The longtime Montreal Gazette staffer has parlayed her enthusiasm into "Made in Quebec: A Culinary Journey," a book that is in many ways the culmination of her own journey exploring the passions of farmers, purveyors, chefs and home cooks across the province.
"There's been such an improvement in the foods, the variety of vegetables, the way they're grown, the fruits, the meats, and I knew all this was going on and I knew that almost every region of Quebec had a really good restaurant with a young, well-trained Quebec-born chef, so I decided I would try to do 'what does Quebec eat today,'" explains Armstrong during a visit to Toronto.
"I went back to all the regions, so that's why the book took three years because you don't want to go to the Gaspe in the winter because all the good restaurants are shut. So that was how this one evolved, out of having been aware of the beat and knowing all the changes."
Armstrong's interest in the province's cuisine stemmed from a visit years ago to northern Quebec, where the transplanted Torontonian was sent by the Montreal Gazette to improve her French. While there, she lived in a private home.
"I discovered the variety that was a little different from the variety that was in Montreal, like how they make the tourtiere, how they make their pea soup, their craze for blueberries up in the Saguenay region where I was. I came back and persuaded the office to send me all over the province to do regional stories and it ran as a series, like what do the Gaspe people do with their tourtiere, what do the people down in the Charlevoix do with their tourtiere," she says.
"They were the original French recipes from the farms of northwestern France, but they'd been adapted because of the ingredients that the settlers found, so that was the first book I did, called 'A Taste of Quebec' (1990). And that opened my eyes to 'this is a fun territory.'"
In "Made in Quebec" (HarperCollins Canada), Armstrong has included 135 recipes, about two-thirds supplied by chefs, with a focus on using fresh foods.
To get the recipes, she trailed after a fiddlehead forager, visited sugar shacks, cheesemakers, bakers, fish plants and all kinds of farms, observing the raising of luscious strawberries, frisky lambs, deer and asparagus.
She profiles chefs, shows how people derive pleasure from gathering over a good meal, and details the history of such traditional Quebec foods as tourtiere, Montreal's famed smoked meat sandwich and bagels, and Quebec's celebrated poutine.
"I knew I wanted to put lots of reading into it. So it's full of anecdotes of people, which makes it fun to read. If you never cook you might have a good time and you might want to travel in Quebec," she says.
Quebec cooks believe in keeping their food traditions alive but aren't afraid to tweak traditional recipes, she says.
"For instance right now, the chefs all have improved tourtiere on their menus or a dish that their mother used to make and they've lightened it and made it better," Armstrong says.
"One of my chefs in here, (Montreal's) David Ferguson, has a lamb shank recipe. He worked for a while in New Mexico and Mexico and he likes to use hot peppers in what are really traditional French dishes. I love hearing about chefs adapting, making variations on a theme."
But Armstrong says Quebec cooks stay loyal to some ingredients.
"For instance, in the medieval period, they used to use brown flour, which our mothers would have made by putting it in the frying pan and browning it, but in Quebec there's a company that makes it," a tiny miller in the Lower St. Lawrence.
Salted herbs, sold commercially, are still used in various dishes, including hamburgers, pasta sauces and salad dressings. She includes a recipe in the book.
"If you ever see a dish coming out of Quebec that has the combination of cinnamon and cloves, those two seasonings, that comes right out of medieval France and that is in some of the desserts still," she says.
"I find these links with their past is intriguing."
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