June 30, 2003 -- Cheese does not come from the supermarket. Flowers don't come from the florist. And paper does not come from Staples. But if you're from a big city, you've probably never seen how these things are really made. If you're taking a trip to Quebec or Canada's Atlantic provinces, now you can see how people used to make things.
To keep old, small-scale agriculture and manufacturing skills alive, a decade ago a Quebecer named Cyril Simard came up with the concept of the economuseum: part boutique, part museum, part performance. At Canada's 36 economuseums, you can see how everything from violins to cheese are made by hand, learn a little about an item's history and usually taste or try it at the end.
More than half of the economuseums are in the Montreal-Quebec corridor; six are in Montreal itself, so you don't have to leave that popular city to learn a little about bookbinding, embroidery, violins, framing or ceramics. But the museums are also scattered all over the Atlantic provinces, all the way to the economuseum of wild berries at the northern tip of Newfoundland.
(There are no economuseums in Ontario or points west, but Lise Marcoux, spokeswoman for the economuseum network, said they're considering expanding west.)
All Different, All the Same
The economuseum council enforces quality standards on the museums, which are all laid out in six parts: welcome area, workshop, documentation center, exhibition of the current craft, historical exhibition and boutique. Some charge admission fees, but many are free, reaping their profit from sales in the boutiques. Some, such as the economuseum of candles (www.economusee-atl.com/candle/english/main.htm) in New Brunswick, are hands-on, but at the economuseum of glassblowing (www.lamailloche.com), it's smart to stand pretty far back from the action.
Last year I visited the glassblowing shop, a two-level building in Quebec City's old town. On the lower floor, men with long pipes blow white-hot, molten glass into glass apples, drawing off and plucking a leaf at the top of the apple from the weird semi-solid glass. There weren't any interpretive displays (Marcoux said that's because the shop was a very early economuseum), but it was a free and fascinating performance.
Steve Knudsen owns Dark Tickle (www.darktickle.com), the economuseum of wild berries in Newfoundland. He leads tourists past berry bushes, explaining what natives and modern Canadians use the berries for, and then lets tourists watch the berries get turned into jams, jellies, and the centers of chocolates.
"We show what the berries used to look like, what people used to use them for and what it meant to their society. We hope people leave with a fuller understanding of what's going on with wild berries," he says.
For children, Marcoux recommends visits to the economuseums of honey (www.musee-abeille.com) and dolls (www.damesdesoie.com). Gourmets might enjoy a visit to the economuseum of cheese (www.economusees.com/fichiers/anglais/fromage1.htm), a fifty-year-old, family-owned dairy which produces five varieties, including two Cheddars and a Camembert-like cheese.
There's one odd exception in the economuseum world: the Choco-Musee ?ico (www.chocomusee.com) in Quebec City, which looks like an economuseum but technically isn't. Complying with economuseum standards would have required that they restructure their museum area, so they decided to stay independent. The Choco-Musee is still an adorable one-room museum of chocolate, where visitors can watch confectioners at work and indulge their sweet tooth with some knee-tremblingly good ice cream.
The economuseum network has an engaging, "collect 'em all" ambience, and a great weeklong vacation could be made just in bouncing from shop to shop, seeing how things are made. Find the full list of economuseums, with links to each one, by going to www.economusees.com/index_an.html and clicking on "The economuseum network."