Canada Stories and Tips

Eating Quebec

Maple syrup on snow Photo, Canada, North America

Quebec has its own culinary tradition and culture which one one hand is similar to one of the whole of Canada, and indirectly thus to the North American eating habits; but on the other shows a surprisingly strong French influences, in what foods are eaten, but even more so in the habits, customs and behaviours associated with eating, from eating hours to the existence – and popularity – of neighbourhood restaurants that uncannily resemble local restaurants in France.

This is particularly obvious in Montreal, where the French influence is strong and clearly visible in very continental cafés with very French patisserie and even coffee that differs from the standard Canadian dishwater. Other communities also influence the Montreal scene, noticeable in the Plateau Mount Royal area for example where Portuguese and Italian shops . There is also a Chinatown, with notable Vietnamese presence: it's hot Vietnamese noodles that save us from freezing on our first tour of Old Montreal.

One of the Montreal institutions, however, is of a Jewish provenance. Schwartz's is famous for its smoked beef sandwiches, or rather mountains of the smoked salt beef served with rye bread and pickled gherkins. The queues at lunchtime stretch along the road, the staff are famously rude and the guests are packed at communal long tables, but the food is good (the meat resembling pastrami most of all, but hot and smoked). The gherkins are a bit floppy for my Polish palate, though and the salami is not a salami at all but garlic sausage. Portions are huge, but prices not as low as the style of the place would lead you to expect. Still, an institution, an interesting experience and good food.

One cannot leave the subject of Quebec food without mentioning its (in)famous national (or is it provincial) dish, poutine. Poutine is a fast-food, greasy-spoon type of dish which consists of chips (aka French Fries), cheese curds (aka "squeaky cheese") and gravy. The chips go at the bottom, then the cheese, cold; this is topped by hot gravy, traditionally fairly light chicken, turkey or chicken-and-beef gravy rather than dark beef gravy. The squeaky cheese is a peculiar form of cheese that that I find it hard to find analogues for, but it's bouncy, fresh and mild in flavour; somewhere between fresh cottage cheese, mozzarella, halloumi and the unsmoked variety of Polish oscypek (though it's cow's milk, not sheep or goat). It has a fairly high melting point, so the hot gravy just about makes it stringy.

Poutine is an acquired taste, certainly, but when done well (i.e. with crispy chips and nice gravy), surprisingly easy to like, occasionally. Our first taste is offered by our Quebecois host in Laval (the second biggest city in Quebec that nobody heard of) who cooks is according to his mother's directions, and it's very tasty indeed. Other samples, from roadside shacks and institutional canteens, with soggy cheese and industrial gravy, are not quite so edible.

The poutine is accompanied by barbecued burgers (considering the fact that it's the Day of the Freezing Rain, it's a feat in itself) and followed by maple syrup on snow: slowly boiled down to very thick consistency, then poured onto snow (in this case, scraped from inside the freezer) and rolled into very sweet, very sticky and quite tasty (in small quantities) lollipops.

We will see containers attached to maple trees all over eastern Ontario and Quebec, gathering the maple sap for making of the syrup; and in Quebec City little cornets (like miniature ice-cream cones) filled with various consistencies of maple-syrupy-concoctions are sold from stalls in the old town.

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