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Whether I’m at home or traveling in other cities, one of my must-see places to visit are food markets. It’s in these places that we get an intimate look at a city’s soul. Nothing touristy, nothing fake, just good food and authentic interactions.
Get out of the supermarket whenever possible. You won’t find any high-fructose corn syrup at the farmers’ market. You won’t find any elaborately processed food products, any packages with long lists of unpronounceable ingredients or dubious health claims, nothing microwavable, and perhaps best of all, no old food from far away. What you will find are fresh whole foods picked at the peak of their taste and nutritional quality – precisely the kind your great grandmother, or even your Neolithic ancestors, would easily have recognized as food.”
Michael Pollen, In Defense of Food
Where large-scale grocery stores have given us convenience and a big cereal selection, they’ve removed us from nature; and if we’re not careful, they take us away from our freedom, too. The opportunity to hand pick our ingredients, consciously and by choice, learn about where they’re from and meet our farmers is liberating and binds us together as people. Making meals with our heart and our hands, serving family and friends and taking the time to eat together is not just the healthy choice. It’s what makes life worth living.
In Montreal, we’re lucky enough to have two big farmer’s markets: the Jean-Talon Market and the Atwater Market. Both offer a vast selection of fresh produce, gourmet cheese, top-quality meat and artisanal products.
Personally speaking, I prefer the Jean-Talon Market. There’s something special about it, a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, that makes it by far one of my favourite parts of the city.
The Jean-Talon Market is located in the heart of Montreal’s trendy Little Italy, on the corner of Henri-Julien and Jean-Talon street. It’s truly a remarkable place. Its energy is charming, genuine and a reminder of the simple pleasures in life.
What I love most is that there’s always so much going on, so much to see, to eat, to appreciate. On one corner, there’s a fish-and-chips stand and an oyster bar, and on the other, fresh strawberries and corn on the cob. In a province that’s been mired by its political landscape for years, it’s beautiful to see everyone come together.
I guess food just has a way of doing that, doesn’t it?
Having spent many (many) weekends at the market, I’ve come to know all the ins-and-outs. In no particular order, here’s my Top 15 of Montreal’s Jean-Talon Market.
1. Start at Aqua Mare with an order of fried calamari. Begin the tour from the Henri-Julien and Jean-Talon street entrance and head straight for fish market on your right aptly named Aqua Mare. From summer through late autumn, this fish market cooks up some of the city’s best fried calamari. Slightly spicy, ultra crispy and fried right in front of your eyes… This place alone will have you coming back every weekend just for this. They also make a pretty good fish and chips too!
2. Enjoy some fresh oysters at La Boite Aux Huitres. Located directly across from Aqua Mare, La Boite Aux Huitres offers a selection of over twenty of the city’s finest oysters. From small to large, sweet to salty, this stand has some of the best oysters on the market. Not sure which to pick? Ask them! They’re always so friendly and they definitely know a thing or two about their oysters. Or you can just go for some of my favorites—small, meaty and salty—the Malpeque, Chiasson, Gooseberry, Ruisseau and Kelly Gigas kind.
I’ll also let you in on a little known secret… While you’re enjoying your calamari and oysters, feel free to have a cold beer, a glass of wine, or, you know, a few shots of Calvados, right there on the picnic tables! Don’t have any? Buy some at the SAQ liquor store on the other side of the market. You can thank me later.
4. Have a sweet snack and choose six (or twelve) amazing macaroons from Point G. In the corridor to the left of Aqua Mare and the Oyster Shack is a small pop-up stand that sells some delicious macaroons, Point G. Crunchy on the outside, airy and chewy on the inside with a sweet creamy filling… Yes, please! My favorites? Caramel Fleur de Sel. Macaron d’Or. Tire d’Erable. If you haven’t tried these already, don’t leave without doing so. Even if you have just one.
5. Toast to your health with a fresh pressed smoothie at Mangue et Melon, a tiki-style juice bar. Located in the heart of the market, Mangue et Melon offers many combinations of fresh-pressed fruit and vegetable juices and smoothies. My typical order is the classic Explosion de Fruits but my true favourite is served only during the summer, Le Fraisier, made with a blend of seasonal strawberries, apples and mint.
6. Satisfy your sweet tooth at La Fournee des Sucreries de L’Erable. This little pastry shop makes cookies, pies, tarts and quiches right on the spot. And they’re decadent. Satisfy your sweet tooth with their signature toffee/maple syrup cookie. A thick, moist and buttery cookie filled with flecks of maple syrup… So delicious, so sweet, so buttery, it’s almost sinful.
7. Order a Super 8 sausage stick. At the farther end of the market is a small shop known for its artisanal sausages and supply of wild game. Because they know what they’re doing, they also sell sausages for you to try on the spot. Not sure which to choose? Try the Super 8, a stick that gives you a taste of eight different types of sausages, ranging from ham to wild game. If you have room by this point, do try their unique poutine made with fingerling potatoes and canard confit.
9. Get your weekly fix of Quebec strawberries. If you haven’t tried strawberries from Quebec, you’re seriously missing out. The feeling upon seeing the first strawberry harvest after a long, cold winter… savouring the sweet, tart, candy-like strawberries the Quebec terroir has to offer is one of life’s greatest pleasures. They’re so good that I’ve stopped eating regular strawberries altogether. Why settle for average year-round when you can have the best when in season?
10. Don’t forget to stop for some hand-picked wild blueberries from the St-Jean region. These wild blueberries might look like nothing compared to their grocery-store counter parts, but they’re packed with flavour. Tiny in comparison, literally 1/5th of the size, but the taste… Unlike no other. Like strawberries, I no longer eat conventional blueberries—I’m happy to wait until they’re in season to enjoy the best that nature has to offer.
11. Pick up some ail du Quebec (garlic from Quebec) for the year. When I found out that garlic is being mass produced with less-than-satisfactory quality standards and sold in grocery stores across Canada and the US, I began paying a lot more attention to where my garlic was coming from. That’s when I discovered l’ail du Quebec. With such beautiful bulbs being grown in our own backyard, I won’t settle for anything less.
11. Take home a bottle fresh pressed apple juice. Find some of the best, fresh-pressed apple juice from the Rougemont area here and jump start your day with a delicious glass of pure fruit juice, courtesy of Mother Nature.
12. Have an ice cream from the Havre-aux-glaces. Made from real ingredients, this ice cream shop makes some of the best in the city. In honour of local ingredients, they make an incredible sorbet out of seasonal strawberries and another made with ribbons of 100% pure maple syrup. Oh, and the lemon sorbet and 70% cocoa ice cream are also out of this world.
13. Enjoy cheese imported from all over the world at Fromagerie Hamel. There are several cheese vendors throughout the market, but Hamel is truly superb. Offering excellent service, a vast selection, top quality and a magnetic atmosphere, this place is what we call an incontournable. Being the only cheese vendor in Quebec that imports from Europe by plane, you can buy some of the world’s best cheeses without having to show your passport.
Recommendations? Check out their “chef’s choice” counter called “Le Pic”. Try the Brie de Meaux for a classic brie from France with an elegant, harmonious flavour. Outside of the “Le Pic” selection, if you’re looking for a firmer, perhaps more original choice, go with my personal favourite, an aged Mimolette, also of France.
14. Buy organic meat at Boucherie Ferme Saint-Vincent. As much as possible, I try to eat organic, and especially when it comes to meat, eggs and dairy. This family-run farm and butcher shop has excellent organic meat with a wide variety of cuts. I buy from Saint-Vincent, and while there is a price difference, they more than make up for it in taste. No hormones, no pesticides, no CAFOs, no animal feed, just traditional farming methods and great service.
15. Last but not least, stop for a coffee at Cafe Larue. Located in front of a beautiful church, this coffee shop is located about two blocks from the market and serves up a fantastic coffee. Sit inside or on their lovely terrasse, it’s well worth the visit especially after a day at the market.
Bonus: Don’t miss the Jean-Talon Market in autumn! As the season turns from summer to fall, the Jean-Talon Market is just as exciting. It really takes on another feel with the autumn harvest and des citrouilles (pumpkins) of all sizes.