic Ocean to the north. Gaspesie - and most of Quebec, for that matter - is French-speaking. (Spanish is my primary second language. My French is poor, but slowly improving.) Prior to flying to the Gaspe, I brushed up on one crucial phrase: "Je ne peux pas manger gluten ou lactose." Translation: I cannot eat gluten or lactose.

As I discovered, the Gaspe has a rich culinary tradition and a pride of place that evidences itself in the abundance of local produce used in cooking. Given the proximity to the sea, it came as no surprise that fish and other seafood figure prominently. Tiger shrimp, scallops, snow crab. But the real local specialty is smoked Atlantic salmon. Every restaurant I visited served it on their menu. Many smoked the salmon themselves. Those that didn't sourced it from one of several esteemed local smokehouses, including Atkins et Freres, in Mont-Louis. I had their smoked's divine. I even went through the trouble of bringing some home to Colorado, packing it in ice as a carry on across three flights!

My trip began at the Gaspesiana, a motel in Saint Flaive where I spent the night before finishing my journey to the Chic-Chocs Mountains, the ultimate destination of this recent trip. The Gaspesiana was a simple motel whose restaurant serves exceptional food that far exceeds the expectation you have based on the exterior appearance of the building. My dinner of scallops and shrimp was very satisfying, and it was here that I had my first of many smoked salmon appetizers (and learned of Atkins et Frere).

The majority of my time was spent at the Gite du Mont-Albert, a high-end mountain lodge located in the heart of the Parc National de la Gaspesie. The dining room is open for guests and non-guests alike, and eating here was one of the genuine pleasures of my trip. First, the entire kitchen and server staff have been trained in food allergies, including gluten. In fact, one housekeeper at the Gite has Celiac Disease, and the restaurant receives three to four requests per week for gluten-free cuisine. They keep gluten-free bread on hand, baked at a boulangerie in Saint Anne des Monts, as well as a variety of Glutino brand crackers, cookies, and bars. In addition, the Gite went out of its way to have GF cereal and soy milk on-hand for my visit. Granted, I was openly there as a journalist, and so the Gite had a vested interested in making my stay the best it could be. But in observing other guests, I got the sense that my experience was what anyone could expect there.

Dinner was where the Gite du Mont-Albert really shined. A breadbasket of GF bread and crackers began the meal, followed by an appetizer - smoked salmon, salad with maple vinaigrette. The appetizer was then followed by a soup - carrot, broccoli. And then there were the entrees, which were truly divine - rabbit with shrimp, trout with chanterelle mushrooms, caribou, striped bass. Each meal was incredible, but the caribou deserves special mention. The animals are hunted by the Inuit in northern Quebec, and the meat is sold to restaurants like the Gite. The meat is lean and very tender, and a deep red almost to the point of purple, like elk. Because the caribou eat lichen, rather than vegetation, the meat doesn't have a gamy flavor. In fact, the caribou was one of the best wild game meats I've eaten anywhere.

Lastly, there were the desserts - GF cake with meringue, orange-mango sorbet with fresh fruit and a sugar and chocolate sculpture, you get the idea. I rattle off such a list not to brag and say, "Ooh, look at all the cool things I ate." But rather to show the range and diversity of gluten-free cuisine at the Gite. Director David Dubruiel said it best to me: "We want you to feel like a real guest here." The Gite doesn't want guests to have a compromised experience, and by my estimation, they succeed admirably.

Leaving the Gite behind, I traded in the luxury for very rustic accomodations at the Motel Mont Saint Pierre, which is located in a small coastal village of 215 people. Here, the proprietors had less knowledge about gluten specifically, but demonstrated an earnest desire to know what they could do to provide safe meals for me, and readily offered many suggestions, even if it meant a drastic departure from anything on their restaurant's menu. Beyond that, they were concerned with not just providing a GF meal, but with providing a well-rounded meal that would leave me satisfied.

In the end, I ate 3 meals a day for 7 straight days at restaurants. Not once did I get sick from gluten contamination. That is a streak I have yet to approach in the United States. Supermarkets typically had a small GF section. When it came to restaurants, in general I found a very high level of gluten awareness, and an earnest desire to meet the needs of customers like me with unique dietary needs. Going gluten-free in the Gaspe proved not only easy to do, but also very enjoyable. I hope your travels, wherever they take you, are filled with the same pleasures, whether in the Gaspe, or elsewhere.

- Pete

1 comment:

GFE--gluten free easily said...

Wow, Pete, that's a fantastic story of being fed so well gluten free! You could go on and on IMHO. I love reading about others' travels and, of course, the great GF foods you ate. I would have been in heaven eating that "divine" salmon and all the other seafood! BTW, I am one of those folks who loves reading restaurant reviews even if I know I'll never be able to go to to the particular restaurant. I just love it when you share these reviews. I'd love to go to this region. Your comments on the last place you stayed are really telling. It's the sincere desire to feed one safely and take care of them that matters the most. What a gift that is! I am so happy you had such a great, incident-free trip. :-)