Confession: As of May 2016, I had never been on a food tour.
I admit it. I call myself a “chef”… and I may have let this title sway my prejudice against the humble simplicity of tourists tasting mini-cupcakes. This changed recently.
Following the travel advice of a friend, I participated in my first food tour experience: The Old Montreal Food Tour. This introduction to the culinary scene in the historic section of Montreal involved 3 hours filled with 7 food stops and educational bits about the city scattered between. As my group of 15 sampled the delicacies of local cafes and bakeries, the rhythm of a chef’s mantra pulsed a steady beat:
Food is the universal language.
Brit and Chips: Speaking the New Zealand Language for Lunch
We started the day with the salty, crispy indulgence of fresh Fish and Chips at Brit and Chips. On newspaper-lined plates flashed a memory: the salty, briny aromas of lunch in New Zealand. I was in New Zealand 8 years ago, and that became a place where I fell in love with food. Backpacking across that country for 5 months, the cheap and fresh go-to of fish ‘n chips became standard lunch fare. Al fresco dining on a tight budget meant finding a seat at the picnic table, taking in the expansive views of the Pacific Ocean, and making quick friends with the local Kiwi’s. Back in Montreal, that golden, perfect crunch started my tour with memories halfway across the world and nearly a decade past. Excited tourists were also making quick friends as the pub buzzed with lively chatter.
Cantinho de Lisboa: Immigrants Language for Soup and Salad
After our British start to the day, our next stop featured more international flavors. Montreal’s thriving immigrant population makes up about 12% of the population. With new people come new languages, new traditions, and new cuisine. Like most urban cities, the presence of foreign influence will first show up on the evolving food scene.
At Cantinho de LIsboa, the chef and owner Chef Helena Loureiro has brought her Portuguese flavors to Canadian traditions. At this eat-in and takeout market we sat down to a simple lunch of soup and salad. Scattered amidst chickpeas in our salad bowls were salty bits of brandade, the dried fish historically linked to Norwegian and Portuguese coastlines. The food had made the long voyage from Europe to the Quebec province to speak the language of an immigrant in a new country.
Lifting my head up from my lunch plate took me on a quick memory trip back to the markets of Peru. Each day for lunch, I would find a seat on a shared bench to enjoy a calabeza soup or quinoa salad while practicing my Spanish with the local Limans. Today, my fellow diners spoke more French than Spanish, but we still shared the meal swapping personal anecdotes and travel woes. Our own international conversation was accented by our home countries. The food on our plates was influenced by Portuguese flavors, and the words from our mouths was tinged with specks of French, German, and American English.
Crew Collective Café: Urban Language for Classic Farm Recipe
We ambled onward to explore more of the historic architecture of Old Montreal. As the city is undergoing major revitalization, while former hardware stores and grain silos are looking for new life. History and modernity seek balance. Our visit to a former bank-turned-shared-office-space, highlighted that fusion of old and new. At Crew Collective, former teller pods now served espressos and wi-fi. Lending offices now housed rentable conference rooms.
We were served “new” BLT sandwiches that reminded me balanced classic farm flavor and urban fusion flair.
You see, my Kentucky roots mean summer is always linked to two things: humidity and tomatoes. Growing up, dinner ‘feasts” often involved massive tomatoes, fresh-picked from our backyard garden, still warm from the sunshine. Mom would cut these into big, juicy wedges, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and serve alongside some quick tuna salad or grilled pork chops.
Biting into the New BLT took me right back to a Kentucky summer. This new version was served on a sprouted bread with shaved celery slaw. It had a fancy aioli and a thin slice of locally-sourced bacon. Yet the simple flavor of ridiculously juicy heirloom tomatoes stole the show.
Just as the fusion of old and new was embraced in the architecture, the eternal language of food was also acknowledging the old and new. Classic, simple traditions received a facelift with new inspiration. The dialogue had evolved, spanning decades past and looking towards the future.
Soeurs Grises, La Petit Dep, and Soupe Soup: Modern Language with Shared Food Traditions
Other stops along the rest of the tour kept us nibbling and learning. Cookie Stefanie, a gluten-free bakery, served irresistible carrot cake. How ironic that something “gluten-free” was voted the crowd favorite by the end of the tour! We savored the effects of the farmer’s market explosion with rhubarb sorbet from La Petit Dep. Craft beer got a nod with local cheese pairings at Soeurs Grises, an artisanal microbrewery.
At Soupesoup, the classic Canadian dessert, Poor Man’s Pudding, rounded out the afternoon. This warm, comforting, gooey goodness reminded me of pineapple-upside-down cake. As we dove into our steaming bowls, fellow Canadians reminisced over their own grandmother’s versions. Much as every American grandma has a meatloaf recipe that you just don’t mess with, ever Montreal grandma must have a recipe for Poor Man’s Pudding that can’t be topped. Much as thoughts of grandma bring warmth and comfort, a spoonful of this pudding brought warmth to the pit of my stomach.
Old, New, Local, International: Food is Universal
The 3 hours spent on the Old Montreal Food Tour was a reiteration of the universal language of food. At each stop, food history was being celebrated and updated. Chefs honored traditional recipes but spoke a modern language to feed their new diners. Dialogues requested desserts for special diets, hormone-free milk, locally crafted beers, and healthy fruits and vegetables. Chefs replied with delicious flavors.
This experience elicited my own memories of Kentucky summers, the New Zealand coast, and Peruvian markets. My fellow tourists and I communed around tables and swapped favorite flavors. Our conversations of cupcakes quickly evolved into wedding plans. Shared dessert indulgence flavored a dialogue of job aspirations.
When faced with the many possibilities for exploring a new city, savor the universal language of food. Let food start the dialogue that begins your travel adventure.
My Homage to Montreal:
Microwave Mug: Poor Man's Pudding
2- Minute, Gluten-Free, Vegan Recipe
More Information about the the Old Montreal Food Tour and the places we visited:
Old Montreal Food Tour from Local Montreal Food Tours: http://localmontrealtours.com/food-tours/old-montreal-food-tour/
Brit and Chips: Best Fish 'n Chips in Montreal: http://www.britandchips.com/
Montréal: The third-largest foreign-born population; Immigration in Canada: A Portrait of the Foreign-born Population, 2006 Census: Portraits of major metropolitan centres: https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2006/as-sa/97-557/p22-eng.cfm
Cantinho de Lisboa: Where Chef Helena Loureiro allows you to experience the culture of her native Portugal through its modern, creative and sunny cuisine, inspired both by her family and her various trips: http://www.cantinhodelisboa.com/en/chef-1
Crew Collective: Best Coffee and Wi-Fi in Montreal: https://collective.crew.co/
Cookie Stefanie: Gluten-Free bakery celebrating old-fashioned flavors: http://www.cookiestefanie.com/index.php/en/
La Petit Dep: Cute shop serving Candy, Treats, and Locally-Made Softserve: http://www.vieuxmontreal.ca/en/business/le-petit-dep-2/
Les Soeurs Grises: Local, artisinal craft brewery serving burgers and bites: http://www.bblsg.com/
Soupesoup: Eatery serving healthy salads, hearty soups...and steaming bowls of Poor Man's Pudding: http://soupesoup.com/