MONTREAL - This city has a deserved reputation for good food and cold winters, and fortunately the two aspects are complementary.
Several weeks into deep winter, but not long after we had dropped the most universal New Year’s resolution, I, my wife, and daughter, 26, are walking down Atwater Street, coats buttoned up to our chins, in search of the city’s famous gastronomic landmark: Marché Atwater.
A damp wind blows from the St. Lawrence River. Sidewalks are slippery from pedestrian-packed snow, and streets remain lined with ribbons of slush thanks to a recent snowfall. We take inspiration from several young mothers gliding strollers through snow patches with the determined look of competitive Nordic skiers. Ahead is the 200-foot clock tower atop the Art Deco building that has housed Marché Atwater for 79 years. And soon we will be inside a sprawling, bright, and steamy marketplace with its several dozen shopping stalls.
Here, along tiled floors and under cheery lights, are vendors selling meats; cheeses; breads and pastries; jams; honeys; teas and blends of coffee; fresh flowers; syrup and other maple products; chocolates, herbs, and spices from around the world; ice cider from nearby orchards; and all the colorful vegetables and fruits that one can imagine.
Though winter, this cornucopia shouts summer bounty.
Soon, we will be at a table at Première Moisson, the boulangerie and cafe, for an eclectic lunch: a sampling of stuffed grape leaves, ham and brie panini, a fish encrute and a string-bean salad with almonds and artichoke hearts. At $21 for lunch for three, it seems a bargain.
Later, it’s a fruit tartelette and a steaming dark-roasted café au lait.
We are on an overnight to the city, a two-hour drive from our home in Vermont. It’s a last-minute, self-guided culinary tour, a winter treat, that was to feature two or three recommended restaurants, but, as it turns out, we spend most hours in the city’s renowned public markets.
Montreal has four big, historic public markets. In addition to Atwater, they are Marché Jean-Talon, which in summer is said to be the largest open-air market in North America; Marché Maisonneuve, in the Olympic Park section of the city and near the Montreal Biodome; and Marché Lachine, which is near the city’s popular Lachine Canal area. Each has its own history and personality. Each spreads cache to its neighborhood.
Another market, Marché St. Jacques, had been owned by the city until 2007, when it was sold to a private developer. Like the Atwater, it is located in a historic Art Deco building, but unlike the Atwater, it is less a farmers’ market than a small-boutique, gourmet-food emporium.
Montreal’s markets are located strategically around the city, though that wasn’t the original intent of their founders years ago. The two smaller, more intimate markets, Lachine and Maisonneuve, opened in 1908 and 1915, respectively, when farmers brought their produce, eggs, ducks, and chickens to city dwellers by horse-drawn cart.
The two largest markets, Atwater and Jean-Talon, were established in the 1930s during the Great Depression. From the beginning, Atwater patrons had the benefit of a building, an ornate and spacious structure that was meant to boost civic pride in hard times. The Jean-Talon market, in the Italian section of the city, was largely an open-air market until 2004, when it got its winter walls and roof. The building goes up in fall and comes down in spring, and all the while the market remains open.
The markets serve the needs of immediate neighbors and shoppers from around the city, who arrive by subway, bus, car (there is ample parking), and bicycle. Atwater and Lachine markets are near the popular 9-mile-long Lachine Canal Bike Path, which at this time of year can be used by cross-country skiers.
In summer, the biggest market, Jean-Talon, has more than 240 vendors selling Canadian and international fare, and over the course of a year it has more than 2 million visitors, says Isabelle Letourneau, director of communications for Corporation de Gestion des Marchés Publics de Montreal, the nonprofit organization that runs the markets for the city.
The markets boom before and during the Christmas holidays, but by midwinter things tone down some. Marché Jean-Talon, however, gets a big boost in February during the city’s annual Winter High Lights Festival, which was held Feb. 18-19.
In winter, the markets have a special quiet charm. In January, February, and March, says Letourneau, with fewer people, “there’s an ambience, an intimacy, you won’t find in summer or any time of year in a supermarket.
“In winter you get more human contact with the vendors, because they have more time to visit,’’ she says. “They know their products, and if you ask, you are more likely to learn how this or that is grown, or you can get tips on how best to cook something they sell.’’
That was our experience at Jean-Talon, where Pierre Thibault, working for an orchard in Quebec’s Monteregie Region, south of Montreal, gave us samples of ice cider and described the processes, cooling, and storage that allow the orchard to sell its Paula Reds, Spartans, Macs, and other varieties from the bins and tables in an adjacent section of the market.
That was also our experience at Marché St. Jacques, where Francois Xavier Dehedin, a chef and native of France, who owns a fish market called La Mer, shucked a Raspberry Point oyster from Prince Edward Island and presented it to my wife.
The oyster was briny but delicious; however, we left with salt cod from Nova Scotia and smoked mackerel from the Magdalen Islands.
The seafood and several bottles of olive oil easily passed muster at the border crossing, but visitors should be aware that certain meats, fruits, and vegetables may be banned for human or agricultural safety reasons. (Prepared foods for personal consumption are generally OK.)
Susan Semenak, a food writer for the Montreal Gazette and author of the book “Market Chronicles: Stories & Recipes from Montreal’s Marché Jean-Talon’’ (Les Éditions Cardinal), describes the markets as oases in a winter landscape. “They have a special cozy, cocoon feel this time of year,’’ she says in a phone interview.
Though her focus as a writer was Jean-Talon - as a child she often visited the market with her grandfather to buy fresh fish - she has good words for each of the markets.
“I was just at Atwater buying piri piri sauce and blood oranges for a Portuguese dinner,’’ she notes with satisfaction.
If you go...
138 Atwater St.
Fresh produce, meats, seafood, international fare, boulangerie, and cafe. Big flower market in spring.
Fresh produce, meats, seafood, international fare, boulangerie, cafe, bookstore, and kitchenware shop.
4545 Ontario East
Fresh produce, meats, seafood, international fare, boulangerie, and cafe. Olympic Park and botanical garden nearby.
1865 Notre-Dame West
Cheese shop, fruit and produce markets, boulangerie, and cafe.
Marché St. Jacques
1125 Ontario St. East
Seafood, cheese and olive oil shops, plus boulangerie and cafe.
514-937-7754.Dirk Van Susteren can be reached at email@example.com.