In his book Choice Cuts, food writer and author Mark Kurlansky said, “Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.” In short, one of the best ways to get to know a place or culture is to learn what people grow, eat, and cook.
That’s certainly true of Canada’s Montreal, home to one of North America’s most vibrant networks of public food markets. In their halls and stalls, visitors can find artisanal meats and cheeses, homegrown produce, fresh-baked confections, and even made-to-order Thai satay. The city’s 15 public markets and 250 associated merchants provide a prism into the city’s heritage and evolving population and the thrilling dynamism of its food scene. With all they offer, the markets tempt the appetites of visitors and locals alike.
Just north of the Lachine Canal and not far from downtown, visitors will find Montreal’s popular Atwater market. The market is named after a prominent 19th-century city alderman, whose name also graces the adjacent street. If you take a walk along the Lachine Canal, which has been converted into a premier urban green space with winding walking and biking paths, the market makes for an excellent starting or ending point for your journey. One of its many vendors will be happy to help you fuel up for further forays in the city.
The Atwater market’s main art deco structure opened in 1933, and its white-and-green clock tower has become one of the hallmarks of the city’s skyline. From spring through fall, visitors will find running along the market’s perimeter dozens of farm stands hawking tart, bright yellow cerises de terre, or ground cherries; primordial gourds; and fragrant fresh-picked flowers, among a variety of other offerings. The berries at La Place Aux Petits Fruits are Technicolor bright and bursting with flavor, and the apples, nectarines, and pears at Les Vergers Alain Dauphinais will have you salivating. The jars of honeys, jams, and chutneys at Le Coin Gourmand by Serge Bourcier make for perfect souvenirs.
On the northern end of the market is a warren of food stalls. Everyone will tell you to stop by Satay Brothers for the fire-grilled pork or tofu satay skewers, and the pork belly sandwiches served on sticky bao with crispy cucumbers and fiery bird’s-eye chilies. Follow their advice. The meats are fired to perfection and dripping with juices, and the satay sauce is equal parts sweet and spicy. Among the other stalls here are ones purveying cuisine from the Indian Ocean island of Réunion, and another that incorporates wild mushrooms into salads, soups, crostini, and tacos.
Atwater is also known for its meat and cheese shops. You could spend an entire day perusing the wares at La Fromagerie Atwater, which include not only the deliciously creamy Ciel de Charlevoix, a local dairy creation, but also Quebec beers, wines, and spirits. The store also offers a hearty selection of international gourmandises, the French term for “treats.”
Of course, it would be a shame not to take advantage of Canada’s Atlantic bounty at vendors like Poissonerie du Marché Atwater. The array of oysters alone, with seasonal selections that come from New Brunswick to British Columbia, makes it a rewarding stop.
Inside the market’s main hall, the butcher par excellence has to be the multi-storefront Boucherie & Charcuterie de Tours. Their sausage case contains a drool-worthy panoply of pork links in flavors like maple pecan, apple cranberry, white wine and shallot, lime coriander, honey garlic, and the mouthwatering (and eye-watering) Inferno. The homier Adelard Belanger is the stand to visit for premade options like marinated short ribs and ready-to-serve cassoulet with navy beans, hunks of ham, and glistening golden broth.
By the end of your shopping session, you’ll be ready to treat yourself to a pastry. The enormous, flaky almond croissants dusted with powdered sugar at the Première Moisson bakery are sure to hit the spot. If you need perking up, there’s also a coffee roaster in the market called Brûlerie aux Quatre Vents.
While the market at Atwater tends to attract a diverse mix of Montrealers and visitors, drive about 30 minutes north to the Jean-Talon market for a more local experience. This market, originally called the Marché du Nord, also opened in 1933 and was built on a former lacrosse field. Today it’s home to some of the city’s best fruit and vegetable vendors.
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The market halls here are a more eclectic mélange of permanent and seasonal sellers. Jean-Talon’s roots are firmly planted in the local Italian community, and those ties are clear at permanent vendors like Pastificio Sacchetto, where you can watch pasta being made by hand. Leopoldo furnishes fruits from around the world, including some astonishing apples the size of cannonballs. The proprietor, Luigi “Gigi” Delledonne, has been working at the market since he was a boy, when his wages were paid in bags of fresh cherries. But there are also newer entrants, like Balkani, a stand selling fresh-grilled Polish sausage sandwiches, and Le Tartarin for oven-baked samosas that reflect the changing influences in the neighborhood.
Permanent vendors in the market offer just as much. Stop by La Fromagerie Hamel for its array of cheeses, check out the Joe La Croûte Bakery for fresh-out-of-the-oven treats (come on Friday or Saturday, when one of the specialties is the maple walnut brioche with sea salt), and explore Le Marché des Saveurs du Québec, where you can find local pear ice cider.
To see the market at full tilt, it’s best to visit in the spring, summer, or early fall. It’s then that the outdoor halls are brimming with the region’s finest produce. Fall finds include dozens of varieties of local apples, foraged wild blueberries, Mont-Royal plums, colorful cauliflowers, and Quebec-grown chili peppers. It’s also an excellent time to visit Les Jardins Sauvages, a stand specializing in wild plants and mushrooms. You can find chanterelles and fancifully named sheep’s foot and hen of the woods in baskets along their counter.
With their mix of traditional artisanal purveyors, local farm stands, and international flavors, Montreal’s famous food markets offer a delicious glimpse into the city’s colorful past, evolving food scene, and growing population.