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By Emily Paster
My husband and I recently returned from a delightful long weekend — sans kids — in Montreal. We are both celebrating milestone birthdays this year, and this trip was our joint present to ourselves. We picked Montreal because it combined geographical proximity with Old World charm. I always enjoy opportunities to trot out my college French and my husband loves cities with interesting histories. You won't find those things a two-hour plane ride from Chicago anywhere else. As a bonus, Montreal happens to be a great food town. From the city's specialties like poutine, smoked meat — it's like pastrami but different — and Montreal-style bagels to high-end dining, Montreal's food scene reflects the city's European roots, its multicultural present and its cosmopolitan nature.
I will write more about the wonderful meals we ate in Montreal. But first, I want to share a different kind of foodie experience: a trip to one of Montreal's bustling food markets. Like European cities, Montreal has several permanent outdoor food markets where farmers and artisans can sell their wares directly to the public. The largest and most popular of these markets, the Marché Jean-Talon, is off the beaten tourist track. But it is a worthy pilgrimage for food lovers. (Fortunately for me, my husband is very patient with my insatiable appetite for browsing local food markets even when, as on this trip, I can hardly buy anything because I am away from my kitchen.)
This huge market is full of mouth-watering cheese shops, butchers, seafood counters, bakeries, prepared food stalls, one award-winning spice store, and rows upon rows of beautiful, mostly local produce. In the streets surrounding the market are numerous ethnic food stores and restaurants which reflects Montreal's amazing diversity. While everyone talks about French versus English in Montreal — and we found nearly everyone to speak both perfectly well — did you know that 20% of the city's population has a native language other than French or English? From the diversity of people we saw on the street and in the subway, my husband and I believed it. The streets around the market clearly catered to this wide variety of immigrant cultures, offering everything from Halal butchers to Asian markets to taquerias.
My husband and I wandered the length of the market stopping occasionally to buy a snack — local strawberries being one example — or some item that I could safely bring home in my carry-on luggage, like a bag of tiny Canadian lentils du Puy and two different kinds of maple sugar. I also spent an inordinate amount of time bemoaning what I couldn't bring home — artisan preserves and Québécois butter mostly, although I was also sick at seeing so many gooseberries when I was in no position to bake a pie.
We dropped a fair chunk of change at the spice store, Olive et Épices, which has been singled out in publications such as Food & Wine for their proprietary spice blends. I had read about the store's ras el-hanout, a North African spice blend, which contains three kinds of rose petals, so naturally we had to buy some. The shop assistant explained carefully how to grind it and advised me to use it as a finishing spice only, since the flavors are delicate. Going on this way, our bag got heavier and heavier until we simply had to sit down and have some crêpes from the food court. (The husband's pear with maple butter crêpe outshone my basic sugar and lemon one.)
Although it is out of the way and not near any tourist sites, browsing the Marché Jean-Talon was the best way to see the true heart of Montreal and its people.