To get a flavour of Montreal just tuck in
Canada is hardly famous for its culinary scene. Yet this city is as close as you can get to foodie heaven, says Kate Simon
Maple syrup: that is the most distinct flavour I'm expecting on my foodie tour of Montreal.
Surely the fare served here is as bleak as the weather in this city, where the locals spend the winter months going about their daily business in an underground city of corridors, created to protect against glacial temperatures that can plummet to -40C.
Of course, I'm wrong. The food is as extraordinary as the Montrealers' preoccupation with it. I'd like to trace this culinary prowess back to the days when the French ruled the banks of the St Lawrence River, but they were only here for about a century and far more interested in the fur that clothed an animal than its meat.
And while the Quebec French have a strong Gallic appreciation of the art of dining, there are more than 80 ethnic cultures represented in this city of four million, with all the attendant flavours that such a mix brings.
Breakfast proves the point: the feted Montreal bagel made its way here from Eastern Europe. I eat mine with my guide, Ruby, at St-Viateur Bagel & Café in Le Plateau. It is simmered in honey water and baked fresh in the wood-fired oven and tastes nothing like the usually doughy wheel that sits heavily on my stomach – this one is crisp on the outside, chewy in the centre and sweet-sour on the tongue. It's a flavour to be savoured: "You'll never see a Montrealer eat breakfast on the run," says Ruby, "even if that means being late for work."
But I have only a day to get a taste of foodie Montreal, so we move swiftly on. Our next stop is the Jean-Talon market in Little Italy, home to the Italian-Canadians, the city's largest ethnic group. They first came here in the 19th century, then later after the Second World War; and though the community is now spread across the city, some still live in the staircase houses on Jean-Talon and Drolet Streets.
These multi-dwelling rowhouses with their exterior iron stairs are a quirky signature architectural style of this city and a sight in themselves, built as a nifty solution to maximising space, containing heat – and raising taxes for the authorities. Ruby tells me Montreal's chilly climate hasn't deterred the Italians from growing grapevines in these backyards – the Mediterranean sun still lives on in their souls.
At first sight the Jean-Talon market stalls, laden with workaday fruit and veg, look of little interest to the visitor. Indeed, this is the haunt of locals rather than tourists, who prefer the Atwater market in Saint-Henri, which has the added attraction of being set in an Art Deco former railway station. But Ruby guides me to Le Marché des Saveurs du Quebec on the south side, which is packed with produce from the fertile St Lawrence Valley and beyond – smoked meats, mussels from the Iles de la Madeleine, goat's milk cheeses, and, in a side room, beers from nearby microbreweries and the famed icewines of Niagara. It's the perfect place to pack a picnic for lunch on the run.
We find more to tempt us in the boutiques along avenue Laurier Est back in Le Plateau. At Olive & Olives the array of oils could rival any Mediterranean emporium. At Maison Cakao the young owner, not long out of college, offers a modern interpretation of the art of chocolate making, adding inspired ingredients such as Earl Grey tea. While at Le Fromentier & Maître Corbeau we dip downstairs to discover a subterranean hall dedicated to bread and cheese. It also does a roaring trade in deli fare and gourmet prepared meals for that extra-special take-out.
Over on rue Laurier Ouest at Les Touilleurs, Ruby gives a real insight into how seriously the Montrealers take their cooking when she shows me a kitchen equipment store that treats its wares as art exhibits. These culinary sculptures provide a good excuse for utensil junkies like me to stand and stare and who will not be able to resist buying a strawberry huller or other such nonsense gadgets as a souvenir.
You can linger even longer in Les Touilleurs if you sign up for one of the after-hours cookery demonstrations at its open kitchen, where local chefs show off their skills to small groups of dedicated foodies.
I pick up a copy of the Quartiers Gourmands annual guide at the till, which lists shops subscribing to the Slow Food movement and selling an alphabet of foods, from apple tarts to zabaglione. This city knows its food. I'm full and we haven't even tried a drop of maple syrup yet.
How to get there
BA Holidays (0844 493 0758; www.ba.com ) offers four nights at the W Hotel in Montreal from £945 per person in July, including return flights on British Airways from £621 and accommodation only from £324 for the duration.