La Maison Jacquet: A History of Aux Anciens Canadiens
“The first thing you need to know,” Serge said as he leaned across the counter, conspiratorially, “is that there is no ghost.”
I had ducked into the red-roofed Aux Anciens Canadiens on a whim – caught in a sudden downpour right at supper time, it seemed like the best course of action. Inside, the low ceilings and cozy lighting reinforced a sense of warmth, in contrast to the cold spring rain outside.
I examined the low-beamed ceilings and exposed rock walls as I worked my way through a steaming slice of tourtière, then turned my attention to the antique china on shelves along the wall and in the deep-set windows as I savored my blueberry pie. There was an old wooden door right next to my table, with hand-wrought hinges, which piqued my curiosity – who made it? What was it for? I knew the building was old – my tour the day before had identified it as the oldest house still standing in Quebec City, but hadn’t given many details.
As the server cleared away the remains of the pie, I asked about the door.
“I don’t know the history here very well,” he said in impeccable English. “For that, you will need to speak to Serge.”
I settled my tab, and headed to the front counter. I told the lady there that I had some questions about the history of the place, and had been told to ask for Serge.
“One moment, s’il vous plait” answered a sprightly man at the end of the counter. He finished what he was doing, then came over to where I stood.
“How can I help you?” He asked.
I explained that I had been past the restaurant the day before on a tour, and that the guide had described the house, built in 1674-75, as being the oldest residence still standing in Old Quebec City, but had not provided much more detail. I told Serge that I was curious about the house and it’s history. Serge smiled, and asked what I would like to know.
“Everything.” I replied.
The building, known as Maison Jacquet (Jacquet House), was built on land granted to François Jacquet dit Langevin by the Ursuline Nuns, in 1674-75. The original building was a wooden home, built by master carpenter Pierre Ménage; the structure was rebuilt in stone in approximately 1690 by François de Lajoüe. The house itself, particularly the original structure, is notable as an example of French architecture, with adaptations to reflect the colder climate in Quebec. The steep roof and small windowpanes, in particular, had been pointed out by my tour guide the day before, as being examples of the early French Canadian building style.
“The original house had two bedrooms,” Serge stated, gesturing at the stairs, “and they were on the top floor. This floor was a kitchen and living area, with a big stone hearth here.” Serge pointed behind him, at a stone wall that now divides the entrance and bar area from a dining room in the back. “The walls here,” he continued, “are still the original rock, and very thick.” Serge explained that the original basement walls were four feet thick, and the first floor walls were three feet. I had noticed that, myself, in the dining room windows, which were deep enough to accommodate shelves full of antique glassware.
Serge went on to say that François Jacquet’s family eventually sold the house, and it then became a saloon for quite a long period. Local myth also holds that General Montcalm, the French leader during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, also either lived (and died) in the house, or used it as a headquarters, depending on who you ask. The home later became a barber shop, then a candy shop. Several additions were made, including an enlarged kitchen hearth at the back of the building in the late 1700’s, and a large addition on the side of the building, built between 1818 and 1820.
Walking around the restaurant, Serge pointed out some highlights of the original structure.
“Over there,” he said, pointing at the back wall of the dining room, “do you see the door? That was originally an icebox. The people would put blocks of ice in the bottom, and food could be refrigerated.”
“And there,” Serge continued, pointing at a wine rack on the opposite side of the wall, “that used to be a freezer, with pipes to the outside for cold air. It’s been modified, of course.”
We continued to the newer addition, where Serge pointed out the brickwork.
“This part of the house was built of concrete blocks,” he said, “but you’ll see that they finished the inside to look like the original house.”
He gestured towards the windows facing the street.
“And that used to be one big bay window, back when this was a candy shop.”
Maison Jacquet has been a restaurant since 1966. They focus on traditional Quebecois dishes, such as tourtière and pea soup. Serge commented that the menu has had some significant changes over the years, from strictly traditional dishes, to expanding to newer ingredients like duck and lamb, to the current menu, which includes several dishes that feature wild meats.
“Isn’t game traditional?” I asked.
“Not really,” Serge replied. “Most people here didn’t eat much game, and even now, it is not very common, except with younger people. But it is very popular on the menu, especially with people from Europe and Asia, and we prepare it in traditional French Canadian dishes.”
The name of the restaurant, Aux Anciens Canadiens, was taken from a book written by one of the historical owners of the house in the 1800’s. Serge darted out from behind the counter, and disappeared briefly behind me. When he came back, he had a yellowed book in his hands, an original copy of the home’s namesake.
Les Anceins Canadiens was written by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, who bought the house in 1815; the book was published much later, in 1863. The plaque on the side of the building indicates Gaspé owned the house from 1815 to 1824, though the City of Quebec website states that Gaspé only owned the building for a year, and did not ever live there.
“So what about the ghost?” I asked.
Serge grinned, and went on to say that a Canadian TV show had sent a crew to Maison Jacquet, in search of ghosts. They stayed for several nights, filming. They had fancy machines, which detected a ghost on the premises, and said that doors moved on their own, proving that there was a ghost in the building. However, the segment never aired.
“I have been here for thirty-eight years,” Serge said, “and I have often worked, alone, at night, cleaning up or fixing things. Sure, doors move – have you noticed all the ducts here? There is a lot of air moving,” he continued, gesturing at a vent in the ceiling behind him. “It is to be expected.”
“Thirty eight years,” Serge declared, “But in all that time, I have never, ever, seen a ghost.”
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