Monday, August 14, 2006

Summer in Montreal, or Foodie Heaven

Dear readers, I have been to the river and I've been baptised. I have glimpsed Shangri-La, Nirvana, and bloody Brigadoon all rolled into one! Mecca, my foodie friends, is Montreal's Jean-Talon Market in full swing at the height of its summertime glory. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, drop everything, book a flight or get in the car, and get yourself to Montreal immediately! If you have a passport and the financial wherewithal, Paris might offer a superior experience for the true gourmand. But if you choose to stay on your own continent, you can't get more European than Quebec, and Montreal is truly a foodie's paradise.

It was such a gorgeous day yesterday that the roommate and I decided to hop in the car and head north to see what kind of trouble we could get into. Our first goal was to try to make it in time for Anthony and Michelle's (of Endless Banquet fame) Jamaican barbecue held on a precariously high balcony above a garage somewhere in the Mile End neighborhood of Montreal. We managed to find the nearly hidden location, but sadly, they were almost completely sold out of food by the time we got there. We were happy to get the last jerk pork sandwich, but we missed many delights such as Jamaican shrimp, rice and peas, and the worst cut of all, homemade ginger beer. BOO HISS! Oh well, we live in hope that there will be a BBQ #3 before the end of the season!

Our Plan B was perhaps to take in a movie, but when we realized how close we were to the famed Jean-Talon market, we decided to check it out. The beautiful weather was just so perfect for poking around outdoors, and though we had been to the market once or twice before, it was either too early in the spring or too late in the autumn to get the true JTM experience. Now, I must warn you, the full experience does not come without some suffering. The traffic leading into the market, even on a Sunday, was unreal. And inside, it is likewise very crowded, and the Quebecois seem to have a different sense of spatial relations than Americans (smaller personal space bubbles, and much bumping into you or inadvertent--one would hope--groping without so much as an "excusez!"). But what are a few bumps and bruises and fondles by strangers when all the marvels of the market await you?

I couldn't possibly remember everything that we saw and/or tasted there, and I am very chagrined that I didn't think to take my camera with to document our adventure, but I can share a few highlights. We enjoyed browsing in the the cookware shop and the cookbook store first. Then we sampled local cheeses, wines and ciders, cured meats, jams and preserves, and organic and heirloom tomatoes. I enjoyed a delicious all-fruit popsicle type treat made entirely of crushed blackberries. We also acquired some lovely little marinated picholine olives from a stand and some huge, freshly-baked croissants from yet another cheese shop. I got so overwhelmed by the variety of products in the marvelous spice shop called Olives et Epices that I left without buying anything. But I'm definitely going back for some bittersweet smoked paprika that I had my eye on. We also tried the most wonderful sandwich that must have been of Eastern European lineage. I was going to go back and verify the nationality, but as way leads on to way, we never got back there. It could have been something like Hungarian? It definitely wasn't Middle Eastern as it was spiced differently. Let me describe, and maybe someone out there will be able to identify it and its ethnic origin. It was made of ground beef, but the meat was formed into a log, cooked, and then sections of it were served in a hot dog or sub roll. They garnished it with spicy mustard and a delicious relish that was sort of a cross between sauerkraut and a vinegar-y cole slaw--fresh, crunchy, and tangy, but not cooked. Just delicious! We also ordered some savory crepes at another stall, and though the crepes themselves were wonderful, they were a bit overpriced and a bit skimpy on the meats in the fillings. I had a regular crepe with bechamel, mushrooms, grilled chicken and cheese, and Cyd had a buckwheat crepe with bechamel, spinach, ham and cheese. We both agreed that we much preferred our very favorite Bretonne creperie, Ty-Breiz, on Rue Rachel. Unfortunately, after our gastronomic tour of the world, we were way too full to try the fabulous-looking ice creams (looked more like gelati to me) at Havre aux Glaces, but there's always next time!

After our lunch, we made our way into the belly of the beast--the produce alleys of Jean-Talon, veritably bursting with the freshest, most amazing fruit and vegetable offerings that I have ever seen. There were many times that I would turn a corner into the next allee, and literally gasp in awe at the eggplants in white, orange, and every shade of purple, or the burgeoning baskets of jewel-like berries, or these enormous cauliflowers in snowy white, almost flourescent orange, and vibrant purple. We bought a dozen of the world's biggest, most beautiful ears of corn (and promptly had to make a detour by the car because the weight of the bag was cutting off my fingers). We bought a lovely mix of local mushrooms, and I was enchanted by the thoughtful touch of a small bunch of parsley thrown in with purchase. You'd never get that in the States! The other thing that you never see here but should is the free sampling of most of the fruits and veggies for sale. We could have made another meal out of all the samples of tomatoes and peaches and melons and such that each vendor has cut up and waiting for you to try. And if something is not offered to you, you can always ask to try a sample, and they are quite happy to oblige. That way you are sure of what you are buying, that it is at its freshest or sweetest or ripest.

We acquired many wonderful things at the Jean-Talon market that were featured in our dinner tonight. I made a delicious bruschetta with the tomatoes and garlic that we bought at the market and served it on broiled pieces of the very best bagels on earth, not from the JTM but from St-Viateur's Bagelry very nearby in the Mile End. For those of you who are not acquainted with Montreal bagels, they are quite different from New York-style bagels which are taller and more like bread on the inside. Montreal bagels are denser and chewier, leaning more toward the consistency of a soft pretzel. Delish! Then we had our favorite marinated ribeye steaks with the sauteed mushroom melange and the fresh parsley, of course. With the steak, we had two veggies--the enormous ears of corn on the cob and some beautiful green and yellow wax beans. (I know, I know! This all sounds very familiar doesn't it? It really is our favorite summer meal.) In addition to tonight's featured players, we also bought some of the first early apples of the season destined for who knows what, and some gorgeous leeks that I hope to turn into the mustard and leek tart that I mentioned recently.

But the best discovery of the market as far as I'm concerned was neither a fruit nor a vegetable. It was a pint (oh, a half-liter or whatever--I've already told you that the metric system hurts my pretty little head) of the most luscious and decadent cream that it has ever been my future cardiologist's misfortune that I have come across. Just look at it, friends.

No ultra-pasteurization here to render this sumptuous cream somewhat flavorless. And you're seeing correctly...that's 45% milkfat, and in any language or mathematical system, that is both sinful and heavenly at the same time. So what could I possibly do with this celestial substance (that I must confess, cost me an arm and a leg)? Obviously, I wanted to do something that showcased the simple, sweet perfection of the cream. Probably the best application would be to treat it as a condiment, that is, to pour it over summer's sweetest, ripest berries and call it a day. But a recent post on the Bakerina's website gave me another idea: I would make the most decadent vanilla bean ice cream known to man or woman! Indeed, I have no idea how my beloved Bakerina can call this ice cream with a straight face. She must utter the words with tongue planted firmly in cheek, as it is clearly the richest of frozen custards. But whatever you call it, when you combine the Creme d'Antan and some fresh egg yolks from our own chickens, along with some milk, sugar, vanilla bean, and a pinch of salt, you have something to die for...though I hope not literally. ;-) One taste of this frozen confection, and Cyd declared that it was what she had been waiting her whole life for and that it filled in an empty spot within her very being. She always thought she was waiting for her soul mate, but nope, it was this ice cream! Tee hee. We served it for dessert with a few more of the wonderful Mexican Chocolate cookies--not that either needed an accompaniment. (On a related note, my blogger pal, Anna, had another brilliant idea, to sandwich the cookies with some Dulce de Leche...yum!) Indeed, this frozen custard is dessert perfection on its own, or perhaps as the Bakerina favors, with a very ripe fresh peach crushed into it. This kind of cooking, to my mind, is the real joy of the season, bringing together all of the delectable finds from farmers' markets and roadside stands. And I sure hope all of you are out there finding your own culinary treasures. Hurry, hurry! It's over all too soon!


Randi said...

Its amazing the differences between where you go into the Canada and where I go into the US. I am always asked whether I'm bringing in fruits or veggies and one time my car was searched. ( they didnt find the avocado's that I had hidden). I was just in Ann Arbor, MI a week ago for the egullet culinary weekend and we went to the farmers market there, lots of samples were offered. The MI peaches were divine.

Randi said...

I've been to that bagel place, but I still prefer NY bagels.

Randi said...

one more, I've lived in canada for almost 4yrs and I still hate the metric system. I still call it a pint as well. Confuses the hell out of Robin when I ask her to pick me up a pint of heavy cream or a gallon of milk.

JoyBugaloo said...

Oh, they always ask us about our fruits and veggies at the border, but they are usually only interested in citrus fruits. Technically, you can't bring back anything that didn't have its origin in Canada, so we did not buy the gorgeous figs that we saw at the JTM. Basically, we just try to avoid tropical items, and go through smaller border crossings! ;-) But like you, I have been known to sneak some avocados through! (Why are they so much more expensive in the States when they all come from California??) --Gina

Randi said...

Because they dont all come from Cali. The ones I buy here( at Food Basics) come from Mexico. They are usually around 77 cents. A few times I've gotten them 10 for 99 cents, ( yep you read that right). Ppl around here dont like avocado's( stupid ppl) so they go ripe fast and the store reduces them down. I freeze them in small baggies and defrost when I make mexican food.

aj kinik said...

Hey there,
You should have introduced yourself! Actually, who knows, maybe you did. We were in such a daze by the end of the bbq that we couldn't see straight. Anyway, thanks for coming by and we'll give you plenty of advance warning about bbq #3, which should be coming up in about two weeks, assuming the weather holds up.

On to more important issues: glad you had a full-on epiphany of sorts at JTM. We took a couple of friends from NYC there a couple of weeks ago and they were practically in tears by the end of the visit. JTM has been impressive for quite some time, but this year's been particularly good.

The sandwich you sampled and mentioned is Romanian, if it's the one I think it is.

Next time, make sure to try the carrot/leek bhajis at La D├ępense, if you haven't do so already. We go back almost every week--ostensibly for the produce and all that other great stuff they have at JTM, but actually for the bhajis.