Have you ever been to heaven? Let me answer that for you – if you have never been to Marché Jean-Talon in Montréal, then no, you have not. Screw Disneyland, this is the happiest place on earth.
Have I told you yet about those couple of years I lived in Montréal? It’s the usual story you see, fall in love with some debonnaire Frenchman (he was Lebanese, actually, which only made the accent sexier) and run away to another country. I know, it was just Canada, but it was romantic while my visa lasted. When it ran out and I could not get a new one, I had to leave quickly, but the time I spent there changed my life completely, and this market changed the way this foodie looks at food forever.
In the two years I lived in the random French-speaking province above Vermont I learned a decent bit of French, or at least enough to carry on a basic conversation about hair, food, or with kids. I also became a barber and found a career that I love. I befriended a pig who loved bunnies and shoved you around with her nose when you weren’t loving on her enough. I learned to swear in Arabic. And I found food Nirvana.
Three Metro stops from our apartment in Ahuntsic and right at my transfer stop between the two trains that took me home from school and volunteering at the SPCA was Marché Jean-Talon. The market, opened in 1931, is sort of open year-round with the brick and mortar locations staying open through the winter. The open air market part is in full swing every day May through October. Forget about going on the weekends, it’s like going to Ikea on a Saturday and heaven is transformed into the 9th circle of hell.
On a nice weekday morning, however, this is what you get.
This was my grocery store. Each shop is a narrow little place, packed to the gills with specialized goodies. I split my shopping list into sections: boucherie (now to choose between the halal and regular ones), poissonnerie, boulangerie, fromagerie, épicerie and on and on. Then there are so many choices for each, but I always went to the butcher shop that carried Vosges Haut Chocolat. Because, well duh. Click through and drool. They also have a blog that makes you want to die. From pure joy. I kind of hurt inside when I read it.
The market is broken up into a number of sections. First you have the main market with the covered indoor areas and indoor shops up in the front. Most of this, especially the well-insulated entrance area are open year-round. The arms extending back are covered and can be enclosed somewhat for small shops, but they are mostly just opened up during the nicer parts of the year. The three arrows around the sides of the market are the adjoining brick and mortar shops.
You can get more than just groceries here. There is a kind of expensive but mind blowing kitchen supply store in there with gleaming copper cookware and an awesome supply of specialized kitchen gadgets if you make enough of a certain item to splurge on fancy unitasker kitchen items. There are florists selling cut flowers and things to plant, of both the floral and edible varieties and during the right time of the season you can accidentally turn a corner into a rainforest. And then there is the street food…
The inside of the entrance portion of the market is basically a big open warehouse. This is home to the roasted nut people that I am convinced coat their cashews in crack and the creperie stand. Perfect fast crepes loaded with all of the deliciousness you will see throughout this post.
Just behind and to the left of the Middle-Eastern bakery here is a really authentic Polish bakery They also make fresh homemade pierogi there. As a Chicago Polak, let me tell you how happy that made me. Did you know there are a freaking ton of Polish people in Montréal? Me neither, until I kept running into them everywhere. Being born and raised in Chicago, which has the highest concentration of Polish folks outside of Warsaw, I had no idea I had stumbled into another mecca for my peeps.
I like tomatoes. On things, in things, whatever, as long as they are mixed with stuff and perfectly ripe. Otherwise the goosh bothers me. These stands though, the people working them just cut you off a slice of just about anything to try before you buy and I found myself snacking on straight tomatoes sorta often. So perfect.
Flower land! We had a tiny apartment with a tiny vegetable garden in the back yard, but every time I came here I got it in my mind that we were working with an acre of land and tried to buy everything. Thankfully E had the sense to stop me.
Hello Middle-Eastern shop that carries almost nothing but olive oil. And sandwiches and a few other odds and ends. This would be different from the shop that only sold oil and vinegar and whole spices. If you have ever been looking for that perfect 50 year aged bottle of balsamic vinegar, that is where you find it. And they even have tiny thimble-sized cups for sampling. What is the sound for when you melt into a gooey puddle of drool? Bleurgh?
This is Chez Nino, where everyone knew me because I was always there. It has literally every kind of produce I ever needed, and things I had never heard of. I credit this place with teaching me food French for the most part. And Nino himself is the most awesome old dude ever. He introduced me to Salerno lemons, or so he called them. The closest thing I can find online are Ponderosa lemons, but they are the size of a Nerf football with a thick edible rind and sweeter on the inside. Find some, they may change your life.
Now that I am back in the States, and the Chicago suburbs at that, I do not have access to this kind of magic anymore. Papa Bear is a baker at Mariano’s Fresh Market, which is pretty darned awesome for a grocery store, but it is a grocery store nonetheless. Other than farmer’s markets and short of a visit to Montréal, I don’t know of a place I can get this kind of foodie inspiration again.