Catherine Dallaire: From Beethoven to Beets


As part of the Québec program Adoptez un musicien! (translation: Adopt a Musician!), I was invited to discover and interview violonist Catherine Dallaire.

Orchestred by the Quebec Music Councel, this innovative campaign seeks to introduce Quebecers to local musicians through their music, of course, but also their passions. Go figure, they asked if I’d present to you a true virtuoso…of the wooden spoon.

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Her hands are precious. With that extra gift of soul unique to great artists, they can glide ever so seductively along the violin, evoking the most romantic, ethereal music. Or seesaw across in a frenzied back-and-forth, howling the pain of a composer turned deaf…


Catherine Dallaire is the associate solo violonist for the Québec Symphonic Orchestra. You’d think she would want to protect her talented hands at all cost. And yet, summer after summer, this committed foodie buries them with total disregard in the dark, rich loam of the backyard garden that is her pride and joy.

“Actually, I’m always hurting myself, she confesses with a laugh, in my garden and elsewhere. Two weeks ago, I peeled off one of my nails while shaving a white turnip. The turnip rolled into the sink and the paring knife took off my nail instead. Of course, it had to be the day of the Madame Butterfly dress rehearsal, that’s almost a given. I couldn’t play for two days… I finally gave up and went to ask my pharmacist if I could use Crazy Glue on my finger. And I ran across the fake nail section! So I bought super heavy duty glue for women who like long nails — not my case, in my profession, you can’t — and I glued the nail back on the open skin.” Ouch.

As a child, Catherine Dallaire hardly seemed destined to become a star violinist. “My father was tone-deaf, but my mother sang all the time. All my siblings studied music but as a hobby only. My older brother played the violin, and I wanted to be like him, but my mother refused. She made me wait until I was four-and-a-half. So I would take this skillet with a long handle, grab a wooden spoon and say I was «playing the skillet».” When she finally graduated to an actual violin, she became almost possessed by her instrument. “I lived in a bubble. I would put on the recordings of famous violinists and pretend I was the one playing. From the moment they put a violin in my hands, I never stopped playing.” A classical violinist at heart, she admires country fiddlers and jazz masters, but confesses her inability to play either style. In fact, she sees the classical violin and the country fiddle as two different instruments altogether…

Today, the student has become the teacher, at the Conservatoire de Musique du Québec, where she guides the next generation of violinists, a mission she holds dear to her heart. Several of her graduates play in symphonic orchestras, in Québec City and elsewhere. They must have loved this teacher who, shall we say, advocates a very unorthodox approach to music:

“I’ve always associated sound to colors, smells, forms, never to musical notes. Sounds have a colour for me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that do is purple, but a series of notes must produce both a sound and a colour. I even “see” them in front of me. Apparently, it’s a disorder of some kind, she muses out loud, I don’t know… For me, learning music note by note doesn’t make sense. When I need to learn a piece, I do it through forms, characters, and story line, never by stringing do-re-mi together.”

To relax and distance herself from the minutiae of her profession, year after year, Catherine Dallaire turns to the large garden behind her house. There, every summer, she plants the fanciful vegetables and heritage seeds shopped in off-the-beaten-track gardening centers in Québec’s back country: “I usually buy from Semences du monde, a store in the boondocks where they offer 180 different kinds of tomatoes!”

Catherine Dallairepotager495

Here’s part of the annual bounty of this foodie with a passion for oversized vegetables… and, obviously, the cooking genes to match. For newbies like me, that immense purple flower is actually an artichoke!

This past year, she planted celery (but didn’t like it), potatoes, two kinds of eggplants, multicolored bell peppers, banana peppers, Espelette peppers, Lebanese and lemon cucumbrers (which you eat like an apple, she says), almost blue, fleshy Cherokee tomatoes, Breast of Venus tomatoes (!) which she bought for the name and relished, banana tomatoes, three colours of zuccchini, etc. At summer’s end, she cooked most of what was left and made preserves with the rest. “My harvest doesn’t always cover our needs though. For example, last year, I bought three crates of Italian tomatoes at the farmer’s market to cook up 42 litres of tomato sauce!”

While two children have become vegetarians (with such a mother, no wonder there), she herself is a devoted carnivore: “I love meat, though I wouldn’t eat every day. I’m not the steak-and-potato kind. But I wouldn’t eat tofu every day either. I love lamb cooked with the rosemary I grow in my backyard. In fact, whenever the kids smell rosemary, they go beeeehhhh… At lunch time, I’ll prepare myself a salad or a pissaladiere.” Her husband hails from London, so the family cooks mostly Mediterranean and Indian foods. When they’re not exploring vegan cuisine that is! “A friend of my daughter, who’s a vegan, came to supper one night. Then friends showed up, which always seems to happen around here, and suddenly we were 14 for supper. So we improvised a vegan Indian menu for everyone.”

A fan of food porn, she can never follow as is the recipe found in this or that cookbook, preferring to forage her fridge for an impromptu meal. Yet she didn’t grow up in a foodie family: “I come from Chicoutimi. As a kid, I would eat a lot of pork strips with noodles, the menu was not varied, let’s say. Then, when I was 17, I left to play violin in Banff. That’s where I discovered avocado, which I didn’t even know existed. And yoghurt too, just imagine, yoghurt!”

Finally, Québec City foodies will like to know, she’s a big fan of two local restaurants: L’Affaire est ketchup and Panache. “At L’Affaire est ketchup, you can’t show up 10 minutes before your reservation, or you’ll wait on the sidewalk. They have probably 12 tables at the most, so there’s no room. They cook on two old stoves, like Moffatt or something. They shout out the night’s menu, everyboy orders at the same time. If you don’t take the starter, then you’ll have to wait until everyone is finished. But it’s really fun and friendly. I also looove to go to Panache but not too often, it’s quite pricier,” she ends with a laugh.

To learn more about Catherine Dallaire (in French), click here.

To listen to her play, click below:



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