Text and Photography by Bruce Richardson
Find la bonne vie in colorful Québec.
Have you dreamed of travelling to a region where everyone speaks French, dines alfresco at colorful café tables, and enjoys long walks in flower-filled parks with incredible river views? What if there were a fashionable salon de thé in nearly every neighborhood? While Paris has all that, there are similar idyllic settings much closer to home—Québec City and Montréal in Canada. And you won’t have to buy a transatlantic ticket to get there.
Both historic cities are on the Saint Lawrence River and can be easily combined into a weeklong excursion. A comfortable three-hour train ride whisks you west from Québec City to the underground rail station at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in the heart of Montréal. Once there, you won’t need a car because, like Paris, these are cities best explored on foot or via public transport.
Begin in Québec City, the enchanting Francophone capital of the province of Québec and one of the oldest cities in North America. This is the perfect place for a relaxing urban vacation flavored with French cuisine and a bit of la bonne vie (the good life). Daily strolls will take you past pâtisserie windows filled with fresh croissants and baguettes, as well as confectioneries with extravagant displays of handmade chocolates and colorful macarons.
Montréal is Québec City’s big brother and one of the world’s largest French-speaking cities, with some 1.7 million people. It is also a melting pot of cultures from the world over—as witnessed by its mosaic of ethnic neighborhoods and diverse cuisine.
Montréal, like Québec City, has preserved much of its historic past. Place Jacques-Cartier, next to City Hall, and Place d’Armes, right across from the glorious Notre Dame Basilica and its breathtaking interiors, are the absolute must-see spots in Old Montréal.
FAIRMONT LE CHATEAU FRONTENAC
1 rue des Carrières • Québec City
418-692-3861 • fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec/
Visitors to Paris may eye the top of the Eiffel Tower to gain their bearings, but travelers in Québec City scan the horizon for the iconic roofline of the splendid Fairmont Château Frontenac.
The Château Frontenac, with its copper roof, stone towers, and turrets, first opened its doors to guests in December 1893 and was immediately named one of the finest hotels in the world. Architect Bruce Price drew his influence from the chateaux in the Loire Valley of France. Originally comprising 170 rooms, today—thanks to several expansion projects and a recent renovation—the venerable structure boasts 613 newly restored guest rooms and suites.
Tea at the Château Frontenac has been a staple of the hotel’s reputation for more than a century. Although most of the events that marked the history of the hotel were festive occasions, one of the most important gatherings was the meeting of three Western allies during the height of World War II.
In August 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, United States President Franklin Roosevelt, and Canadian Prime Minister William Mackenzie took over the entire premises for a war summit that included more than 700 diplomats and staff. The regular routine of the hotel was greatly interrupted by extreme security, but the teatime ritual continued with full afternoon teas prepared for 200 each day at 4:00.
A great hotel cannot rest on its laurels and storied past. With the completion of the latest renovation and the hiring of Executive Chef Baptiste Peupion, the famed Château Frontenac is blowing the dust off traditional teatime. Chef Peupion held the position of Chef de Cuisine at the Shangri-La Hotel in Paris, and his new take on tea cuisine, drawing on European and Asian influences, is turning heads.
Traditional three-tiered silver pieces have been replaced by sleek arched glass servers, and porcelain teapots have given way to rounded chrome pots with wooden handles. These contemporary pots hold a bold new selection of teas designed by local tea purveyor Camellia Sinensis. This tea service is unlike any you will find at Fairmont Hotels across Canada. The Empress in Victoria gives a nod to the English, and the Fairmont Whistler blends a mixture of British and Canadian cuisine. But teatime at Château Frontenac is breaking new ground in the Americas as it pays homage to the Old World by blending the best of French and Chinese tea cultures in a new-world setting. That is exactly the role tea has played in world culture for centuries.
351 rue Émery • Montréal • 514-286-4002;
7010 Avenue Casgrain • Montréal • 514-271-4002;
624 rue Saint-Joseph Est • Québec City • 418-525-0247
Over the past 15 years, a talented quartet of Québec tea professionals has quietly composed one of North America’s most respected tea businesses with locations in both Montréal and Québec City. The genesis of their tea mecca began nearly two decades ago when Hugo Américi discovered the teahouses of Prague and their colorful blend of Bohemian and Asian cultures. What Hugo experienced so inspired him that he opened a small teahouse on Emery Street in Montréal in November 1998. He named it Camellia Sinensis, after the botanical name for the Chinese tea plant.
François Marchand and Jasmin Desharnais joined Hugo as partners in the budding business two years later. And in 2002, longtime India tea buyer Kevin Gascoyne joined the growing endeavor. Kevin hailed from England’s Yorkshire Dales, and Taylors of Harrogate tea ran like blood through his veins.
These four talented teaists are passionate about their vocation. Each has a designated area of the tea world to explore as they travel annually in search of outstanding teas for their customers. Kevin looks after India and Sri Lanka; Jasmin and François team up for China; and Hugo heads to Taiwan, Vietnam, and Japan. It’s no surprise that the voluminous tea list on the counters of their stores in Montréal and Québec City has to be reprinted weekly as new teas arrive almost daily in their warehouse.
Row after row of shining silver tins fill the shelves of the shop. The well-trained staff is just as passionate about their teas as are the owners, and they are eager to share the pedigrees of these great teas of the world with their fascinated customers. This is the place, too, for discovering just the right steeping apparatus for your favorite beverage. It would be hard to find a more complete assortment of tea wares anywhere.
The flagship Montréal store hosts the original tearoom next door where guests enjoy teas steeped in a multitude of ways—from traditional teapots to gong fu trays and yixing clayware. Light baked goods are also offered to accompany the experience. But, the emphasis here is always on the tea.
Camellia Sinensis is very much involved with the burgeoning tea education movement in Canada. The owners and staff host regular classes focusing on such subjects as tea by country of origin, tea pairings, or tea preparation. They also speak at events across North America, appear on television, or are interviewed for print productions. Plus, the Camellia Sinensis team has authored two popular tea books, which specialists and educators worldwide use: Tea History, Terroirs and Varieties and Tea Vert (in French only).
BIRKS CAFÉ PAR EUROPEA
1240 Place Phillips • Montréal
514-397-2468 • maisonbirks.com/en/cafe/
If Truman Capote’s character Holly Golightly had lived in Montréal rather than Manhattan, the title of Capote’s 1961 novel might have been Tea at Birks rather than Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Founder Henry Birks opened his first jewelry shop in 1879 on Saint James Street at the center of Montréal’s financial and commercial district, and for more than a century, Birks has been one of Canada’s best-known jewelers with locations across the country. Today, counter upon counter of fine diamonds and exquisite jewelry fill the first floor of this flagship store at Place Phillips in Montréal.
Where else can you browse for diamonds as a prelude to afternoon tea? Customers walk up a marble staircase to enter Birks Café par Europea. Afternoon tea is served each day in this glorious setting on the mezzanine where guests select from an assortment of loose teas sourced from the oldest tea line in Paris, Mariage Frères.
Tea is brought to the table in black iron Asian teapots resting on trivets. The savories, artfully presented on long trays, include sandwiches such as cucumber and shrimp, duck foie gras and chutney, a mini club with crispy prosciutto, and smoked salmon. Scones are served with Devonshire cream and jam.
The beautiful presentation of sweets includes a dessert in a verrine (delicious luxury in a glass), macarons made that morning by the café pastry chef, and a handmade
chocolate. A take-away bag of goodies is always presented with the check, allowing diners an opportunity to continue their sweet indulgence in the privacy of their homes or offices. But before leaving, you will want to linger over the cases of colorful macarons waiting to be boxed. Flavors include lemon, lychee, Irish cream, maple syrup, apricot and lavender, coconut, dark chocolate, and milk chocolate with passion fruit—delicious all.
Afternoon tea in stores such as Birks was the norm in both North America and Europe during the first half of the 20th century. And the tradition carries on in Montréal with such finesse.
FAIRMONT THE QUEEN ELIZABETH
900 Rene Levesque Blvd. W • Montréal
514-954-2261 • fairmont.com/queen-elizabeth-montreal/
The monumental Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth hotel was built in 1958 by the Canadian National Railway. The 1,200-room structure stands above Montréal’s central railway station on 160 concrete pylons that cushion any vibrations from passing trains. It’s very convenient to arrive in the city via train and then take the elevator up to one’s room.
The hotel has long been a home away from home for many celebrities and dignitaries. John Lennon and Yoko Ono found suite 1742 quite comfortable during their weeklong bed-in for peace in 1969. Friends from around the world came to pay court to the reclining couple while they composed and recorded the anthem Give Peace a Chance.
Although this modern hotel caters to conventions and other large groups, the chefs continue to pay attention to the details necessary for a classic English afternoon tea, flavored with a bit of French panache, in the Le Montréalais Restaurant. The tea selection, composed by the Canadian tea supplier Metropolitan Tea, has all the standards, as well as several blends designed exclusively for Fairmont properties around the world. Tea is served Monday through Saturday.
1228 Sherbrooke Street West • Montréal
800-363-0366 • ritzmontreal.com
The Ritz-Carlton Montréal, the first hotel in the world to bear the name Ritz-Carlton, held its opening gala on New Year’s Eve 1912. The glittering establishment was designed by the same New York architectural firm whose other achievements included Grand Central Station, as well as the Biltmore, Vanderbilt, and Ritz hotels in New York City. This was the era of the construction of great urban hotels in Paris, London, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, and afternoon tea was an important component of the dining options offered by hotels of the day.
Built for $3 million, the majestic Ritz-Carlton Montréal quickly established an esteemed reputation, which led to its being selected as the site for the first transcontinental phone call in February 1916. Renowned guests have included Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, and George Bush Sr., as well as Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who held their 1964 wedding ceremony at the hotel. After a century of constant use, The Ritz-Carlton Montréal closed its doors in 2008 to undergo a major renovation to revive its title as the “Grande Dame” of Sherbrooke Street.
Following four years of extensive restoration, the hotel reopened with all the original glitter and excitement it had held a century ago. The beautiful frescoes adorning the ceiling of the Palm Court are once again in full view, and long-forgotten Chinoiserie tea tables have been returned to their rightful place—holding tea trays and teapots in that grand space where afternoon tea is served daily from 1:30 to 5:30.
Guests may select from a menu of nine teas, steeped loose in the pot and poured at table through individual silver strainers. Before the teapots arrive, you have the option of beginning your afternoon with a flute of champagne, making the celebration a true Royal Tea.
The staff, smartly attired in Edwardian style, present the savories and sweets on three-tiered silver servers, which bear both cranberry and plain scones waiting to be slathered with authentic clotted cream, rose jam, and orange marmalade. A second tier holds traditional tea sandwiches including cucumber, smoked salmon, egg and parsley, and tomato and watercress. A quartet of French pastries, too beautiful to eat, leaves you with a sweet remembrance of an enchanting afternoon.
Bruce Richardson and his wife, Shelley, are owners of Elmwood Inn Fine Teas. As contributing editor for TeaTime, he writes regularly about tea, its history, and places tea lovers should visit. For more about Bruce and the many books he has published, go to elmwoodinn.com.