Montreal winters are fairytale charming. Soft blankets of snow swaddle the city, families gather at outdoor skating rinks, couples take brisk moonlit walks through unblemished white fields in the shadow of Mount Royal and everyone chips in to the daily communal ritual of pushing their neighbours’ cars out of snow banks. But winters in the city can also be harsh and bitterly cold. A pair of rugged boots, a cosy woollen hat and a snug pea coat will get you out the door and into the season, but a sure-fire way of keeping yourself toasty is to enjoy the traditional Quebecois fare that has warmed generations.
Despite being home to many cultures, Montreal is still predominantly French speaking, and holds on dearly to its Quebecois culinary roots. Traditionally rural and poor, the Quebec diet often fell somewhere between meat-and-potatoes and ‘whatever I can find outside,’ and the origins of many of the province’s most renowned and well-loved recipes are basic, simple foods that started as necessities for survival in harsh climates amongst native, pioneer and settler alike. Over the centuries these have been spun into hearty, homestyle classics, many of which are still the saving grace of the festive, wintry season. Contemporary cuisiniers have not only fined-tuned the basics of comfort foods and modernised them in innovative ways, they have incorporated the Quebecois love of sweets, creating a distinct cultural cuisine ready to be exported well beyond the province’s borders.
First discovered by Quebec’s indigenous peoples, this sweet elixir has become an absolute necessity in every Quebecois household. Through holes bored in the bark, the maple tree would sweat out its sap, which would then be boiled down into sticky sweet syrup. Perfect as a seasoning treat or a warming energy booster, it was incorporated into daily eating habits, in the same way that Europeans would traditionally use salt. Generations later the process has been refined and mechanised, but the basic elements remain the same: tap the tree and boil the sap.
Now roughly 75% of the world’s maple syrup is produced in Quebec, and with this has come a plethora of maple products: butter, candies, ice cream, wine, beer, whiskey, vinegar, yoghurt – the list goes on. During the brief collection season that starts at the end of March, take the hour drive out of Montreal to visit one of many local producers, marvel at the intricate web of taps, lines and buckets connecting hundreds of maple trees and come home with a box of your annual fix. Or you can go to any of the several large markets in the city, where dozens of independent traders sell their sweet wares year round.
You would be hard-pressed to find a dessert whose name is so at odds with its taste. Pouding chômeur translates as “unemployed man’s pudding”, yet its succulent richness is anything but paltry. As with much Quebec cuisine, it has its origins in basic ingredients that were imaginatively used to boost both the calorific intake and the creature comforts of the poor. The female factory workers who allegedly first made pouding chômeur during the 1930s Depression started with stale bread, but it has since been refined into a white cake batter that is left to chill for a few hours and, before it is baked, topped with a mixture of cream and hot maple syrup or brown-sugar caramel.
That’s it, point finale. In the alchemy of the oven, however, the syrup mixes with the batter and then settles to the bottom, which then browns into a thin crisp layer of sugary goodness. Flip, top with vanilla ice cream or crème fraîche or a dash of maple syrup, and serve. Its recent resurgence as the rich, gooey treat du jour speaks to its timeless appeal. You can find its classic version at local Quebecois diners or its more modern variations – enhanced with delicate touches of homemade applesauce or lemon zest – at higher-end ‘revivalist’ restaurants.
This is cola’s crazier, rural Quebec cousin. Its roots lie in native tribes who brewed a tea from vitamin-C-rich evergreen needles (spruce or pine) to stave off scurvy during the fruitless winter months. European settlers were in desperate need of the curative, bittersweet concoction when they arrived, and the recipe was even adopted by the British Royal Navy during the eighteenth century. The modern variation has cooled the drink, mixed in natural sweeteners like molasses (and sometimes alcohol), but fermentation is still the natural carbonation agent. At once aromatic, floral, sweet and bitter, spruce beer is a unique beverage experience. It is like tasting trees – delicious, tingly Christmas trees.
Needless to say, spruce beer is an acquired taste and, after a period where mass production almost extinguished the drink by over-sweetening it, independent manufacturers have recently cropped up around the city, brewing recipes that go back to the nineteenth century. The father/son team at Marco’s distributes citywide to local stores, but you’re best off going to a casse-croute (diner) like Paul Patates in Pointe St-Charles, because a cold, bubbly, sprucy spruce beer goes best with another one of the city’s delicacies: the steamed hot dog.
In 1957 when trucker Fernand Lachance stopped at a diner in Warwick, Quebec and asked to have cheese curds put on his fries, little did he know that he was making culinary history. Clearly the breakout dish from Quebec, “poutine” is Quebec slang for “a mess”; and true, the dish isn’t going to win any beauty contests, but it has now established itself across the world as a local-kiddone- good champion. The classic recipe is fresh Quebec cheese curds (the solid parts of soured milk, much more delicious than it sounds), which are laid on a bed of fresh-cut double-deep-fried French fries and then slathered in homemade beef gravy.
For decades the guilty pleasure of the working class and 3am revellers, in the early 1990s poutine skyrocketed into the gastronomosphere, its variations multiplying across vastly different vectors of price (e.g. the famous $23 foie-gras poutine at Au Pied de Cochon) and variety (almost any meat+cheese combo) and international reputation (there are now designer poutine competitions in Chicago). Tourists line up 24 hours a day at La Banquise in the Plateau, where they serve 31 types of poutine. Skip the crowds and track down the classic recipe at Beaubien Nouveau Systeme, where Nick the owner will serve you one of the best poutines in the city as you lounge in a huge 1950s diner booth, gleefully stuffing your face.