ILE D'ORLEANS, Que. -- It's a popular aperitif in France that has been gaining fans in Canada, due largely to the efforts of one entrepreneurial family on this island in the St. Lawrence River near Quebec City.
Cassis -- a liqueur made with blackcurrants -- is the essential ingredient in the cocktails Kir (Creme de Cassis and white wine) and Kir Royale (Creme de Cassis and Champagne).The beverage was popularized by Canon Felix-Adren Kir (1876-1968), a former French politician who served the cocktail at so many official functions it eventually took on his name. Kir is now the second most popular aperitif in France after Pastis.
Though Creme de Cassis is not very well known in Canada, Bernard Monna has spent the last few decades trying to change that. A native of southern France and fourth- generation liquoriste (liqueur maker) Monna arrived on Ile d'Orleans in the early 1970s and later became the first in Quebec to produce blackcurrant wines and Creme de Cassis on a large scale.
At Cassis Monna & Filles, visitors can learn about the history of cassis; visit the wine cellar to sample and purchase the beverage and the other blackcurrant products (including jelly, jam, mustard and syrup); and even enjoy a variety of blackcurrant-infused culinary dishes at La Monnaguette restaurant upstairs. Bernard's two daughters, Anne and Catherine, have been running the operation since 2005.
You'll definitely want to try their Creme de Cassis, which recently won the silver prize at the Internationaler Spirituosen-Wettbewerb 2010 in Germany. Three other blackcurrant beverages produced here are Le Fruite, which can be served over ice as an aperitif or as an ingredient in sangria; Le Maderise, enjoyed as an aperitif or a digestif with semi-sweet chocolate; and Le Capiteux, a fortified port-style wine.
Cassis Monna & Filles is part of the Quebec's Economusee Network, an initiative that allows visitors to have authentic cultural experiences, meet artisans at work, and purchase local products. Some 51 handicraft and agri-food trade businesses belong to the network, which runs the gamut from soap-makers and weavers, to blacksmiths and cheese makers.
Now is an interesting time to visit Cassis Monna as the annual harvest is underway. The blackcurrants -- fragrant, purplish-black berries rich in Vitamin C and antioxidants -- are typically harvested over a two-week period in early August, though this year the fruit began to ripen more than a week earlier than normal. Many types of blackcurrants are grown on the five hectares under cultivation including Titania and Ben Lomond -- both juicy varieties with a strong aroma. The yield is about 2,250 kilos per hectare.
The region has the ideal microclimate for growing blackcurrants -- damp and well-drained soil protected from spring frost due to its proximity to the St. Lawrence.
Blackcurrants have a long history in the region. As the information panels in the Economusee explain, indigenous varieties of blackcurrants were a staple in the diets of a number of aboriginal peoples. The first European plants were apparently introduced in the 17th century. Blackcurrant jams, syrups and wines were occasionally mentioned in written accounts.
Yet, ironically, one of Bernard Monna's biggest challenges initially was finding bushes to plant! It wasn't until he learned that the blackcurrant was called "gadelle noire" in Quebec, that he finally managed to source some bushes on the south side of the St. Lawrence, although most of the plants come from British Columbia.
"When my father started (the business) nobody knew what Cassis was," explained Anne Monna. "There were strawberries and raspberries, but the currant was totally forgotten."
The company has come a long way since 1990 when it produced just 1,000 bottles of the aperitif. Now, they're making more than 30,000 bottles of blackcurrant wines and liqueur every year. The company's success has also spawned imitators, who have started making their own wines from the tiny berries.
"Now a lot people know that we grow blackcurrants in Quebec and that we have the perfect climate for it," she says.
-- Cassis Monna & Filles is at 721, chemin Royal, Saint-Pierre, Ile d'Orleans. The wine cellar is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily from May to October. Admission and tasting is free. In the off season, visits are by appointment. For more, see cassismonna.com.
-- Creme de Cassis is not creamy. The creme refers to the production method. To make Kir, add 1-2 tbsp. of Creme de Cassis to a glass of dry white wine. To create an attractive visual effect, pour the white wine before adding the Cassis. Another refreshing drink idea is Blackcurrant Colombo: Mix equal portions of pale ale and white grape juice in a tall glass. Add 1 tbsp. Creme de Cassis and enjoy.