The Hotel Cap Diamant
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
I've been coming to Quebec for almost thirty years and for probably half that time I've stayed at the Hotel Cap Diamant on the Boulevard Ste-Genevieve, just behind the Chateau Frontenac and an easy walk to anywhere in the old city. I can't remember, but think I just picked it out of a guide book. Over the years, little by little, Mme. Guillot has made constant improvements to the hotel. She is always very proud of each new addition. One year I arrived to find a newly remodeled reception hall. Another time, she had added a breakfast room that overlooks the tiny back garden. Once on a summer trip I was given a wonderful room in the newly acquired annex next door. It had big windows that could be opened to let in the breezes and looked out over the city.
The first time I came, it was in a particularly cold January. The radio was warning even Quebecois to only go out side when necessary. My room had a zinc framed bed and in such cold weather it could deliver quite a shock if you slid in or out wrong. That room has become part of the breakfast parlor now, and I have never encountered that bed again, but it is an example of the quirky way that Madame has furnished the hotel. Every possible type of antique filigreed chest, table or whatnot stand can be found there. All wood, be it floor or furniture is polished to within an inch of its life. There are doilies everywhere. The walls are covered with pictures and mirrors.
Walls in Quebec are built thick to keep out the cold. This provides wide window sills for elbows or plants. Madame has hung both gauzy sheers and thick drapes at each one. The hotel is heated still with large ornate radiators. I think that this is common in the old city. I've always liked this kind of heating. I had it when I lived in New York. All the piping within the walls assures that you are never ever cold, and like as not the same system provides the hot water for the building, so you are never out. I've often remarked to myself on the splendid showers, tubs and water pressure at the Cap Diamant. When you come indoors in winter you must leave your shoes in the red cupboard by the front door so a not to track salt and mud through the house. She provides a basket slippers to wear by the door.
I did a lot of the initial work on my cook book at the Cap Diamant, and the year I brought Madame a copy, she refused to let me pay for my room. In early January there are rarely many guests. Things will pick up again at Carnival, which is Quebec's Mardi Gras. Since it follows the holidays by only a month, the Christmas lights are generally left up. Each morning, Madame puts out breakfast- cakes and rolls, butter and jams, fruit and yogurt, coffee of course. This year she added something that is typical of Quebec, but new to the hotel- graisse.
It is sort of like rillet, but with almost no meat. I was introduced to this in a youth hostel (indicating how long ago this was) in the Gaspe. It was brought out with the bread at dinner. Everyone was eating it, but I couldn't tell what it was. When I asked, I thought to myself "I'm sure that means grease, but that can't be true." Even back then I would eat anything. So I did. And it was.
posted by Bill Smith at 5:15 AM
Sunday, January 10, 2010
I'm on the train from Montreal to Quebec. It's winter and I feel like Dr. Zhivago. The train is cozy and has coffee and wi-fi. In fact everything is cozy here in winter. I have seen more snow than this, but it is nonetheless very cold. The trip takes about three hours, much of it through Christmas card countryside. I got into Montreal at midday yesterday. New security concerns required me to be at the airport at four in the morning for a six o'clock flight. I get off work around midnight so I decide to just stay up. The result was a sort of jet lag without leaving one's own time zone. It's good to get back to my old haunts. Last night I was back at Le Conciergerie, a bed and breakfast on St-Hubert in what may have been the best bed on earth. No time for breakfast though since I'm taking the earliest train. As is often the case in places with a French tradition, in both Montreal and Quebec one can expect to find good food. When I come here, I come with the intention of deliberate excess. Last night I tried a new place called DSens on the rue Ste-Catherine. I was drawn in by one of the plats du jour which promised both veal kidneys and sweetbreads in a fricassee. It was delicious as were the dozen raw oysters from Prince Edward Island that preceded them.
I've been coming to Quebec for a long time and I have a lot of history here. I wrote the first draft of my cookbook in the breakfast room of Le Conciergerie and in the basement apartment of the Hotel Cap Diamant in Quebec City where I'll be staying tonight. This is a great place to quickly get over a broken heart or to wallow in one, depending on your mood. It is old fashioned as well as modern at the same time, a pairing that I like very much. People can be surprisingly chic, given how they have to dress to go outside in winter. I remember being startled one January in the village of Baie St-Paul by the tiny black cocktail dresses in a shop window. Everyone on the street was wearing parkas and mukluks. I was once told that designers try out new ideas in Montreal because it's sensibility is halfway between New York and Paris. As for the winter, people go about their business just as they do the rest of the year. Systems are in place to help you get on with things. Still, I have to think that the first winter must have been something of a shock to the first settlers. Right now, it's ten degrees Fahrenheit.
I come to Quebec in winter to eat big French meals as I watch it snow outside. This never fails to be a pleasant past time. Without fail at least one of those meals will be at the Cafe St-Malo, in the lower city on the rue St-Paul. Chances are they will have veal brains in beurre noisette. They also make that breton style of soupe de poisson than has no tomatoes and therefore is a dark grey color. I love this. Enough chatter. The city awaits.
posted by Bill Smith at 6:01 AM