Mrs Chin started spinning the long piece of white sugar dough so fast it was impossible to see, counting aloud as her hands twirled and doubled the number of strands – 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512! With a deft flick she curled a piece of this white magic into a ball, filled it with sticky peanut, sesame and chocolate paste and popped it into a box. A treat fit for a king – or in this case, an Emperor. A notice in front of the little stall in the heart of Chinatown, Montreal, informed us that these sweet indulgences were served up at Imperial State Banquets. The strands were said to resemble a long beard and the Emperor’s symbol was a dragon – hence it became known as Dragon’s Beard Candy.
I was on the unique Fitz & Follwell Flavours of ‘The Main’ Food Tour with friendly guide Ingrid, taking in some of the quirky, eclectic tastes, sights and sounds of culinary Montreal in the beautiful and historic Quebec Region. “For three centuries, Montreal immigrants have settled along the city’s main boulevard, known interchangeably as St. Lawrence, St. Laurent, or ‘The Main.’ French, British, Chinese, Eastern European, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Latin American and North African – all have found their time and place on this historic street.”
Along with fellow travel blogger, Keith Jenkins and Hugo LeClerc of Tourisme Montréal, we’d set off from the ornate Chinatown Gate on our first stop, ‘Wings’, a family-run business established in 1897, now in an unprepossessing concrete building down a back street. They are Canada’s oldest producer of Fortune Cookies, noodles and many other Asian food products. We were each given a fortune cookie. Hoping for some life-changing message or notification of imminent wealth, mine simply said something about Patience being a Virtue!
Down the road at ‘My Cup of Tea’ an enthusiastic tea connoisseur showed us yet more Chinese magic as he filled transparent teapots with dried flowers which slowly blossomed into graceful shapes drifting around in delicate-scented, vari-shaded liquids. Dainty glass bowls were filled and, as we tasted many different flavours, he explained the history, provenance and health-giving properties of this popular drink. What I loved about this shop was its elegant, contemporary decor, so different from the faux-traditional appearance of some tea emporiums.
As we left ‘Asia’ we were given another taste of this multi-cultural city – a Vietnamese baguette or Banh Mi. A tasty morsel left over from the French occupation of Vietnam, mine was a scrumptious mix of minced pork, carrot, daikon (white radish) and coriander on a fresh and crunchy French stick. By now I was very grateful I’d not had a big breakfast …
Next stop on the tour was the Montreal Pool Rooms, ‘Depuis 1912’ as the T-shirts on the guys serving poutine proudly proclaim in this typical ‘greasy spoon’ diner.
Hands up who’s heard of Poutine? It’s Quebec region’s favourite fast food – basically chips, gravy and cheese curds – and believe me, it tastes far, far better than it sounds. According to Wikipedia, poutine ‘originated in rural Quebec, Canada, in the late 1950s. Several Québécois communities claim to be the birthplace of poutine. One often-cited tale is that of Fernand Lachance, from Warwick, Quebec, which claims that poutine was invented there in 1957; Lachance is said to have exclaimed, “Ça va faire une maudite poutine” (it will make a damn mess) when asked to put a handful of curds on some french fries, hence the name. The sauce was allegedly added later, to keep the fries warm longer.”‘
As food experiences go, eating poutine with a plastic fork out of a polystyrene box beside one of Montreal’s busiest streets, rates in my Top Ten Foodie experiences of all time. It’s a sensuously smooth, carbohydrate laden, scrummily divine taste sensation!
There followed further excursions into the city’s cultural heritage with visits to a Hungarian shop with a huge selection of sausages and paprika, a Spanish library- cum-delicatessen, past Portuguese and Italian grocery stores and then on to world- famous Schwartz Charcuterie Hebraique.
Founded in 1928 by Hungarian Jewish immigrant, Reuben Schwartz, its popularity was vividly apparent by the lengthy line of hungry punters patiently queuing down St Lawrence Boulevard. Their smoked meat is cured for 10 days in a secret marinade of herbs and spices and is melt-in-the-mouth delicious. Ingrid said that Canadian singer Celine Dion had recently bought Schwartz’s and locals were hoping that it wouldn’t lose its unique appeal. Judging by the crowded dining room, there’s no sign of that yet.
You know that scene in Monty Python’s ‘The Meaning of Life’ when the waiter says to Mr Creosote, “and finally Monsieur, a wafer-thin mint?” Well, that’s how I felt when Ingrid said, “and finally, we’ll pop over the road for potato latkes.” I managed one mouthful of this Jewish favourite with a smidgeon of sour cream before metaphorically exploding with all the amazing tastes, heavenly aromas and fascinating facts I had experienced on this excellent Fitz and Follwell tour. If you visit Montreal, and everyone should go at least once in their lives, then do take time to explore the city through your taste buds – it’s a truly sensational experience you’ll never forget.
Many thanks to House Trip for providing a lovely place to stay in Montreal and to Explore Canada and Tourisme Montréal for organising my very first visit to Canada. Discover more about the region’s history, attractions, activities more at Bonjour Quebec.