Posted by: acooksca | 04/03/2009

Montreal Food Walk

montreal-market-1Montreal is a lively, fun city in late summer. Outdoor tables and chairs crowd the plazas of downtown as well as the sidewalks and cobbled alleyways of the Old City. They are occupied from morning to late night with locals and visitors catching the last warmth of summer over small bites and drinks. The feeling is festive and it is a great time to visit.

We were staying in Vieux Montreal, the antique heart of the city along the Saint Lawrence River. Visitors to Montreal concentrate on this atmospheric Old City. Some buildings date from the 1600s. This is a neighborhood of imposing churches and ornate stonework facades. Horse drawn carriages weave up small historic lanes brought back to commercial life by modern art galleries and boutique hotels.

One morning we set out on a walking tour to get a feel for Montreal’s vibrant food scene. The easy-to-negotiate metro deposited us some miles from the Old City at Jean-Talon Station. Street banners welcome you to “Little Italy” which is now liberally peppered with Philippine, Vietnamese shops and general “oriental” markets.

Our destination, a few blocks south, was Marche Jean-Talon, the largest public marketplace in this city of 3.5 million. Crowds swarmed the hundred covered outdoor stalls, peering at plump eggplants, multicolored peppers and summer berries. Scarlet runner beans bore the sign “Canadian” but all this produce is grown just a few miles away. Prices are inexpensive by Bay Area standards. Tomatoes were plentiful and a five pound tub might be had for $2. Blueberries, hand picked and just in season, sold by the pound for $6.

Edging the central open-air produce stalls are greenhouses selling plants and potted herbs. Several specialty cheese shops offer Canadian and imported cheese (see article above). We stopped to sample local cured meats in a charcuterie and found a wonderul small salame to take along with us. Cafes, coffee and ice cream stalls were active with mid-morning shoppers. The cookbook store Librairie Gourmande had an English version of the stunning Gastronomy and the Forest, a highly-awarded Canadian production I was anxious to bring home with me.

The metro took us back a few stops to Laurier Station and we walked south to Boulevard St-Laurent, affectionately called the Main. This street once linked Little Italy to Chinatown with every new working class immigrant group calling it their “Main Street”. Today, the Main mixes stylish Euro-cafes, nightclubs and boutiques with synagogues and social clubs for those newly arrived in Canada. One passes by Portuguese rotisserie chicken shops, Latin American restaurants and markets catering to Hungarian, Lebanese, Slovenian, Greek, Spanish and Indian clientele.

Many food articles about Montreal instructed us to stroll past all these and stop at Schwartz’s Deli at 3895 montreal-market-2Boulevard St-Laurent. The small shop isn’t pretty. It feels like it probably did when it opened in 1930 with Formica tables, brisk service and a tiny menu. No matter. We ordered the famous Smoked Meat Sandwich, coleslaw on the side. We got sliced rye with a mound of moist, lightly smoked, lean and amazingly succulent beef brisket. I tried to work in another visit for more but we never made it back up to that area during our stay.

Continuing our walk down hill on St-Laurent we arrived back in the Old City in the mood for an afternoon refreshment on this warm day. After determining that several charming wine bars we had been in had poor quality (or in one case oxidized) wines by the glass we did what we saw the locals doing and ordered a beer. Every ale we sampled was full bodied, distinctive and demanded you sample others. That’s just what we did on several stops at the brew pub Les 3 Brasseurs on rue St-Paul, accompanying our brews with crisp flatbreads with usual toppings such as garlic sausage and sauerkraut with mustard served on the side (called L’Alsatien).

Food writers and travel hosts rave about Au Pied de Cochon as a Mecca of Canadian cuisine. When we arrived for our 8:30 reservation the place was tightly packed with diners enjoying the meat-heavy menu. There was a token salad, a fish of the day, multiple starters involving sturdy savory tarts and huge main courses of venison, game birds and of odd cuts of pork and entrails. Many of these came like Sheppard’s pie with a foundation of mashed potatoes or smothered with a firm sauce.

We had come for the Foie Gras on the menu, which chef Martin Picard has produced locally for him. He offers ten preparations including a Foie Gras Poutine (a specialty of Quebec Province consisting of french fries, fresh cheese curds and gravy).

We started with a Foie popper. A one-inch square of Foie Gras is battered then deep fried. The Foie melts as it cooks but is contained inside the casing. Keep your mouth closed as you squish it with your tongue and the melted Foie explodes luxuriously filling your mouth. We have had these in France where they have a more delicate coating. Our waiter explained that Canadian preparations, such as this version of the Foie popper, hail from studier English roots.

We wanted the most pure expression of the local Foie Gras so our waiter suggested the pate and a quick seared escalope for their minimum accents or intrusions. These were both superb with clean, rich and clear flavors. This Foie, which was very fresh and from a small-production artisanal producer, was significantly better than what we generally have at home.

Clearly the Foie Gras at Au Pied de Cochon is a treat worth repeating on a return trip to Montreal. The local cheese and beer also particularly pleased us. On our next visit we will make it a point to sample some of the international/Canadian restaurants along the Main.

Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.

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