Officially, spring started here more than a month ago, but it’s only in the past week that we’re seeing real signs of it. Tiny buds and the first little blooms, such as crocus and jonquils, are popping out, and within two weeks Montreal will go from grey to green. As the city enters its alfresco phase, I’m opening windows for the first time in six months, heading out without scarf, hat or gloves, and thinking about all the yummy meals I’m going to prepare and eat when fresh, local fruit and vegetables are available again soon.
For several months, sad-looking imported produce has been the norm. Even if it looks good when I buy it, things tend to spoil quickly as it takes several days to get here from farms way down south, from California to Peru. I have never bought tropical fruit here at any time of year for this reason – it has come a long way, and it shows.
The limited supply of fresh produce has been the biggest adjustment for me in the kitchen since moving here, because quality local fruit and veg are available year-round in Australia: it’s temperate in the south and tropical in the north, so there are fresh strawberries 365 days a year, for example, as well as seasonal pleasures, from mangoes to wild mushrooms.
What else is different about the kitchen experience between Melbourne and Montreal? From the miserable stuff erroneously called cream here, to the revelation that is super-fresh corn, it’s time for some (pretty minor) rants and raves …
I’ve said it before, but as nothing has changed, I’ll say it again. Tomato paste in squeezy bottles. Can’t get it. Mustard, yes. Ketchup, yes. Tomato paste, no, despite having the same texture. You can buy it in tins, but then have to decant the unused portion into a jar and pour a layer of oil on top to prevent mould (never entirely successful). You can buy it in metal tubes, which is as inconvenient as those metal toothpaste tubes we stopped using a few decades ago. Squeezy bottles! Come on!
I hardly used a can opener in Australia, because 99% of cans there have ring-pull openings that lift the whole lid off safely and conveniently. This is reserved for a precious few imported cans here, so bonjour can opener. Why?
Electricity is relatively cheap here, because of the huge hydroelectric capacity. This is fortunate given how much power we need for heating, but on the downside professional chefs are about the only folks cooking with gas. How I miss gas burners, which are commonplace in Australia, and instantly give you the level of heat you want, including off. With electric stove tops, you have to raise and lower the temperature a few minutes ahead of time; several minutes for no heat. I’ve mostly adjusted, but trying to go from boil to simmer is an annoyingly slow process.
Turkish bread is impossible to buy, or even, to my knowledge, enjoy at actual Turkish restaurants (I’ve tried!). This hybrid of fluffy, risen European bread, and Middle Eastern flat bread, has a distinctive, addictively delicious taste and texture, and is particularly good with dips. Cutting a big Turkish bread into chunks and serving it with a smoky baba ghanoush or spicy hummus dip used to be a kitchen staple, from lunch to party food. My beau used to make an amazing breakfast of split Turkish bread, lightly toasted and filled with tomato, avocado, marinated eggplant, tahini and sumac. Sigh …
Cream is not cream here. It’s some awful runny stuff added to coffee – essentially milk with a smidgen of butterfat – or awful runny stuff that takes an age to whip, because it’s only 35% butterfat, tops. Cream is actually butterfat, the thick stuff that rises to the top of non-homogenized milk. It is not runny. Sure, you can get the runny stuff in Australia, but it’s for cooking on the cheap, or dieting. Any supermarket there will carry several types and brands of actual cream: pure cream, which is midway between liquid and solid, double cream, which you can stand a spoon up in, and sometimes triple cream, which is heart-attack material. Here, if I look hard, I can buy tiny jars of imported English double cream for five or six dollars. Ouch.
Eating fresh corn on the cob here has been one of the great taste sensations of my life. During the peak harvest in late summer and early autumn, it’s sweet, juicy, crunchy and downright delicious. It certainly helps that you can buy it super-fresh, still in its husk, all over the place (including off the back of the farmer’s truck at Jean-Talon Market), because even after a few days in the fridge, the quality diminishes. Corn is so good, and so cheap, during peak season, it ends up in a lot of my cooking, or simply fresh off the barbecue. It’s grown in Australia, but in a minor way, and almost certainly with a lot less water, so I never found it anywhere near as fresh or juicy there.
Something like 80% of the world’s maple syrup is produced in the province of Québec. Most of it is exported, but there’s still a lot left for us to enjoy (especially during the spring harvest, when it’s literally flavour of the month). It’s cheaper than in Australia, and is also available in different styles that I didn’t know existed before, from dark to light. I still don’t cook with it that much, but use it more liberally as a condiment now, and also discovered the joy of maple Greek yoghurt (sensational on a humble fruit crumble).
French cheese is way cheaper here. I went from paying $100 per kilo for Papillon Roquefort in Melbourne to $60 in Montreal, for example. There’s also a lot more of it, which makes choosing quite a dilemma. Speaking of cheese, curds are available everywhere, so making poutine (fries, gravy and curds) could not be easier. I’m pretty sure Melbourne is a curd-free zone.
The best aspect of cooking in Québec is I’m trying new things. Making my own Christmas puddings was prompted by a serious lack of them in stores (it’s true I could find an imported one for $20-30, but that’s hard to swallow when you’re used to taking your pick from really good $10-15 ones). It’s proved to be an enjoyable and tasty exercise. Most other cooking adventures have been prompted by ingredients previously unknown to me. Fiddleheads are young furled fern fronds and, like asparagus, a crisp, bright-green symbol of spring. Abundant fresh cranberries inspired me to make my own cranberry sauce. Cedar syrup adds zing to cheese platters. Rose petal jam, which I don’t recall seeing Down Under, is divine on scones. Then there’s pumpkin pie, inspired by a vegetable common enough in Australia, but which is such a big, colourful and varied part of autumn here that I finally saw the light: it makes awesome dessert!
What other foods should I introduce to my kitchen, as Montreal’s markets spring into life over the next few weeks?