Moveable Feast - Ski Mag

Moveable Feast

Travel
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Jacques Olek, a Montreal mountaineer and photographer, looks out his office window and watches cars with ski racks and American plates rush past, heading north. He shakes his head with the same look of sad amusement that came over him when his daughter was young and smeared good Camembert in her hair. Why, he wonders, do they travel extra hours to Tremblant, a place he calls "a small Hollywood," bypassing the exquisite food, trails and ambience of Canada's Eastern Townships? Not that he minds, really. Like many Montrealers, he prefers to keep the region to himself.

In Newton, Mass., Sophie Crane has similar thoughts. Sophie is 14 years old, a freshman in high school. She's also a serious gastronome. She has eaten at famous restaurants in Paris, Boston and New York. She never misses an issue of Saveur or CooksIllustrated. After soccer practice, she might come home, dump her backpack, and get to work on a new recipe for crème brulée. Her favorite place to ski in North America? The Eastern Townships. She says it's like driving four hours to the south of France.

Most Eastern skiers never cross the Canadian border, and those who do mostly drive three hours farther northwest to the polished slopes and shiny glamour of Tremblant. "Tremblant has many charms, and it gets all the publicity," one Montrealer tells me, "but the Eastern Townships are true Quebec."

Known to the Quebecois as les Cantons de l'Est, the Eastern Townships lie just across the border from Vermont and New Hampshire. Many local settlements were founded after the Revolutionary War by Loyalists, installed by the English to serve as a buffer between the rebellious Americans and the conquered Quebecois. The area is studded with old English architecture, and local towns bear such names as Bedford, Bolton and Hereford. Locals here are more likely to speak English than folks in other parts of the province, though French-speakers do outnumber anglophones, in large part because of their bigger families; they call this "revenge of the cradle."[pagebreak]

Or perhaps it's the triumph. The region exhibits all that's great about France: love of skiing, world-class cheeses, immaculate décor and little places like The Owl's Bread, where the all-butter fruit tarts will make you think you're sitting in a cafe in Montparnasse. Unlike their counterparts in France, however, the clerks at the Mont Sutton ticket desk are almost guaranteed to smile and greet you with "Bonjour! Hi!"Sophie Crane and her family, whom I met on my visit last winter, first came to the Townships for a summer bike trip. They found it beautiful, close, undiscovered and refreshingly inexpensive. As they rode and sampled artisan breads, small-farm cheeses and hard cider made by monks, they also noticed the ski areas encircling Lake Memphremagog. None of the three biggest—Owl's Head, overlooking the lake; Mont Sutton, half an hour's drive to its west; and Mont Orford, 45 minutes north at the top of the lake—are as tall as Tremblant. All have vertical drops of less than 1,800 feet. But together they are like a meal made up not of one massive entree, but of many delicious appetizers.

Owl's Head, just a few miles north of the U.S. border, will appeal to those who remember a simpler time. And it's a bargain. Four people sharing an apartment at the on-mountain inn pay just $25 each for breakfast, dinner and lodging, and weekday tickets can cost as little as $12.

"Howl's Ed," as the locals pronounce it, also offers towering views of 27-mile-long Lake Memphremagog, which straddles the border between Canada and Vermont—a geographical quirk that made it a boon to Prohibition-era rum runners. From the Lilly's Leap trail, named for a famous fall suffered by the wife of Owl's Head's owner, you can see across the ice-covered lake to the granite towers of the Saint Benoit du Lac Abbey, where monks not only perform Masses in Gregorian chant but make an award-winning blue cheese as well. An island in the midd of the lake looks as though it's been buzzed across its length by giant sheep shears. That's the border.[pagebreak]

One Owl's Head ski instructor drives 10 hours to work from New Jersey every weekend, past a dozen bigger resorts, which just goes to show what some people will do for a decent croissant. "It's not about croissants," insists Ken Rourke-Frew, a former Montreal resident who enjoyed a more manageable two-hour commute to Owl's Head. "It's like one of those old-fashioned ski clubs when people had their meals together."North of the lake and not far from the fabulous little resort town of North Hatley, Mont Orford stands in the center of the National Parc du Mont Orford. It's the slickest ski area in the Townships, boasting the best snowmaking, longest runs—even a hybrid six-passenger chair and gondola on the same cable. Consider, moreover, that in the otherwise ordinary baselodge, you can sit down to a plate of raclette, that exquisite French-Swiss cheese dish that puts mere fondue to shame, for about what you'd pay for a heat-lamp burger south of the border.

Orford is close enough to Montreal (about 70 miles) that on a weekday visit, a group of students fills the lodge with chatter. But because it's also surrounded by protected forest, I spend a few hours sliding and gliding through the woods on skinny skis. Hunting is banned in the park, so the local wildlife is unnaturally fearless. I spend half an hour during one jaunt staring at six whitetail deer as they chew beech buds, about as concerned with my presence as they are with the squirrels nattering in the trees overhead.

Nearby Mont Sutton, meanwhile, is a resort that proves Mark Twain's adage about lies, damn lies and statistics. The mountain has a roughly 1,500-vertical-foot rise, and its trails drop from a long, slanting ridge. But because nobody skis from the eastern summit to the western outrun at the base, a typical run drops only about 1,000 vertical feet, making Sutton appear to be one of those mountains where the ride up is longer than the ski down.

Let appearances deceive, though, because that'll leave more space for those who know better. The truth is that Mont Sutton skis big. For days I scratch my head, trying to figure out why I'm having such a blast when the numbers say I ought to be bored enough to take up knitting. One reason, I finally conclude, is that most of the runs flow like rivers, not highways. They twist through glades and around islands of trees, demanding more work—and ultimately providing more pleasure.[pagebreak]

Sutton is suited to skiers of all abilities, but the upper, eastern side of the ridge snakes with sous bois (glades), tree-studded steeps and ungroomed double fall lines so challenging I have to stop several times to catch my breath. Bou-bou, a moguled, winding double-diamond, lures me between boulders with lines in places no wider than a sidewalk.

Mont Sutton lacks many of the less pleasant aspects of other ski areas—including crowds. Even during a school-vacation week, I ride lifts that are half empty. All the birches, beeches and firs also make Sutton particularly beautiful and, when four inches of fluff fall each night for a week, almost ridiculously perfect. This is a resort where you meet people as you stand on the edge of a trail watching a porcupine munch bark in the crook of a beech. In fact, this is precisely where I first meet Sophie Crane and her family.

Sophie's 18-year-old brother, Will, tends to be the jaded one, but even he reluctantly admits that Sutton's challenge has kept him interested. "You feel like you're on an actual mountain," he says, "not a tilted white parking lot."

But what really earns the adoration of visiting skiers like the Cranes is that at midday, they can drive a few minutes from Mont Sutton to the village for a luncheon of sea bass and citrus risotto at the Café Mocador. The food is so good, says Sophie's mother,Violet, that "we've got to be strategic about our meals." Not that it's easy. While rooms at Le St-Amour, a local B&B, start at only about $80, breakfast begins with a buffet that the fussiest Vermont inn would be hard-pressed to match: yogurt, raspberries, croissants warm from the oven, a cheese plate of Sir Laurier, St. Andre and blooming-rind chèvre. The chef and owner, Pierre Tétreault, circulates in his whites, offering guests poached eggs with wild mushrooms and parmesan.

The dish, when it comes, consists of one poached egg—quality, not quantity, is the secret to why the French so famously don't get fat—atop baguette toast with watercress and a wild-mushroom cheese sauce. Violet, a psychiatrist given to the florid praise of food, calls it "a simple masterpiece that celebrates the glory of being alive." We try to restrain ourselves at lunch, but it's tough to pass up either the bargain bistro fare at Mocador or the crusty breads, local duck paté and more than three dozen Quebec-made cheeses at Sutton's brilliant La Rumeur Affamée.

After big days of skiing, I eat excellent four-course meals at the Auberge Quilliams on the shore of Lake Brome, and at the two top-notch inns in North Hatley, Auberge Hatley and the Hovey Manor.

One night, I join the Cranes at an unassuming bistro in North Hatley called Café Massawippi. When the bread arrives—homemade salted-herb buns and slices of flat, buoyant tomato fougasse—we know we're in the right place. The soup, a velouté of wild game and coconut milk the color of cappuccino, is light, airy and smoky as a campfire.

The rack of lamb in honey-caper sauce, cajun scallops on rolled slices of bulgur and vegetables, caramel mousse cake on dark-chocolate crust with cocoa sorbet, an orange marmalade crème brulée—everything we order is surpassingly great.

The next morning, as we buckle our ski boots to head out for another day of powder at Mont Sutton, the Cranes are still talking about dinner. "The kind of meal we had last night changes your whole outlook on life," says Violet. "It makes you almost forgive your enemies.

It makes you want to send a gloating postcard to someone special. It makes you want to move closer... It makes you want to have the chef's baby," she finally concludes. "And it makes it a lot harder," adds Sophie, "to go back home."

October 2005gic about our meals." Not that it's easy. While rooms at Le St-Amour, a local B&B, start at only about $80, breakfast begins with a buffet that the fussiest Vermont inn would be hard-pressed to match: yogurt, raspberries, croissants warm from the oven, a cheese plate of Sir Laurier, St. Andre and blooming-rind chèvre. The chef and owner, Pierre Tétreault, circulates in his whites, offering guests poached eggs with wild mushrooms and parmesan.

The dish, when it comes, consists of one poached egg—quality, not quantity, is the secret to why the French so famously don't get fat—atop baguette toast with watercress and a wild-mushroom cheese sauce. Violet, a psychiatrist given to the florid praise of food, calls it "a simple masterpiece that celebrates the glory of being alive." We try to restrain ourselves at lunch, but it's tough to pass up either the bargain bistro fare at Mocador or the crusty breads, local duck paté and more than three dozen Quebec-made cheeses at Sutton's brilliant La Rumeur Affamée.

After big days of skiing, I eat excellent four-course meals at the Auberge Quilliams on the shore of Lake Brome, and at the two top-notch inns in North Hatley, Auberge Hatley and the Hovey Manor.

One night, I join the Cranes at an unassuming bistro in North Hatley called Café Massawippi. When the bread arrives—homemade salted-herb buns and slices of flat, buoyant tomato fougasse—we know we're in the right place. The soup, a velouté of wild game and coconut milk the color of cappuccino, is light, airy and smoky as a campfire.

The rack of lamb in honey-caper sauce, cajun scallops on rolled slices of bulgur and vegetables, caramel mousse cake on dark-chocolate crust with cocoa sorbet, an orange marmalade crème brulée—everything we order is surpassingly great.

The next morning, as we buckle our ski boots to head out for another day of powder at Mont Sutton, the Cranes are still talking about dinner. "The kind of meal we had last night changes your whole outlook on life," says Violet. "It makes you almost forgive your enemies.

It makes you want to send a gloating postcard to someone special. It makes you want to move closer... It makes you want to have the chef's baby," she finally concludes. "And it makes it a lot harder," adds Sophie, "to go back home."

October 2005

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