The exotic local treats of travel
I do my best to eat locally. I’ve thrown myself into it for a few years, and today I prepare meals out of local ingredients and products almost without thinking about it. It’s easier than I ever would have guessed.
I recently returned from a long train trip. My traveling companion, Ed, and I boarded Amtrak in Grand Junction and made it as far as Montreal. In two and a half weeks, we rode the rails 5,157 miles.
Local is where you find it, and travel allows me to indulge in all sorts of exotic treats. Their novelty and freshness heighten the pleasure.
Every region and locality has its specialties. Some are revolting — blood pudding in Ireland springs to mind — but I’ll try anything once.
The shortcut to Europe is a trip to Quebec. French is the official language of the province, and the gestalt is decidedly Old World.
Montreal was founded on an island in the St. Lawrence River in the 1600s. The streets in Old Montreal are narrow and cobbled. Three- and four-story buildings of stone crowd the lanes with their stately facades.
In Old Montreal, English is spoken, if only as a second language. Several metro stops away at the Atwater Market, many vendors speak only French.
In my travel guide I had read about the indoor-outdoor, year-round market dating back to 1933. Once I found my bearings after exiting the metro, I glimpsed tables loaded with pumpkins and squash outside the long, ribbed art-deco structure topped with clock towers.
Fall is the season when maple trees yield their sugary sap, and cases of Quebecois maple syrup packed in cans burdened the vendors’ tables. I longed to buy a gallon to bring home, but how would I fit it into my suitcase? I settled for a quart can of No. 2 amber syrup, a distinctive non-premium grade that’s hard to find in Colorado. I also treated myself to a few small packages of maple sugar candies at half the price of the tourist shops.
Apples grow well in the northern climate, as evidenced by the bushels of many-colored varieties. The most intriguing was the Russet, with a thick skin of dull green and brown. Developed in Massachusetts in the 1600s, Russets are an old-time apple well suited for cider. Crisp and flavorful, they cook and keep well, too. Ed found the flavor enticing, so we bought a basket for the long train ride home, along with some tart red Macintosh, Empire and Spartans.
Everywhere baskets overflowed with fresh cranberries. I fingered the exotic fruits, but cooking up a batch of cranberry sauce just didn’t fit into the vacation plans, even with Thanksgiving right around the corner. Instead Ed bought us a bag of plump dried cranberries. They’ll brighten up cereal and oatmeal this winter.
Inside the market, a long hallway opened onto butcher shops and cheese shops, cafes and a pasta shop, and at the end a boulangerie where crowds lined up for fresh, crusty bread, espresso and elaborate pastries that only the French can conceive.
I’d read that artisan cheeses made with lait cru, or raw milk, are a specialty in Quebec. Health laws bar them from export. In the charcuterie a charming young man cut samples as we inquired about various cheeses. I left with a thin wedge of something that had just won a prestigious prize, a cheddar as tasty as any, and a small wheel of smelly soft-ripened cheese made with a combination of cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s milk.
After a sandwich and fanciful confection at the boulangerie, we made for the hostel. It was our last night in Montreal.
Our room had windows that overlooked a busy, narrow street a couple blocks off the river. At the end of the street, a broad pedestrian boulevard climbs the hill to the Hotel deVille and other grand old edifices. Below them, street vendors cater to tourists. A few artists, undeterred by the chilly fall weather, sketched caricatures. I’d looked over the shoulder of one of them, impressed by the way he deftly captured the essence of the woman seated before him.
“Come on, Ed,” I said, “let’s get our picture drawn.” And so we did.
We’d seen the collection of Canadian and indigenous art at the Montreal Beaux Arts museum. Now we had our own art treasure safely rolled up in a cardboard tube for the train trip home. It’s personal, whimsical, and, oh, so local.
Marilyn Gleason writes Eating Local for the PI’s Good Taste pages.
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