MontrealWords Andy Harris
Photography David Loftus
Montreal is definitely the place to visit if you’re a foodie. Steeped in fascinating layers of French influences, the city is full of authentic brasseries, bistros and patisseries – often serving better food than you’ll find in Paris – as well as a rich Jewish, Italian and Greek immigrant history that’s helped to shape its unique cuisine.
Most obvious and important is the Jewish community that not only produced Leonard Cohen, Mordecai Richler and William Shatner, but also gave the city a thriving heritage of Ashkenazi cooking in the Mile End district. It’s packed with atmospheric diners like Wilensky’s Light Lunch and Beautys Luncheonette (presided over by the wonderful 91-year-old Hymie Sckolnick), 24-hour bakeries and old-fashioned steakhouses, such as St-Viateur Bagel and Moishes, not forgetting the famous deli, Schwartz’s Charcuterie Hébraïque. They really put places like New York’s celebrated Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery and Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side to shame.
There’s absolutely no debate when it comes to smoked meat (the city’s version of pastrami or salt beef) at its famed delis – they deliver a superior sandwich of spicy smoked beef brisket on mustard-smeared rye bread, with requisite sweet and sour pickle. The recipe was brought over by Romanian Jews at the turn of the last century, and each joint practises secretive arts of curing, spicing and brining for 10 days or more, before smoking and steaming the meat to perfection. Always hand-carved quickly and thinly against the grain, with the marbled brisket constantly turned by the skilled cutter, there are special cuts you learn to order, depending on your mood and appetite: ‘Lean’, ‘Medium’, ‘Fatty’ (not for the health-conscious!) and ‘Old-Fashioned’, the last of which has the perfect meat to fat ratio to satisfy real smoked meat aficionados, who all rate Schwartz’s, Deli Snowdon and Lester’s among the city’s best.
Montreal’s cold, snowy weather in the long winter months has also fostered a love of warming, country-style French classics, often given a Québécois twist, such as tourtières (meat or game pies), foie gras and poutine (French fries with soft cheese curds and gravy), which are eaten throughout the province. Two of Canada’s trail-blazing restaurants, Joe Beef and Au Pied de Cochon, capture the decadent side of this style of rich cooking, with a spirited homage to the local ingredients.
In the Little Burgundy neighbourhood, Joe Beef’s charismatic David McMillan and Frédéric Morin offer an amazing array of seafood and meat dishes to their loyal clientele, such as duck cassoulet, spaghetti with lobster, oysters and beef galore – it’s one of the most evocative bistros you’ll ever find. Then on Avenue Duluth Est you have the anarchic Au Pied de Cochon, where chef Martin Picard offers gut-busting dishes to feast on – duck poached in a can, pied de cochon (stuffed pig’s foot), boudin tart and a sinful poutine topped with foie gras.
Montreal has many foodie markets, but if you only go to one, visit Marché Jean-Talon. Open since 1933, it offers a kaleidoscopic glimpse into this food-obsessed city. As good as Barcelona’s La Boqueria or Paris’s Place Monge markets, you can eat freshly shucked oysters and fried squid, tacos and sausage-filled baguettes, as you drink bière d’epinette (spruce beer) and cider. Depending on the season, you’ll meet an array of artisan food producers, farmers and foragers. There are the Atkin brothers who smoke Gaspé salmon and mackerel, Daniel Brais with his fragrant softneck garlic, François Lamontagne who seeks out delicate trout lily leaves for salads and têtes-de-violons (fiddlehead ferns) for steaming, and François Brouillard and Nancy Hinton who scour the forests for shaggy mane, hedgehog and crimson lobster mushrooms and the seashore for cattail and samphire to pickle.
Talking to ex-pats from Montreal, it’s not surprising they rave about the city’s foods and cabanes à sucre (sugar shacks). If you’re visiting mid-March to April, after the sap has risen on the maple trees, make sure you head for a local sugar shack (see Jamie’s story on p60). Or celebrate the arrival of spring at an evocative maple syrup festival, with music and all sorts of treats – fried maple-glazed ham and eggs, beans simmered in maple syrup, pork crackling known as oreilles de crisse (‘Christ’s ears’), pies and puddings. This is one place where you won’t go hungry.