The Dune du Sud (South Dune) beach on Havre aux Maisons island

Why Quebec's Little-Known Magdalen Islands Are a Food Lover's Paradise

It's Canada's culinary secret.

I caught sight of the Magdalen Islands through the blur of the plane's twin-propeller blades, I made a vow: to experience the archipelago's rich food culture at a leisurely pace. The first time I'd visited the Îles de la Madeleine, as they're known in French-speaking Quebec, I'd been on a frantic mission. I spent a few days shoveling smoked scallops, flat-shelled oysters, goat cheese, and high-proof ales into the trunk of my car before rapidly departing again by ferry for the mainland. Now, two years later, I wanted to take the time to roam the Magdalens' powdery quartz beaches and meet some of the region's artisans and makers along the way.

I started by checking into a rustic seaside cottage on Cap aux Meules (the second-largest and most central island) and picking up a sturdy aluminum-framed rental bike. My first stop? Le Fumoir d'Antan, an 80-year-old smokehouse where much of the catch from the islands' fleet of 300-plus fishing boats is smoked over maple-wood fires.

"My grandfather built this smokehouse in 1940," owner Benoît Arseneau told me inside the hangar-like building where iridescent-scaled herring dangled from the rafters. "Back then, there were 40 others on the islands. Each spring, they would smoke 10 million pounds of herring." At the shop counter, Arseneau served me skewers of smoke-cured mackerel, cod, and salmon. We washed them down with gulps of Corps Mort, a locally brewed beer made with malted barley impregnated with the drippings from herring as they cured over the wood fires. "It's almost animal, this beer," he chuckled. "With smoked fish, it's the perfect marriage."

Cooperation is considered a virtue in the Magdalens' tightly knit community. Most people here are of Acadian background, descendants of the more than 10,000 French farmers expelled from Maine and the Canadian Maritimes in 1755, and isolation and long winters made pulling together a necessity. At Pied-de-Vent, a fromagerie that makes exquisite European-inspired cheeses, I joined a tour group following a herd of rare Canadian cows from their cliffside pastures back to the farm. Inside the factory, cheesemaker Renée Landry explained that they allowed the local pork producer, Aucoin des Sangliers, to collect their leftover whey to feed their boars. Their cheddar (Art Senau) was sent to Fumoir d'Antan to be smoked; the microbrewery À l'Abri de la Tempête supplied them with Scotch ale to wash the rinds of their Tomme des Demoiselles; and they'd perfected a gelato, which was served drizzled with rosehip syrup at Gourmande de Nature, a one-stop shop for some of the Magdalens' best foods. "Our insularity," Landry told me, "has made us resourceful. And that spirit has been passed on to local businesses. We'd rather cooperate than compete."

At Le Fumoir d’Antan, locally caught herring hang from the rafters
Gabriela Herman

I began the following day at the Resto de l'Île, a friendly diner in the islands' only shopping mall (Centre d'Achats Place des Îles), with a plate of beignets à pâte levée, braided, deep-fried bread dough drizzled with caramel syrup. I needed every one of those calories: Rolling hills make for easy riding here, but sporadic headwinds sometimes brought me to a near-standstill, even when I was pedaling full-speed downhill.

On Havre Aubert, the southernmost island, I coasted past lobster boats dry-docked next to cedar-shingled homes painted in shades of canary and saffron, until I reached the Le Verger Poméloi. There, orchard owner Éloi Vigneau presses the fruit from 700 apple trees into crisp ciders, chouchen (a Breton-style mead) fermented with wild yeasts, and Poméloi, an aperitif with a whole apple in each bottle. In the hillside orchard, where the slopes look down over kitesurfers riding over the Mediterranean-hued waters of a dune-sheltered lagoon, Vigneau's son Élie showed me how they pulled off the trick: Uncorked bottles are threaded onto the tree branches, and the apples grow to maturity encased in glass.

For seafood lovers, the islands are a paradise. Warming waters in the Gulf of Maine mean lobsters have migrated north to the Magdalens, and, for the time being at least, the local scallop, northern shrimp, and halibut fisheries are in good shape. I stopped for a pot-en-pot, a creamy seafood casserole baked in puff pastry, at Café de la Grave, a cozy spot on a waterfront strip of sheds where fishermen once salted their catch. At the opposite end of the archipelago, in the fishing port of Grande Entrée, I met Mario Cyr in his intimate ocean-themed bistro, Plongée Alpha, where he hosts lively presentations on his international career as an underwater photographer.

"Three-quarters of what's on our menu comes from the islands," pointed out Cyr, as I worked on a guédille au homard, the local take on a lobster roll. He makes a point of keeping bluefin tuna and other threatened species off the menu. "For a place with fewer than 13,000 full-time residents, we're really lucky to be able to offer such high-quality ingredients."

Acadian pride in hospitality means that, no matter whether you dine on a picnic table or a white tablecloth, it's going to be tasty. On my last night, I left my bike leaning—no need for locks on the islands—outside Eva, an excellent new restaurant overlooking the little fishing harbor at l'Étang du Nord. As I drank Chablis with a half-dozen flat-shelled oysters from the Trésor du Large, a mariculture company that raises shellfish in deepwater offshore cages, I was momentarily transported to the boulevards of Montparnasse. But then I looked up to see the sun setting behind the wave-lashed hulk of the century-old Duke of Connaught, one of hundreds of shipwrecks that surround the islands, and I was reminded that I was on a fish-hook-shaped scribble of sand, a five-hour ferry ride from the nearest port.

I couldn't think of any place else I'd rather be.

Author Taras Grescoe's next book, The Lost Supper: Why the Future of Our Food Lies in the Past, will be published by Greystone in 2023.

Getting There

Accommodations are often booked a year in advance in the Magdalens, particularly for the peak months of July and August. A good time to visit is in May or September, when the crowds are thinnest. Many visitors come by car, taking a five-hour ferry ride from Souris, Prince Edward Island. Others opt for the one-and-a-half hour flight from Montreal. Rental cars are available at the airport; bicycles can be rented from Le Pédalier in Cap aux Meules.

Where to Stay

A room at Domaine du Vieux Couvent
Gabriela Herman

Auberge Chez Denis à François

This 14-room inn, in a distinctive egg-yolk yellow 1867 farmhouse, overlooks the shops and cafés of La Grave. (Don't miss Atelier Côtier, an artists collective whose beautifully designed boutique specializes in witty, island-themed tchotchkes.) The inn's seafood-focused restaurant offers Pernod-marinated scallops, among other delights. (Rooms from $145,

Domaine Du Vieux Couvent

Even if you don't stay at this century-old neoclassical-style convent, now an 11-room boutique hotel situated on a grassy promontory, make sure to book a table in the dining room, which offers a spectacular panorama of ferries arriving from Prince Edward Island and terns and gannets making vertical plunges into the waves for their dinner. (Rooms from $200,

Where to Eat & Drink

Gourmande De Nature

Chef Johanne Vigneau opened La Table des Roy (reopening spring 2022), acclaimed by critics as the Magdalens' best restaurant, 40 years ago on the ground floor of the house she grew up in Cap aux Meules. In 2012, she opened Gourmande de Nature, a culinary hub in l'Étang du Nord that offers cooking classes; a dining room and patio offering more casual, but still top-notch, bistro fare; and a boutique selling compotes, herbs, and Pied-de-Vent's gelato.

Chez Renard

Inspired by the buvettes, or easygoing wine bars, of Quebec City, the newly opened Chez Renard, housed in a lime-green clapboard house close to the ferry landing, has been adopted by Madelinots as a favorite weekend destination with a seasonal, market-based tapas menu.

Café de la Grave interior
Meggy Turbide

Les Pas Perdus

The social center of the island, located near the ferry landing, Les Pas Perdus is in fact three institutions: a concert hall that hosts bands and storytellers during summer festivals, a six-room inn, and a rambunctious Asian-fusion café-bistro.

À L'abri De La Tempête

The Magdalens' only microbrewery is also one of the best in Quebec. Brewer Élise Cornellier Bernier began her career as an artist in Montreal, and her boundary-pushing style shines through in the barley wines, cream ales, and other brews on tap in the pub. The terrace overlooking the dunes is a perfect place to savor a flight of beers, including Trans IPA and Cale Sèche, a blonde ale.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles