Sometimes, sheep don’t follow, they lead. Take Quebec’s Charlevoix lamb, which this spring becomes the first food product in North America to be legally protected based on its region of origin (much the same as champagne wine is exclusively made from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France). Under the Quebec-government-regulated label of IGP (indication géographique protégée), it now joins a worldwide groaning board of exceptional goods, such as Italy’s Parma ham and France’s Roquefort cheese.
Given the iconic Canadian foods that could fit the bill—wild rice, maple syrup, even wild salmon—how did this niche product, albeit hailed for its lean and delicate flavour, manage to gain this precedent-setting status? The catalyst came some 15 years ago when a Parisian restaurateur had the gall to put what he called Charlevoix lamb on the menu, recalls Quebec farmer Lucie Cadieux of Ferme Éboulmontaise. The single most prominent promoter of this IGP project, Cadieux, who raises Charlevoix lamb, had heard of restaurants in Montreal and Toronto making the same claim. “But they weren’t getting it from here.”
There was no means to disprove the false advertising. So Cadieux, then-president of the influential Table Agrotouristique de Charlevoix, and a group of fellow farmers in the region, banded together and turned to the popular European model of regionally protected foods for help. Little did they realize it would require creating new laws, rearranging government departments, and coordinating producers to all agree on the terms for the label. It is certified in Quebec by the provincial government through the agency Conseil des appellations réservées et des termes valorisants. President Denis Bouffard explains, “A geographical protecting indication is mostly there to recognize a product that is very connected to the terroir.”
From farm to fork, the rules for raising Charlevoix lamb are a kind of 100-mile diet taken to the extreme. Locally born and weaned in the Charlevoix region, about 400 km northwest of Montreal, at a minimum of 50 days, the animals feed on a diet of grains that naturally thrive in the region. So corn is out of the picture and oats and barley are in. The herds are limited to 500 head per owner and breeds can include Dorset, Arcott-Rideau, Arcott-canadien, Polypay and Hampshire. They live for between 110 and 190 days or until they reach about 40 kilos live (or 15 to 20 kg, slaughtered). Naturally, the processing is done locally. The meat is aged for at least seven days before it’s ready for market.
The restaurant Les Saveurs Oubliées in the community of Les Éboulements in the Charlevoix region serves the IGP lamb raised on Cadieux’s farm. Chef Régis Hervé, who moved to the area 30 years ago from France, describes the meat as “very fine, very particular, with a bit of hazelnut taste and little fat.”
The business of protecting origins and terroir is overwhelmingly a European tradition, starting in the 1700s with Portugal’s ruling over the port-producing area of the Douro Valley. The umbrella term is “protected food names” for an alphabet soup of programs: DOC, AOC, PDO and more. Cadieux says they chose IGP for its emphasis on terroir. Products must be produced, processed or prepared within a certain area while featuring qualities attributable to that area. Internationally, Sardinia has an IGP lamb, as does Navarra, Spain, and the Connemara region of Ireland.
Charlevoix has proven a leader in using local fare to develop culinary tourism. The IGP label is key to the region’s development, says Alyre Jomphe, director of the Charlevoix tourism board, “especially as there are more visitors who are now looking for authenticity.” Jomphe helped initiate A Taste of Charlevoix, a cookbook to be released next month.
Cheesemaker Maurice Dufour, based in Baie-Saint-Paul in Charlevoix, is known as much for his exceptional cheeses, such as Migneron and Ciel de Charlevoix, as he is for his work in establishing successful programs that promote regional foods. He helped launch La Route des Saveurs (the Flavour Trail) over a decade ago; it winds its way through 16 farms and restaurants. “Superb!” is how he describes the launch of an IGP product in the region. “It is very important to protect the producers and to differentiate the region from the rest of Canada.”
IGP competitors are on the horizon. Now that the gates are open, Bouffard reports, other products are “knocking at the door.”