Of all the places I’ve wanted to go and have yet to visit, it is Paris. Lately we haven’t gone abroad, our last major trip was Japan a few years ago. Part of the reason is my intense work schedule, followed by my declining vacation time and Paul’s insistence that Paris is “so predictable.”
“Why go to Paris when we can go to the Galapagos Islands? Everyone has been to Paris!”
So with one half of this couple fully entrenched against a visit to Paris, I’ve held off until I could fashion up an argument of why we should go. When an opportunity to visit Montreal came up, I grabbed it. Who cares if it was in middle of a freezing cold snap in late November? And while it officially isn’t abroad, Montreal is easily Canada’s equivalent to Paris.
This trip was courtesy of Tourisme Montreal for helping them with their inaugural restaurant week. It was a food-filled weekend and with Paul home with an injured thumb and a puppy to care for, I left California to explore Montreal without him.
Montreal is located in the province of Quebec and lies between the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa rivers. It’s the second largest city in Canada (after Toronto). It’s approximately 45 miles from the U.S.-Canadian border which it shares with New York. The closest U.S. city is Swanton.
During my visit I discovered that while it does have similiarities to French cities, Montreal it is uniquely different in cuisine, sights and people.
Even in the midst of winter, the farmer’s markets in Montreal thrive. Marche Jean-Talon, which was established in 1933, was filled with produce during my visit. Among some of the stuff available were apples (many varieties I’ve never seen before), goodies made with maple, meats, cheeses and ready-to-eat foods you can eat immediately. Foods or produce grown in Canada were marked with a maple leaf and products were imported outside of Canada had an airplane.
While New York City is known for their bagels, Montreal has their own version that rivals the U.S. version. The Montreal-style bagels are from old Polish recipes that made their way across the ocean. To this day, well-known competing bagel places, Fairmont Bagel and St. Viateur Bagel, still hand-form the dough, boiling them in honey-sweetened water and bake them in wood-burning ovens. Fresh bagels are available night and day — an added plus for early risers especially in their frosty weather. It’s a pleasure biting into a warm bagel which doubles as a hand warmer. Many flavors are available but I recommend sticking with the traditional sesame.
Smoked meats, specifically from Schwartz’s Deli, is a must visit for anyone visiting Montreal. This packed restaurant is a popular destination for their 10-day cured meats. The meats are available as lean, medium, medium-fat or fat, and are served on rye bread with mustard. It’s a hearty meal that puts pastrami to shame.
Alongside the Montreal favorites, the city also hosts a diverse culinary scene. With so much going on, it’s hard to accurately pinpoint a sole description of it. It’s traditional and modern, trendy and classic. Montreal has a thriving restaurant scene where selecting one must-visit restaurant is a Herculean effort. Imagine how much I had to cram into one weekend.
One memorable restaurant was Le Filet. They specialized in small plates. Our party of five tasted fresh oysters, snails and lobster in uniquely prepared dishes. It was a great start to the weekend; the maple square with its buttery crust still lingers on my palate. I actively sought out anything with maple for the remainder of my trip.
As much as I tried to find a beavertail to eat, the donut holes stuffed with lemon, vanilla and chocolate cream at Lawrence quelled my donut cravings with a cup of tea on a cold morning. I would have liked to try other things at the restaurant, but I was just too full to eat after having a morning full of Montreal mainstays.
Speaking of tea, I could not get enough of it during the cold weekend. We visited Le Maitre Chocolatier where each one of us had the opportunity to select 2 teas; a total of 10 teas to share between all of us. We had the shorter amended tea service but with the extraordinary pastry selection, I can only imagine how amazing the full service along with savory sandwiches would be. The entire place was cozy and a prime spot to warm up, linger and indulge in long conversations.
On Saturday evening after a busy day, we were left to our own devices. I explored the city on my own. The temperature dropped even more when the sun finally set but I was determined to explore Montreal’s Underground City, Old Montreal and eat poutine.
I was warned that Montreal’s Underground City was really just a large mall but under the city. Hundreds of shops are connected by the tunnels which span several miles. It’s a nice place to stay warm but unless you prefer to spend the large portion of your time shopping chain stores like Old Navy, it’s best to stay above ground.
Montreal hosts an abundance of old cathedrals with many of them surrounded by modern, glass buildings. Rather than tearing down these historic buildings, many of them are repurposed to house shops, spas, etc. For awe-inspiring buildings, Old Montreal is the place to spend some quality time. This historical district is situated next to the Lawrence River and despite the cold evening, there were a lot of events on the lake. I came across ice skating and a dressy event where I witnessed several brave Montreal women wearing fancy dresses and their legs exposed to the freezing air. And there were show-stopping fireworks! Being by the water was sometimes even a bit much for me, but as luck would have it there were several fire pits along the water to stop and warm up and maybe roast some marshmallows.
And I did find poutine. At Montreal Poutine, I was able to defrost a bit and indulge in their speciality: poutine topped with smoked meats. It was easily a meal for two people and I hardly put a dent on it.
But the highlight for me the entire weekend was tire d’érable also known as maple taffy. Having been a Southern California girl for most of my life, eating warm maple syrup on snow was always a dream. As I headed back to the hotel, I stopped in my tracks when I saw a sign advertising tire d’érable. Even with the language barrier, I knew what it was.
It wasn’t truly as I imagined: hot maple syrup ladled into clean snow as depicted in Little House in the Big Woods. (One of many books penned by Laura Ingalls Wilder.)This was a more antiseptic version. Warm maple syrup was poured on shaved ice, allowed to set for a while and rolled up on a stick. Although I only had a sample, it was an experience that kept me warm during the bone-chilling walk back to the hotel.
After being exposed to the cold for a long period of time, it was the defrosting that was painful. Skin that was partially frozen is now red and thawing. It’s no wonder most of the Montrealites I encountered wore downfilled jackets able that snapped down to their knees; many looked like walking sleeping bags. But the people there were the friendliest people I encountered. There were countless times I was lost and without a hesitation, I was pointed in the right direction along with a friendly chat. Even with the a majority of the people speaking French, they were equally fluent in English.
Even with the brisk schedule and even brisker weather, it was hard to leave Montreal. There were still more bagels I wanted to try (St. Viateur Bagel’s are sold at the airport although not piping fresh), more places and food to experience and maybe even get the guts to take back some foie gras — even if it was only in macaron form. (My carry-on bag was bursting with food.) But knowing Montreal is only a half-a-day’s plane ride away and on the same continent is a reason to return soon. That should tide me over until Paris.