The best way to summarize the last half of our time on Montréal is simple: food! Saturday morning started off very auspiciously. If you’ll remember, I was not able to finish my smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s the day before. So for breakfast Saturday morning, Keith and I split one of our remaining St. Viateur bagels, toasted it, slathered it in cream cheese, and topped it with the leftover smoked meat. Divine. I call it “Petit Dejeuner Montréal.”
After a slow morning Keith and I ventured to Jean Talon Market, which had been recommended by our Montréal-born-and-bred friend Jaëlle . Started in 1933, the open air market is abuzz with vendors, shoppers, and food stalls 7 days a week, and is enormous. The largest market I’ve ever been to in the US is our own Union Square market in NYC, and it is about 1/4 to 1/3 the size of this market.
Keith and I wandered around in amazement, sampling peaches and nectarines, gazing longingly at the braids of garlic, and exclaiming over the sheer variety of fresh peppers. As if to match the size of the market, the vegetables were truly gargantuan – I came across a celery that was at least half my height if not more, and it seemed the only way to buy basil was not in a bunch, but a bushel! I saw several people with armfuls of basil, and I can only suppose they are planning to make enough pesto to last them through the long Montréal winters.
Sometimes, especially in the height of the harvest season, I get overwhelmed by the sheer bounty of the farmer’s markets. And if I get overwhelmed in the smaller markets I am used to, you can imagine that I was almost paralyzed with simultaneous joy and indecision by all the produce at Jean Talon. Finally, we decided we didn’t want to risk trouble at the border bringing back fresh veggies, and that freed me up to just wander and enjoy, if perhaps a bit wistfully. We settled for buying some green beans to make for dinner that evening.
After leaving the market, we meandered through some residential streets on our way to brunch. Everywhere we saw that mark of Montréal architecture – the tall metal staircases, some spiraling, leading up to 2nd and 3rd floors from the ground. When we arrived at our brunch destination, Le Vieux Velo, we passed the 20-minute wait with some top-rate coffee next door at Cafe Odessa, which I would strongly recommend. We were clearly in the Williamsburg of Montreal, and enjoyed the hipster parade outside the window (and, as I learned later, the word “hipster” has also found its way into French, pronounced “eep-stair.” I hope you will use that pronunciation in your head from now on, because I certainly am!) The brunch at Le Vieux Velo, when we finally ate, was probably the best meal we had on our trip. Keith and I both got the B.A.B (bacon, avocado, brie) eggs benedict, the house specialty.
We continued to meander down Boulevard Saint Laurent, eventually running into a street fair, where I was tickled to find a detour sign with my name on it.
And then, as travelers so often do, we hit a wall. Hard. I actually fell asleep at 3:30pm on the metro home. I am not a napper, but I took a much needed nap that afternoon when we got home. The rest of the evening was spent quietly – exploring the neighborhood grocery store and wine shop, trying several kinds of Québec beer, and cooking dinner at home.
On Sunday, our final day in Montréal, we had made plans to visit and cook with a friend of Johanna’s. When I first started planning our trip, I had looked for a cooking class for traditional Québec cuisine, but hadn’t found much. I asked Johanna her opinion, and she was doubtful such a thing existed, but promised to ask around. What she came up with was even better than I originally proposed, as is often the case when we bother to ask a local how to do a thing. She had a friend, Johanna said, named Jaëlle who was a great cook, and Jaëlle had suggested a cooking party for us and anyone else who was interested.
And so that is how we found ourselves in Little Italie, in a 3rd floor apartment, with Jaëlle – born and raised in Montréal – and 5 other French friends, with poor Keith being the only guy AND the only non-French speaker. Our host had planned a proper cooking class, with explanations displayed on the walls, a platter of Québec cheese, four recipes to make, and of course, wine and beer.
The reason it was so difficult to find a professional Quebecois cooking class is because most of the food one eats in Québec is heavily American influenced. There is traditional Québec cooking of course, but it tends to be simple and made at home, not something you would find at a restaurant (with the exception of poutine, of course!) Much like in the US, cooking has recently been moving away from canned, processed foods to fresher fare.
The first recipe was the dessert, a maple pudding that came about during the great depression, when people only had very simple cooking supplies (recipe link in French, I’ll do an English one here soon!). The second was a Pâté chinois, which at first surprised me, because weren’t we supposed to be cooking Québecois, not Chinese? But as Jaëlle explained, the name came about when Chinese workers were constructing the North American railways in the late 18th century. It is basically a shephard’s pie, and we made ours with ground pork, leeks, mushrooms, corn, and sweet potatoes. The fresh corn on the cob is most definitely a North American twist, as it is not often found in Europe. In fact, when Jaëlle handed us the ears of corn to cut the kernels off, the French guests weren’t quite sure what to do, as the only way to buy corn in France is canned! With my bumbling French, it was at least the one thing I could contribute, so I demonstrated how to cut the kernels off the cob.
The 3rd recipe was – what else? – poutine, requiring a quick trip to a local friterie for French fries. We whipped up a quick gravy from a packet, added red wine, and drizzled it over the frites. What really makes a poutine though, as our host explained, is the cheese curds, and the Québecois are quite proud of their cheese. The final recipe was a simple sandwich of sorts, with shrimp and a slaw of celeriac and cucumber on a hotdog bun. I don’t eat shrimp, so I had my own sandwich with some fish instead.
The food was simple and delicious, but even better was Jaëlle’s generosity, and being able to connect with strangers over food. I got to practice my French; everyone was so kind to Keith and spoke English to him as much as possible; and we parted with mutual offers of hospitality in Montréal, throughout France, and NYC. I’m so grateful to Cassandre, and then Johanna, and now Jaëlle and her friends, for keeping in touch and being so welcoming. Thanks to all of them, this trip 7 years in the making was a resounding success!
But not totally in the way that I thought. Several people had told me how European Montréal was; that it was the next best thing to being in France. And perhaps it was because my expectations were so skewed, but I really didn’t find that at all. Of course there were some parts that were more European, and a few other random things were vaguely similar. If anything though, I was struck by the American influence. On Sunday morning, I actually googled, “Where are the most European sections of Montréal?” because I thought I had missed something. And that’s how I came across this really interesting thread on TripAdvisor. This gist is that Montreal is both North American AND European, and puts its own unique spin on everything from food to fashion to architecture, and we shouldn’t try to compare it too much. Which of course makes perfect sense to me now, and now I am curious to revisit Montréal some day, with even fresher eyes.
Alors, au revoir Montréal! It was fun. It was real. Thanks for not raining until Sunday, for feeding us well, and making us feel welcome. À la prochaine !