I love Montreal’s public markets. Especially if I’ve arrived by train, so I don’t have to worry about stuffing potentially smelly purchases into a carry-on bag.
On this trip I visited three of the city’s most famous markets, Atwater, Maisonneuve and Jean-Talon.
Even before you step inside the building, especially at Jean-Talon and Atwater, you know what season it is. In late fall, bins of apples crowd the parking lot, along with piles of colourful squash and pumpkins (pre-Halloween), Brussels sprouts still attached to their thick green stalks and baskets of fresh cranberries.
In February, maple syrup producers will be outdoors pouring golden syrup on fresh snow and rolling the resulting taffy onto sticks, while next spring the outdoor areas will be a sea of flowers and vegetables for backyard gardens and apartment patios.
Inside Atwater’s massive Art Deco building, saved by public protests in 1968 when the city threatened to close it, classy food shops fill long, brightly lit corridors.
At celebrated Genevieve Grandbois chocolates, just get out your credit card then focus on the flavours from her classic collection of 10 exquisitely-designed chocolates including Le 9, which changes regularly. Salted caramel with fleur de sel is the best seller, but there’s jasmine, saffron, yuzu, gianduja filled with caramelized hazelnut butter, olive oil … you may need to buy at least one of each.
Fromagerie Hamel carries 50 to 60 varieties of Quebec cheeses. Some can’t be sold out of the province because they’re made of raw milk, says cheesemonger Luc Beauparlant. We sampled 14 Arpents, a square, creamy cheese with an orange rind, similar to Pont-l’Eveque, made by three sisters at Quebec’s Medard dairy. Pikauba is a semi-soft Oka-like cheese from Iberville, and Hamel’s cheese curds (a must for poutine), were so fresh they squeaked.
Maisonneuve market near the Olympic stadium (go to the Biodome!!) opened in the early 1900s in a magnificent stone building that still stands. The “new” market next door doesn’t look like much, with its hodgepodge of fruit and vegetable vendors, butchers and bakers, yet the first thing I spotted was a display of fresh PEI oysters.
Then there’s sprawling Jean-Talon in the heart of Montreal’s Little Italy, a magnet for locals and tourists alike, open every day except Christmas and New Year’s.
This is the place to buy all your edible Quebec souvenirs. Perhaps a crottin of fresh local goat cheese, or a braid of local garlic or espelette peppers. Ils en Fument du Bon (“They’re smoking the good stuff”) on the edge of the market offers a fridge-full of fresh sausages, from Kraft Dinner-flavoured to Foie gras/maple syrup and Blue cheese, fig and port. They also carry 300 Quebec micro brews, a great Montreal cola called 1642 and all manner of duck, fresh and smoked, some packaged as Oh Canard!
Within Jean-Talon we tasted amazing charcuterie at Les Cochons tout ronds (round pigs), including culatello from the butt, dry sausages stuffed with chanterelle mushrooms (forestier) or cranberries (atoka). They’ve even won an award for the best prosciutto outside Italy!
We also tasted pure, intense fruit sorbets at Havre aux Glaces, so good there are lineups even in winter. Recommended: coconut, pear, cassis, strawberry and burnt maple caramel.
At Épices de Cru, home of exotic tea and spice blends, I bought a chai blend of black Assam tea, wild Ceylonese cinnamon, Madagascar vanilla, wild fennel and cloves, all sourced by the shop’s owners. For all things maple, visit the Marché des Saveurs. There’s even a new bagel shop, O’Bagel, to rival Fairmount and St-Viateur.
We lunched at Impasto, owned by celebrity chef Stefano Faita, noisy and fun with an open kitchen. From the Montreal à Table menu, the delicious lentil soup had a rich meaty broth, a handful of lentils, dime-sized meatballs and dark green chard leaves. And I loved my main course of wide homemade pappardelle noodles with a veal jus, bitter rapini and ground veal.
Faita also owns Gema across the street, and he’s about to open a third restaurant, Chez Tousignant, four blocks away. Be sure to visit his family’s famous kitchen/hardware store Quincaillerie Dante, kitty-corner to Impasto, another Montreal institution.
You definitely won’t go home empty-handed.