Tuesday, March 9, 2010

veal brains and fresh chick peas

Just got back from Montreal. Actually, it was two weeks ago, but time sure flies. I was looking at my last post and realized I haven's posted since December. Sorry about that, i am not a very reliable blogger it seems. Well anyway, here goes:

Veal Brains and Fresh Chickpeas

Visiting the markets in montreal always makes me weep. Tears of joy, yes, but tears of longing as well. We were in Montreal for 3 days and we visited 2 different markets. At Jean Talon we visited Olives et epices. Every spice you have ever read about in fancy cooking magazines. not only that, but they have a spice smelling station and an olive oil tasting bar.

Still at Jean Talon, I visited a butcher that raises pigs on Iles de Madeleine. A six hour boat ride, followed by a 15 hour car ride brings to the market a beautifully rustic selection of cured pork products. Tender head cheese, not overdone
with gelatin, sea salt cured bacon, rillettes and cretons, terrines made with hearts and kidneys, and a selection of beautiful dried sausage. We tried a spicy, very spanish tasting chorizo and an incredible dry liver sausage. The eighteen year old girl behind the counter, un-like the stereotypical apathetic teenager we have grown to expect, was passionate and knowledgeable about the products she was purveying. This one, she says, starts off tasting like sweet pork, then you get the liver taste, then you get a hit of spice. She let us try a piece, and you know
what, she was right. Back in winnipeg, I gave a few slices of this particular sausage to a good customer of mine. This gentleman, born in Hungary, man of the world having lived in both Paris and Rome, said that this was the best sausage he had ever tasted.

Our day was not yet done. We had heard from the cooks at Au Pied de Cochon, that they had picked up some fresh chick peas at Jean talon market just the other day. I have never even seen fresh chick peas! So we went looking. Exploring the produce section was incredible. Vendor after vendor selling beautiful fresh produce. We saw baby squashes, yellow and white carrots, wild mushrooms, bright red tomatoes that smelt like tomatoes, dandelion greens, salsify, golden beets, fingerling potatoes and more. And then we found the fresh chick peas. In my life, chick peas come in a can or dried. These, looked like little pale, slightly fuzzy, pea pods. Each pod had one or maybe 2 chick peas. They looked like chick peas, but were a pale green. Their flavour was a revelation. Yes, they had the flavour of a chick pea, but this was combined with the fresh green taste of a garden pea.

We finished of our day with the frothiest cappucinnos I've ever seen.

The next day, we hopped on the metro and went to the Atwater market. Again, we were blown away by the produce sellers. Remember, this is February in Montreal. As in Winnipeg, there is still a foot of snow on the ground. This produce is not coming from the neighbouring farms. Yet it is so important to these green grocers to only showcase the best. Not only is the produce fresh and healthy looking, it is displayed in beautiful ways. Individual pint cartons of baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, baby squashes, haricot verts and more are all arranged to create a painting with colour and texture.

Our day at Atwater always begins with a stop at the bakery. We go for cafe au lait served in a bowl and pain au chocolat (chocolate filled croissants) . We go their with the clear intention of having pain au chocolat, but we are always tempted to have the apricot pastries, or the almond frangipane tarts, or the eclairs... It takes a great deal of willpower to stick to the plan. After shopping for a couple of hours, we always return to the same bakery for a light lunch of terrines, pates, rillettes and local microbrewed beer.

After breakfast we check out the butchers. The second floor of the market is taken up by 6 or 8 butcher shops. Each one has more variety than anything we have in Winnipeg. Although they all have a wide range of products they all have a focus; one will do veal, the next duck, the next wild game. The first one we visited was clearly into sausages. In addition to a wide range of cured, dried and smoked sausages, they had 60 distinct flavours of fresh sausage: wild b
oar with red wine, broccoli and cheddar, cauliflower and bacon, spinach, maple you name it. Another butcher we visited had all kinds of duck confit, foie gras terrines, duck rilletes, pates and whole lobes of fresh foie. Another shop had ready to go meats. Beautifully garnished roasts of veal, pork or bison all tied, seasoned and ready to go in the oven. All decorated with elegant cuts of vegetable, fruit or charcuterie. Another shop had cuts of local veal. Not just chops and cutlets, but necks, cote de veau, shanks, liver etc. Every shop had its own boudin noir (blood pudding). My favourite was the one that was cooked and packed in duck fat. One shop had a whole shelf of thinly sliced, cured meats: duck prosciutto, air cured venison, salted beef. Just when I thought I had seen everything, I came to one shop that had in their cooler: fresh quails, fresh sweetbreads, fresh lamb kidneys and fresh veal brains. This is stuff you rarely find in
Winnipeg, and when you do, its always frozen. What struck me at that moment, was that people around here must eat this stuff. You wouldn't keep fresh veal brains on hand if you didn't know someone was going to buy them.

Our next stop, was the cheese shop. Here, we go a little crazy. We purchased about twenty different cheeses. Most of them raw milk from quebec. Hard nutty cheeses, outrageously stinky cheeses, bloomy rind goat cheeses, salty blue cheeses, old raw cheddars and runny bries. The people who work there clearly love cheese. They enthusiastically offer us cheeses to try. They will shrink wrap them for us for the flight, and will be sure to be gentle with the soft cheeses.

And then our last stop is always the little gourmet grocer. Here we struggle to decide which of the hundred types of mustard we should buy. How many different salts do we need? Do we bring home some crazy pastas, some beluga lentils, some white truffle honey? We buy a bottle of elderflower cordial, some violet syrup and some hibiscus flowers packed in syrup.

And then, fully laden down, we hop onto the metro and return to our hotel.

When we return from Montreal people always ask us, where did you go? what did you do? where did you eat? When we tell them we spent most of our time in the markets they think we are pretty lame. But if I went to Montreal, and the only thing i did was go to the market, i'd be happy.

So I can hear you all asking, "where's the rant, Alex?" My blogs usually have a bit of a ranty tone to them. When i publish my first cookbook, it will be subtitles "recipes, ramblings and rants of chef alex" So far, i have presented a sweet travelogue of my trip to Montreal. So here we go:

Why can't we have a year round in-door market in winnipeg?

I love St. Norbert Farmers market. I go there as often as I can. I love that more and more farmer's markets seem to be popping up and I try to visit each of them. There is one at Assiniboine downs with some great meat suppliers, there is one at Pineridge Hollow, one in old market square and even one in Osborne village. The problem is that these places are only open one or two days a week for about 3 or four months in the summer.

Market shopping is not a lifestyle here. We go to markets in the summer kind of like a hobby. But we don't really do our shopping there. When I lived in Italy, our only fridge was the size of a bar fridge for a family of 5. We kept a jug of milk, a bottle of water and a couple of beers for papa in the little fridge. For food, we went to the market every day. Every day we had fresh produce, fresh bread, a couple of yummy cheeses and we would by our meat or fish for the day. There was no weekly trip the the big box grocer. Buying food was part of your every day experience, and because of that, our food was always fresh, new and always tasty.

When the forks opened, many years ago, I was super excited. Finally, Winnipeg was getting a year round, in door market. Unfortunately, my dreams were quickly shattered. The forks is a nice place to take your out of town guests, it is a nice place to go tobagganing and skating in the winter, it is a good place to host events like the children's festival or the dragon boat races, but it is no market. Inside the forks market building, you have a food court. You have a few boutique shops. There is one butcher, one baker and one green grocer. The forks, from its inception really missed the mark. I don't want to disparage individual shop keepers, as they are all well meaning, and like me, are just trying to make a buck and put a little away for the kids college fund. The problem the forks faces is structural. The forks does not allow competition. If there is one candy seller, there can't be two. if there is one meat seller there can only be one. And this is a huge failing. It is competition that makes a market great. I remember in Italy when there would be half a dozen stands selling nothing but roma tomatoes. All basically thesame, all roughly the same price. Each Tomato vendor was convinced that they had the best tomatoes, and they would do whatever it took to convince you that his were bigger, tastier and cheaper than the next guy. In that kind of atmosphere, you could never get away with selling bland, dry or wilting tomatoes. The vendors in the markets in Montreal are all in fierce competition. They have to always be convincing you that their sausage or their honey or their carrots are the best. In this kind of fiercely competitive market, you are forced to have the best products available and you have to put great effort into displaying your wares in beautiful, eye catching ways.

The other problem our market faces is that it is not used as a place to shop. And this is a catch 22 situation. Because it is not a great market, no one goes there to shop. Because no on goes there to shop, it can't be a great market. People will stop and pick stuff up when they are there, but no one plans there weekly shopping around the market. The forks meat market tried to do some neat stuff. She had some great steaks, some merguez, andouille, toulouse and other neat sausages. I was pretty excited, but the next time i was there it was all gone. She couldn't sell enough to keep it up, but because she couldn't keep it up she couldn't build a following. So, becasue the forks doesn't do the volume of sales it needs to sustain it, it can never get good enough to attract the following it needs.

People say we can't have a year round market becasue we have winter half the year. To that I say phooey! Yes, phooey! Montreal has winter as well and they sustain at least 3 markets. We need a market modelled on the atwater market. Indoors, year round, with butchers, bakers, green grocers and the like. A market that encourages competions and pusshes for excellence. In the summer, like they do at atwater, we can add stalls outside the market building for all the farmers to bring in their seasonal wares. And what I say to all of you, if someone out there has the vision to make this happen, then all of you people who take food seriously, need to get out and support that market.