Living in maple heaven / Vivre au paradis de l’érable

maple buckets

Gathering maple sap the old-fashioned way. Photo: Patricia Maunder

March may as well be renamed Maple in Québec. In the province that produces three-quarters of the world’s maple syrup, it’s literally flavour of the month when the harvest of maple sap begins. It’s a sign that spring is here, and it’s time to eat even more maple goodness than usual, from the traditional meals at maple farms, to seasonal treats, including maple beer and latte.

In Australia I had a choice of two brands of maple syrup in nearly identical bottles. It’s fairly pricey there, so used sparingly, and limited to but a few dishes (particularly pancakes), or entirely absent no thanks to maple-flavoured syrup – urgh! Now I live in the sweet spot of the maple universe: it’s way cheaper; there are as many ‘brands’ as there are maple farms (so thousands); it’s available in different grades, from golden/delicate to dark/strong; it’s a pleasure not limited to syrup form; and, especially at this time of year, it’s everywhere – even on the Canadian flag! Continue reading

I love afternoon tea / J’adore le thé d’après-midi

ritz

Afternoon tea at Montreal’s Ritz-Carlton hotel. Photo: The Ritz-Carlton

Afternoon tea is one of my favourite things in life. I keep a lookout for exceptional examples of this time-honoured indulgence when travelling, so while I’ve never stayed at London’s Ritz or New York’s Plaza, I have enjoyed a few hours at these hotels, living the life of luxury without the massive bill. Beyond five-star hotels, distinctive tearooms can also deliver memorable moments, such as Angelina in Paris and Gunners Barracks on Sydney’s majestic harbour.

I love afternoon tea close to home, too, because above all it’s a chance to press pause on ordinary life and share some special time with friends. Back in Melbourne, I regularly indulged at the historic Windsor Hotel, or at one of many unique tearooms (State Parliament’s hushed, wood-panelled dining room is one the city’s best-kept afternoon tea secrets). So I was disappointed by the comparatively limited afternoon tea options when I arrived in Montreal, but lately things have been looking up. In fact, I’d say there’s a little afternoon tea renaissance going on here. Continue reading

Meat-free Montreal / Montréal sans viande

miam kram

Chu Chai’s amazing Miam Kram – one of my favourite dishes in Montreal. Photo: Patricia Maunder

There’s a strange divide in Montreal’s dining scene: on one side a surprising number of vegetarian, even vegan, cafes and casual restos (the local, bilingual slang for restaurants), while with few exceptions anywhere that’s a bit fancy has almost nothing (or literally nothing) without meat, fish or seafood. There’s obviously a substantial population here that doesn’t eat animal products, but either few of them have much money, or most big time chefs have trouble conjuring interesting dishes not centred around flesh.

For most this divide is invisible, but for vegetarians (végétariens) and vegans (végétaliens) living in or visiting Montreal, here’s my take on the good food on offer – including a couple of fancy restaurants that not only cater to us, but also understand that we’re not birds limited to seeds and greens. Continue reading

The Cider Route / La Route du Cidre

Some of the apply delights available for tasting at Michel Jodoin. Photo: David Musgrave

Some of the apply delights available for tasting at Michel Jodoin. Photo: David Musgrave

On my first visit to Canada in 2003, I went to Ontario’s Niagara-on-the-Lake wine region, and tasted ice wine for the first time. Appropriately, I sipped while looking across the snow-covered vineyard at Inniskillin, a pioneer of this style of dessert wine that involves harvesting grapes frozen on the vine.

When I moved to Montreal, I discovered that Québec has its own take on this Canadian innovation. While there aren’t many grapes here, there are a lot of apples, so about 20 years ago someone invented ice cider. Like ice wine, it’s a viscous, sweet and delicious dessert wine.

I’ve enjoyed many a glass of ice cider over the past few years, as well as the quality sparkling cider that’s made in these parts, but only recently did I make my way to some of the cideries that produce it. Turns out there’s an official Cider Route in the Montéréregie region, which is directly across from the island of Montreal. Finding myself in pleasant countryside, tasting good cider at the source, less than an hour’s drive from downtown, was a very pleasant surprise! Continue reading

Cheers, Montreal! / Santé, Montréal!

McAuslan brewery's terrasse. Photo: Patricia Maunder

McAuslan brewery’s terrasse. Photo: Patricia Maunder

If you’re fond of a drink, especially quality alcoholic beverages served in venues of distinction, Montreal is a fine place to wash up in. It’s not on the New York scale of extraordinary bars, but after three years here I’m still a long way from working my way through the best on offer.

Even so, I’ve done quite a bit of first-hand research, from classy cocktails to craft beer, rooftops to an art hotel bar. So if you’re visiting Montreal, or a local looking for something new, read on! Continue reading

Kitchen rants and raves / Polémiques de la cuisine

Fresh Québec corn looks good, tastes even better. Photo: Patricia Maunder

Fresh Québec corn looks good, tastes even better. Photo: Patricia Maunder

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 … Continue reading

Market forces / Les forces du marché

Autumn at Marché Jean-Talon. Photo: Patricia Maunder

Autumn at Marché Jean-Talon. Photo: Patricia Maunder

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. Continue reading