As I discussed in the previous post, time flies here in Montreal as the very distinctive seasons keep on rolling around. Among the most enjoyable places to witness this transformation is the city’s markets. I’m used to some seasonal variation in fresh produce at the enormous Queen Victoria Market in the heart of my hometown, Melbourne, but here it’s much more extreme, from the riot of potted flowers that appear in spring, to the forest of Christmas trees at year’s end. And unlike the Queen Vic, which has a strong focus on volume, these smaller markets turn the display of products and produce – much of it local – into an appealing art form.
Right now, vibrant chillies and pumpkins (and squash and gourds, I can’t work out what’s what here!) are the eye-poppers. Bright-red chillies are the stand-out, both as dried bunches and potted plants (edible and decorative), but there are also glossy green, yellow and orange ones. There is even greater variation in the pumpkin family, from giant orange ones that will soon be carved into jack-o-lanterns for Hallowe’en, to small decorative things that come in bizarre shapes, patterns and colours, including stripes and speckles of yellow, green, orange and white.
While just about every other potted plant has had its time for another year, abundant displays of vibrant chrysanthemums are also adding cheer to this colourful season. Other autumnal pleasures are fresh jam, and cranberries, which are just coming in (and still a real treat for me as I’ve only ever found them dried or as a condiment in Australia).
Soon, as the weather starts nudging zero, the markets will shrink or disappear for several months. The big markets that I go to, Atwater and Jean-Talon, have some year-round indoor shops, but its not the same as almost all the fresh fruit, vegetables and plants are gone. The little markets are seasonal, though the one near me, outside Mont-Royal Metro, functions for a good chunk of the year.
In spring this kiosque is at its most expansive as all kinds of potted plants feed the neighbourhood’s eagerness for colour and life after a long winter. Through summer there are fewer plants but more fresh produce. Autumn sees big crates of pretty pumpkins, gourds and squash, and jolly potted chrysanthemums going for a song. Then nothing for a month or two until Christmas trees are available, followed by a big break until April when it becomes an urban sugar shack, or cabane à sucre, selling every imaginable maple product: syrup, sweets, spreads, even fresh taffy poured onto on trays of snow.
But back to my favourite markets, Atwater and Jean-Talon, which I go to interchangeably. For some reason I always get my Christmas tree and fresh festive foliage at Atwater; it’s such a Northern Hemisphere winter treat to walk through the expanse of car park turned into a strange kind of forest, and choose the pungent-smelling, perfectly shaped tree that will bring some Christmas cheer indoors. The place I go to is quite an operation, with your tree’s trunk freshly trimmed, and the whole thing bound into a remarkably slim package, all in a minute or less. There’s all sorts of lovely green foliage and branches of red berries too.
After that, winter at the markets is a bit bleak, especially at Jean-Talon, which has a lot of open-air fresh produce in the warmer months, then dramatically shrinks during the cold. Though there’s always comfort and warmth at El Rey del Taco, the cheap and cheerful Mexican resto (this shorthand for restaurant should be universal, not just a Quebec term!) that backs onto the market. I like having brunch there sometimes before shopping, though I’m always so full afterwards it’s difficult to focus on the purpose of my visit!
So, eventually, spring comes along like a beautiful freight train, as suddenly both markets burst outside with thousands upon thousands of potted plants. The myriad flowering annuals are particularly magnificent, though it’s also nice to see and smell the fresh kitchen herbs. And of course, the first fresh local produce of the year, including asparagus. With a few exceptions such as root vegetables and hydroponic tomatoes, it’s all imports during winter (mostly purchased at the supermarket in my case).
More and more fruit and veg appear through spring and summer, many of them cut into slices and piled enticingly on trays for customers (and scavengers) to try, including plums, peaches, cucumbers and tomatoes. I’m especially delighted when corn season kicks in around August, as it’s so abundant you can buy a dozen cobs for a few dollars, and so fresh I’m still amazed by how much better the local crop is compared to what you can get in Australia. Here it’s consistently sweet, juicy and crunchy. I always go to the stall at Jean-Talon where the corn is literally sold off the back of the farmer’s truck.
Most of the stalls at Jean-Talon and Atwater are operated by farmers from the region, so the goods are fresh and often presented with a lot of pride. There are also some stalls and year-round shops offering less perishable goodies from near and far including cheese, bread, tea, honey, nuts, cakes, and just about anything else that looks, smells and tastes amazing. Then there’s a favourite destination on hot days: both markets have an ice-cream shop called Havre-aux-glaces, which do quality, delicious ice-cream at remarkably good prices. My favourite: a scoop each of dark chocolate and dulce de leche in a waffle cone for less than $5!
Now it’s getting colder, I guess I’ll be resisting that for a while, but I’m looking forward to getting the first cranberries of the season this weekend, a jar or two of jam made from Quebec berries, and a big bag of fresh local apples. It’s such a pleasure to tune into the seasons at Montreal’s markets.