Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Montreal: Culinary Notes

Last week, after attending a cousin’s wedding in eastern Ontario, I spent some time in Montreal with my sister, Elizabeth. We were only there for two days, but we were able to cram in quite a bit of food. Here are some highlights.

The iconic cartoons of Fairmount BagelsMontreal Bagels
After puttering around a nearly vacant Old Montreal (it was Monday morning), we struck for the livelier Mile End, a community of the Jewish diaspora, replete with delicatessens and bagel bakeries. The oldest of these is Fairmount Bagels.

The front room of Fairmount functions as both storefront and stock room, with racks of pre-bagged bagels stacked up the walls. Behind the counter I could see two men, each rolling out bagels two at a time, one with each hand. The bagels were lined-up on long wooden sheets, then slid into the gaping mouths of the fire-breathing ovens.

We ordered a half-dozen poppy seed bagels. Immediately outside the bakery is a bench, and we sat among importunate pigeons to sample our purchase. The most obvious difference between these Montreal specimens and our usual grocery store variety is the shape. These were more slender rings, with larger holes in the middle.

I took a bite. Before I could taste the dough, the texture had already seduced me. It was dense and chewy, but yielding, not tough in the slightest. Finally the pleasant sweetness washed over my tongue. The grocery store bagels I was raised on required toasting and cream cheese, or ham and mayonnaise, or at the very least butter. This Fairmount bagel was emphatically not just a conveyance for other foods.

In most Canadian cities, the butcher, the fishmonger, the fruit vendor, and the baker all live in one place: the grocery store. The streets of Mile End, however, are filled with fromageries, boucheries, boulangeries, and patisseries. Some of these words were familiar to me from elementary school (“J’aime le fromage”), others were more mysterious, suggesting medieval guilds and farmstead root cellars. Charcuterie, for one, which I later found out encompasses the many methods of preserving pork: curing, smoking, and drying to make products like sausages, bacon, and ham. We also came across stores offering viande fumée, smoked meat, but I was holding out for the real deal, the landmark Schwartz’s on St-Laurent. That would come later. I am a patient man.

The St. Hubert Chicken logoRotisserie Chicken

Unbeknownst to the rest of Canada, one of the most popular dishes in Quebec is rotisserie chicken. There is, for example, a popular rotisserie restaurant chain called St. Hubert’s which has a friendly cartoon chicken on its logo. My first taste of the slow-roasted bird came while walking on St-Viateur, at Serrano Bar-BQ. I’ll admit that “Serrano Bar-BQ” doesn’t sound like the most authentic of Quebecois establishments, but there was a line of francophones starting at the till and stretching out onto the street. Following the well-worn advice to eat only in places packed with locals, my sister and I stood in line, not entirely sure what to expect or order once inside. Everyone who trickled out of the place had a large, crusty bun with pulled rotisserie chicken inside, so our choice was essentially made for us. There were two types listed on the chalkboard menu: cuisse and poitrine. Having no idea what either meant, I ordered “cuisse,” and Elizabeth “poitrine” (the harder of the two to pronounce). I received dark meat, Elizabeth white. (I later asked a friend who attended French emersion in Calgary what exactly these two words mean. He couldn’t recall the exact meanings; he only remembered that he heard them frequently in his sex-ed classes. They mean, respectively, thigh and breast, or chest.)

It was one of the more memorable sandwiches of my privileged, sandwich-filled life. The bun was perfectly crusty, but easy to bite through, giving way to chicken that was tender without being (too) greasy. And simple yellow mustard, lettuce, and tomato to garnish. This meal, too, was enjoyed on a sidewalk bench, under a hot sun.

That night we ate dinner at L’Hotel Nelson, in Jacques Cartier Square, a restaurant famous for its garden patio, live jazz, and crepes. I tried the veal blanquette.

I looked up the term "blanquette" once I was back home: "The French term for ragout of white meat (veal, lamb, or poultry) cooked in white stock or water with aromatic flavourings.” –Larousse Gastronomique)

A light, crisp crepe exterior, creamy sauce, tender veal, aromatic onions and carrots, and nutmeg. To drink I had a rousse (the Quebecois word for a red or amber ale). I embarrassingly can’t remember the brewery name. It was good, though: an even caramel flavour with balancing hops. Dessert was a limoncello sorbet.

Naturally we needed to have poutine before we left. Wikitravel had recommended a place called La Banquise (“The Ice Floe?”). On entering, several factors conspired to make me love this restaurant, specifically, and Montreal, generally. La Banquise has a bright, quirky interior, similar to some of the Nelly’s restaurants in Calgary. It is open twenty-four hours a day, which, as far as trendy hangouts go, is completely unheard of on the prairies (unless you think casinos and Denny’s diners are trendy). And, as a coup-de-grace, a live Janis Joplin recording was playing.

Elizabeth and I tried two classic poutine variations: poutine italienne (with bolognaise), and poutine chou (with coleslaw.)

Let’s get our facts straight. Poutine is French fries with cheese curds and gravy. Usually the hot gravy is poured over the fries and cheese, to soften the curds.

If, however, you order “poutine” in any chain restaurant (Boston Pizza comes to mind), you will get French fries and gravy, topped with mozzarella and thrown under a broiler to melt the cheese. The result is stringy, pizza cheese and soggy French fries.

These plates, though, were the genuine article. The curds lose their characteristic squeak once they're heated, but they retain a satisfying chew, and don’t spread around the plate to rob the fries of crispiness. I washed my plate down with a Cheval Blanc white beer.

Smoked Meat

To complete our homage to delicious, delicious saturated fats, that night we ate at Schwartz’s. It was pouring rain, and we had to wait in line outside, under an awning. We were seated at a table for eight, with three other people occupying the opposite end. When the sandwiches were first brought out, their dimensions surprised me. The slices of rye bread were about the size of my wallet. The meat, however, was piled about as high as the bread was wide. It was dry but tender, peppery, and delicious. Poutine still in our stomachs, Liz and I forwent the fries and ordered an acidic slaw. The wall beside us was plastered with newspaper reviews and magazine articles, all salivating over Schwartz’s. The funniest clip I saw came from a skiing magazine profiling the slopes of New England. It told skiers that the best place to eat when visiting Vermont was Schwartz’s, in Montreal.

I noticed that several Francophones ordered their meat and bread on separate plates, and then constructed their own sandwiches, or simply double-fisted the two ingredients.

There were a few other local food customs that I didn’t get to experience, like “apportez-ing” my own “vin”.

Maybe next time. And there will be a next time.

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