Munching my way through Montreal
At the maître d’s recommendation — he is French, and charming — I have ordered pétoncles (scallops) with maitake mushrooms, and black lentils, followed by succulent duck breast, a local speciality. For dessert, after lengthy mind-changing between chocolat crème and something called elixir de fraises, I have opted for rhubarb carpaccio with green apple sorbet. It’s a good decision.
Despite the hum of French, the starched napkins, and the waiters gliding as if on wheels, I’m not in Paris. I’m in Canada, home of maple syrup and, well, other maple syrup products.
In a week of exploring Montreal and the towns and villages known as the Eastern Townships, I have eaten, in no particular order of deliciousness, wild boar mousse, rabbit stuffed with foie gras, truffle risotto and bison tartare.
The cuisine is a mix of France and New England, which means if you tire of fromage, moules-frites and croissants, you can gorge on clams and bagels.
And now I know why they go on about the maple stuff: it’s subtle and fine, less like syrup and more like liquid caramel with a hint of citrus.
The area hasn’t tended to shout about its culinary delights, but it has now created a brand, Chefs createurs, (cantonsdelest.com) and a logo to denote independent restaurants using regional produce.
The Townships are an hour’s drive east of Montreal. Settled by British loyalists in the late 18th century, they seem more English than England: lush, rolling farmland, wooded slopes, lakes, charming historic towns called Farnham, Sutton and Richmond, and clapboard Anglican churches.
They are so pretty, and so jammed with antique stores, quaint shops, ice-cream parlours and photo opportunities that they seem like film sets.
But though this looks like Cumbria, in northwest England, French is the first language here, spoken with a Canadian lilt.
Many of the towns have gourmet cafés, part of a network of eateries, called Cafés de Village.
To avoid putting on serious weight, it could be an idea to investigate the area’s great hiking and biking trails. I was content to swim in the lakes, such as Massawippi and Memphremagog.
We spent one night in the rustic Auberge & Spa in West Brome. After two nights in buzzy Montreal during the jazz festival, the silence made my head spin.
Before dinner (venison with butternut purée and purple snow peas) the chef showed me his vegetable garden, plucking a basket of leaves that would, 20 minutes later, end up on my plate.
But it was Manoir Hovey, in North Hatley, where I ate scallops and duck the following night, that will stay in my mind.
It’s a turn-of-the-century manor house on Lake Massawippi, with an antiquey interior, lush gardens and a jetty from which to leap into the lake, basket of fluffy towels on hand. At night, the stars were so bright, they hurt my eyes.
After an early swim the next morning, I decided I’d earned two breakfasts: eggs Benedict and French toast. Later, I noticed the waistband on my shorts had shrunk.
But then eating was our main activity. In Montreal, we’d spent a morning at the vast Jean-Talon market, the largest food market in North America.
It’s a farmers’ market in the truest sense: mountains of cheap local produce. It’s where locals do most of their shopping. Wandering the streets of the bohemian Mile-End district, we sampled bagels from Montreal’s longstanding rivals, Fairmount and St-Viateur: they’re lighter than their dense New York cousins.
Dominion (tavernedominion.com) in the Downtown district was filled on this scorching Friday lunchtime with young city workers getting ready for the weekend. Perched at the bar with a cold white wine and a bowl of garlicky mussels, I tried to decide whether I was happiest in the country or the city.
The best thing about here, I thought, was I needn’t decide at all — I’d had my fill of both. — © Guardian News & Media 2013