Quebec writer’s award-winning book a must-read
By Julia M. Bayly
If you travel according to the demands of your stomach—or taste buds—there may be few better destinations than the island of Île d’Orléans in the St. Lawrence River, 15 minutes east of Quebec City.
A cookbook by author-photographer Linda Arsenault is not only shining a spotlight on local growers and the delicious fruits—not to mention the vegetables, meats, cheeses and breads—of their labors, she’s garnering them international recognition.
Farmers in Chef Hats was the 2008 recipient of the Best Local Cookbook in the World at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in London.
To date, the book has sold more than 17,000 copies in Canada and the United states and no one is more surprised than Arsenault.
“To be considered a best-seller in Quebec you have to sell 5,000 books,” she said during a recent interview on Île d’Orléans. “Now look at it.”
When Arsenault moved from her native Montréal to the island in 2005, writing a cookbook was the last thing on her mind.
A graphic printer by trade, Arsenault said she was looking for a break. “So I sat down and did the thing all the motivational speakers tell you to do,” she said. “I took a piece of paper and wrote down all the things I could do and all the things I was passionate about.” In the end, that list included cooking, food, photography, writing, gardening and tourism.
From that list, the idea of the cookbook began to take form, but not just any cookbook. “I wanted the readers to meet the farmers via their own produce and recipes,” Arsenault said. “There are already so many recipe books by chefs.”
The next step was perhaps the hardest—convincing the farmers of Île d’Orléans that her idea had merit. As a relative newcomer, she knew it would be a challenge. “I went door-to-door on the island meeting with them and making a list of the different products grown here,” she said. “This island was already well-known for strawberries but I discovered we have ducks, cantaloupe, bok choy and much more. I came away with 50 different products.”
Arsenault admits the farmers were “a bit skeptical” at first. “They saw me coming and said, ‘Here comes another one with another project,’” she said with a laugh. “But when they saw the potential for it to go farther beyond the island they really got behind the project.”
Convincing the growers was one thing, Arsenault then had to work with them during the busiest months of the year from spring planting to fall harvest.
The daughter of farmers and raised on a small farm, she knew what she was asking, even if she had not appreciated a farmer’s importance growing up. “When I was young I did not see this as a popular job,” Arsenault said. “”We were always dirty and never had a summer vacation and I’d watch my friends go off and lay on the docks all day.”
Today, Arsenault has a very different perspective and also sees a real shift in public opinion in general. “I can see how important the growers are and how the relationship between the gardeners and the customers has changed,” she said. “Now people want to know where their food comes from and eat local.”
Arsenault said the summer she spent interviewing and photographing the farmers of Île d’Orléans was among the nicest she’s ever had. “It was a real privilege to spend time amongst them,” she said. “Wanted to get photographs of the food at the source and they were very patient.”
Of course, patience to a hard-working Ile d’Orleans farmer often meant, “Take your picture Linda, quick,” she recalled.
Armed with a new digital camera—a Christmas gift from her boyfriend—and no food photography experience, Arsenault has managed to capture the very essence of what takes agriculture from field to table.
“This was done in a very genuine way,” she said. “It’s the farmers saying, ‘This is who I am, this is what I do and this is my recipe.’”
Those recipes include Maple Rack of Lamb, Sturgeon Ragout, Duck Breast with Blackberry Honey, Turkey Breasts Stuffed with Apples, Creamy Brussels Sprouts, Easy Fall Raspberry Pie, and Asparagus-Stuffed Salmon Filets.
Ever the diplomat, Arsenault would not peg one as her favorite, though she did admit having a soft spot for a good apple pie.
After collecting and re-writing the recipes and gathering the necessary ingredients, Arsenault turned them over to chef and friend Philipe Rae who, at the time, was running Auberge Le Canard Huppe, a bed and breakfast on the island.
“He worked really hard testing them and would do four or five in a single day,” she said. “This was from mid-June to October and I think I drove him crazy.”
To celebrate the completed project, Arsenault threw a party for the producers and figured they’d sell a few in Quebec and that would be the end of it.
Farmers In Chefs Hats won Best Canadian Cookbook in the local and history category which made it eligible—along with 6,000 other such cookbooks from around the world—for the international award.
“I told the farmers about the Canadian award, they said, ‘It was great it won, but forget about the world,’” she said.
When Arsenault got word she was among the top finalists for the Best Local Cookery Book in the World, she took a leap of faith and booked a flight to London.
Once there, she found herself surrounded by some of the top chefs of Europe—all vying for the same award.
“I was sure one of them would win,” Arsenault said. “These were real chefs who made the recipes and mine came from the farmers (and) those recipes did not seem complicated enough.”
The judges, however, did not share her fears and that night, in front of all those high-powered chefs and gourmands, Linda Arsenault and her first-ever cookbook took home the top prize.
“This is so good for the island and so good for the producers,” Arsenault said. “The award has given me the chance to connect them with the outside world.”
Arsenault also wants to bring that outside world to Île d’Orléans.
The French/English bilingual publication includes an agritourism map that allows visitors to travel the island, meet the farmers and taste their bounty.
“Who better to showcase the island than the farmers?” Arsenault said.
Currently, there are no plans for a follow-up cookbook as much of Arsenault’s time is now spent marketing her award-winning work.
Besides, she’s not sure she would want to tackle another project, knowing now what it entailed.
“In French, the title is Les Producteurs Toques de Île d’Orléans,” she said, explaining a “toque” can be a play on words, meaning both a traditional chef’s hat as well as someone who is a “little bit hard-headed and stubborn.”
A quality it turns out, she said, is needed for farmers and writers.
Farmers in Chefs Hats is available on farmersinchefhats.com for $25.
-Author photographed by Julia M. Bayly