Sunday, April 22, 2007

To Market to Market

"We're eating like we're poor!"

Members of my family (my parents and I) like to quote this cranky outburst, which came from my brother's mouth on a trip to Canada. My parents, aware of the culinary possibilities, stopped the car at a local grocery store to buy bread and cheese for our lunch. Evidently Evan wasn't supporting their decision, and both of us stayed in the parking lot while my mom and dad selected our next meal.

There is something to Evan's statement, considering that my friends and I survived six weeks in Europe off of market food. However, the cheese from that Canadian store was sharp and savory, and I certainly learned my lesson. Going to a city's food market or grocery store for lunch is one of my favorite vacation activities. The fruit, bread, and cheese are fresh and unique, and the attitudes of the other shoppers and the stall owners are too entertaining to pass up.

Buying goods in a town where you don't speak the native language is challenging, yet fulfilling. People look at you like you have no idea what you're doing, because you're buying lunch while they're getting produce for the week. I always find it amusing when I perceive those reactions; I'm having fun while most of the shoppers are going through the motions of a regular chore.

The guidebook I brought to Montreal claimed that the city has two prominent food markets, one of which is more "upscale" than the other: Jean-Talon, in Little Italy, and Atwater, downtown on the Lachine Canal. I did notice a distinction between the two, although it was caused more by the clientele than the quality or prices of the commodities that were available.
The consumers at the Jean-Talon market were pushier and louder, and the market itself is scattered between a couple buildings and slightly confusing to navigate. The Atwater market is two floors of even rows, and there were tables on the second floor. Both locations house the same local bakery chain, which carries delicious baguettes.

Our meal at the markets, as I mentioned before, didn't vary much from the basic staples. In Little Italy we got tasty clementines and two types of cheese to eat with our baguette. One was locally made and creamy, similar to brie, while the other was from the Basque region, and it was hard and peppery. I also tried some type of sausage from a cart outside, which hit the spot, and got three chocolate truffles at a specialty shop (hazelnut, mocha and mint).

At the "sophisticated" Atwater market, I spoke briefly with one of the guys at a cheese shop who grew up in Montreal but has Italian heritage. He talked me into getting a luscious French cheese that melted in my mouth. It was mild but still interesting. The other cheese we tried was a more familiar variety, similar to a havarti, and it went well with the prosciutto we purchased.

The highlight of the Atwater venture was tasting maple syrup taffy. From the end of February to the end of March, the weather in Quebec Province is warm enough that the sap starts to flow from the maple trees, and Canadians celebrate with all sorts of syrupy products. For the popsicle-like delicacy I had the privilege of tasting, thickened maple syrup was poured on a table of crushed ice and rolled onto a popsicle stick. I'm not sure if it's the texture or the chill that makes it special, but I saw Montrealers of all ages enjoying the candy. Apparently, enjoying a seasonal treat isn't exclusive to any market.

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