St-Pierre-Miquelon are French islands only 20 kilometres off Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula.
Although I’ve always been curious about this tiny piece of France (a territorial overseas collectivity of France, to be exact) so near to us, I am embarrassed to say that until last week I had never set foot on any part of St-Pierre-Miquelon.
That was a huge mistake.
How I wish, instead of relying on descriptions from friends and acquaintances who’d visited, that years ago I had gone to see for myself what this thoroughly charming place was all about.
Getting to St-Pierre (population 6,000) is easier than ever. If you’re Canadian, as long as you have a photo ID and birth certificate, you can be there in 45 minutes aboard a direct Air St-Pierre flight from St. John’s.
Return air fare (taxes and fees included) is $353.21. A group of us chose to drive from St. John’s to Fortune and take the ferry to St-Pierre.
The long drive (more than four hours) plus a very rough ferry crossing was a memorable adventure but next time I will fly. Because so many friends and acquaintances had told us a day was sufficient to spend in St-Pierre — “You’ll be bored silly,” was the refrain — we booked two nights and one full day there.
Maybe I’m not a typical tourist, because I would have been happy to remain in St-Pierre-Miquelon for a week or two.
I found it fascinating. How could a place so close to Newfoundland look and feel so different, so European?
Ville de St-Pierre (Town of St-Pierre) has the look and feel of a rural French town that was pulled from French soil and transplanted into Newfoundland’s landscape. Residences, shops, hotels, office and other buildings are clustered near the harbour, divided by narrow, paved streets. A person could be fooled into thinking he or she was in France.
The only giveaway is that, if you’re facing inland, occasionally you can see a rocky outcrop on the horizon that tells you the landscape is not French. It is Newfoundland landscape. Unmistakably so.
The French-speaking residents of St-Pierre-Miquelon obviously provide the best evidence that you’re not in Newfoundland or Canada anymore. They speak French with an accent that is very distinct from the way the language is spoken in most of Canada. St-Pierre-Miquelon is also in a unique time zone. It starts a new day exactly 30 minutes before Newfoundland does. How about that? And we thought we were the first people in North America to ring in the New Year. Nope.
Ville de St-Pierre is pristine. You’d have to look very hard to find a weed growing on the side of a road or of a building. One morning we saw workers pulling up a few roadside weeds that had dared poke their heads above the soil. Many of the buildings are painted in bright rainbow colours: yellow, red, blue and green. Some buildings have a North American look but mostly, because of the shape of roof, style of window, type of porch or embellishment, they look European. Additional town colour is provided by numerous boxes and baskets planted with arrangements of a variety of colourful flowers. These are strategically situated throughout the town.
We discovered many interesting boutique shops in St-Pierre and most displayed a level of sophistication in products, decor and service rarely found in a rural setting. There were shops that sold French clothing and footwear, table and kitchenware, jewelry, perfume, gourmet canned foods and wine. Of course there were also bread and pastry shops and restaurants. Visiting consumers are delighted to learn that St-Pierre-Miquelon has no sales taxes.
On our first evening in St-Pierre we visited a restaurant called L’Atelier Gourmand located at 12 Rue du 11 Novembre. It’s an intimate restaurant but if the weather’s agreeable an enclosed deck is also available for dining. A fine dining atmosphere is maintained at L’Atelier Gourmand. Tables are laid with brown cloth, then red accent cloth and black leather placemats. Red draperies frame the windows, as well as large painted murals bearing historic images of St-Pierre fishermen at work onshore, unloading and barreling cod.
Highlights of the meal were two appetizers. First, a chilled lobster that had been removed from its shell and sliced into half-inch pieces. Served simply on a plate with lettuce, tomato and a pour of Marie Rose sauce the very fresh, sweet lobster needed no other accompaniment. It seemed quite appropriate to be enjoying this delicious shellfish in a seaport restaurant, just yards from the ocean.
Foie gras (goose or duck liver) is a classic French delicacy and there was plenty of it available in St-Pierre. Some shops sold foie mousse and pâté products that had been canned in St-Pierre-Miquelon. Many tourists wouldn’t dream of leaving without a supply, along with some French wine. At L’Atelier Gourmand I ordered fresh foie gras that had been very quickly grilled. Aside from being a generous portion, it was extraordinarily satisfying, creamy, mild, yet marked slightly by that unique taste (of minerals) that comes from organ meats. Grilled toast made the appetizer complete.
On another occasion we dined at Le feu de Braise, situated on St-Pierre’s cobbled Rue Albert Briand. The restaurant is above a bar called Bar le Rustique. Plenty of windows allow light to brighten the front of the restaurant where tables and chairs are located. At the back and along the sides of the room upholstered booths provide seating for four to six people. Le feu de Braise projects a more casual style. Tables sans cloths, with paper napkins and salt and pepper shakers.
I was so impressed by St-Pierre lobster that I ordered another fresh lobster appetizer. The chopped chilled lobster was dressed in a dairy based sauce and placed on top of a disc of mashed avocado. Small portions of salad containing scallions, cucumber and tomato decorated the white, triangular plate. Thanks to Le feu de Braise I now know that lobster and avocado make superb companions.
Traditional French cuisine utilizes offal in varied and wondrous ways. In the hands of a competent chef who knows how to clean and prepare organ meats (like sweetbreads and kidney), dining on them can sometimes be a gastronomic experience. It was my pleasure to have lamb kidney braised with mushrooms and wine at Le feu de Braise (washed down with a glass of Musset-Roullier’s Petit Clos from the Loire Valley). A serving of pommes frites helped mop up most of the rich braising juices. This treat is rarely if ever served in St. John’s. I appreciated having the opportunity to enjoy it.
Although you can see most of Ville de St-Pierre on foot, just to make sure we had seen everything on the island of St-Pierre (Miquelon and Langlade are separate islands), we paid 15 euros (they also accept Canadian dollars) each for a bus tour. This made it possible for us to travel to the western end of St-Pierre to view newer housing, meadows with grazing horses, coastline and Étang de Savoyard, a lake at the very edge of the island.
Our visit to St-Pierre was blessed by two days of warm, sunny weather but the weather could never outshine the warmth and friendliness of the citizens of St-Pierre.
Everyone we encountered had a smile and a greeting for us and although some did not speak English fluently, they made an effort to communicate with us. My rudimentary French helped at times.
I enjoyed my visit to St-Pierre so much I intend to go back. Next time I plan to explore Miquelon. The population there is smaller (600) but I’m confident the residents are just as friendly.
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, and author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” Contact him through his website,
www.karlwells.com. Twitter: @karl_wells.