It’s All About the Food
Certainly an island archipelago named after a cookie couldn’t be about anything else but food, could it? But, no. Îles de la Madeleine, the Magdalen Islands, are actually named after the wife of the seigneur (rather like the landlord) of the islands in 1663.
Remember, though, the Mi’kmaq Indians had been there for generations before Jacques Cartier became the islands’ first European “discoverer” and these rocky islands became part of New France, the name given to all French possessions in North America in the 16th Century. Thereafter, they were owned by the King of France at least until the British took exception to French ambitions and began their own quest for territory in what is now Eastern Canada.
By the middle of the 18th Century, the islands were occupied principally by descendants of French colonists from the Acadian Peninsula—today’s Nova Scotia. The Acadians were an interesting group whose culture remains remarkably intact to this day throughout Canada’s Maritime Provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island), as well as Maine and Louisiana.
Mainly city-dwellers, the original sixty families came to North America and settled around the Bay of Fundy. They were helped and indeed welcomed by the Mi’kmaqs and were able to assimilate many of the native peoples’ techniques for surviving, even thriving, in the sometimes harsh environment.
Acadia was a separate colony of New France, which led to the development of a history, culture, even language distinct from Quebec. Unfortunately, the colony lay astride the border areas between French and British territorial claims and thus the settlers became victims of the struggles between those two great powers.
The British occupied Acadia in 1710 but were unable to convince the Acadians to give their allegiance to the crown and so, during the French and Indian War, 11,500 Acadians were deported from the region. Some were settled as far away as Louisiana, where they became known as “cajun”, and still represent a significant sub-culture in bayou country. Others fled to the Îles de la Madeleine, where their descendants and culture are on display today.
Perhaps the most physically striking aspect of these islands is their topography. The archipelago itself runs along an undersea ridge formed by an upwelling, miles-thick layer of salt. The surface of the islands is marked by undulating mounds of earth covered by grasses and wildflowers. But most unusually, you can actually drive from island to island across long sand dunes that have formed between them, creating an unbroken 60-mile road connecting each to the others. From the air, these islands look much like a necklace of rocky jewels carelessly tossed on the surface of the sea. Each island has an abundance of white sand beaches with dunes carpeted by sea grass, reminiscent of Cape Cod.
What is unique in this coastal environment are the red sandstone cliffs slowly being eroded by wind and waves, being carved into sculptures not unlike in the American Southwest. As you can imagine, days can be spent hiking, cycling, or simply driving from one viewpoint to the next. Perhaps it’s this dramatic land and seascape that has inspired the artists’ colony that exists here today. In your explorations you will encounter much of it on display in galleries, shops, and restaurants.
All this beauty is surrounded by a bit of treachery. The forces that created the unusual linkage between the islands also created a navigational hazard that over the years has claimed at least 400 ships. Lucky survivors were quickly included in the local population and may have participated in building the lighthouses that eventually reduced the danger to a degree. These lighthouses have become a welcome sight for seafarers and tourists alike.
Oh, yes, the food. In true culinary style, we’ve saved the best for last. If you’re a foodie, and in particular a seafoodie, the Magdalen Islands will become a dog-eared page in your gastronomic memory book.
Start with the lobster. Now, there are those who will claim that Maine has no peer when it comes to lobster, and certainly their reputation is deserved. But the unusual confluence of very cold seawater mixed with fresh water brought from the Great Lakes by the St. Lawrence River has produced, at very least, an exceptionally rare marine environment for lobster fishing. Connoisseurs of fine lobster will bore you with comparisons as esoteric as afficianados of fine wine. Nonetheless, these delicate treats from the sea taste great.
Snow crab, scallops, blue mussels, quahogs (large clams), herring, mackerel, Atlantic halibut, American plaice, yellowtail flounder are all commercially fished or farmed around the islands, and the local chefs and Chez could not be happier about it. In fact, an association, Le bon gout frais des Îles de la Madeleine, the “Flavours Circuits”, has been formed linking producers, processors, and restaurant owners to protect the islands’ well-earned reputation.
Do partake in this culinary adventure while ashore.