For the past few weeks, for various reasons, we’ve been living the kind of lifestyle we’ve come all this way to avoid: laptops-gym-eat-laptops-sleep-repeat. In the meantime, Montreal could have been invaded by aliens and I’m not sure I would have noticed.
Still, there is one part of that sequence that, in my opinion, is one of the best mechanisms for discovering a new city – yep, we have most certainly not taken a break from eating!
It was after one particularly stressful day that we decided to reward ourselves with the ultimate in Quebecois comfort food – The Poutine.
It’s a mystery how such a monstrously unsophisticated dish became the icon for a province initially colonised by the French. I’m sure the Quebecois feel as if visitors to their land have chosen the worst possible example of their cuisine to serve as the stereotype, holding up their secret guilty pleasure for all to see, as if plucking the one Mills & Boon bodice ripper from a library full of literary classics.
In it’s unadulterated form, the poutine is a hodgepodge of chips and cheese curds coated with a thick gravy-like sauce. At La Banquise, one of the most well-known poutine restaurants in Montreal, you can then choose to jazz it up by throwing a few extra ingredients, like peppers or bacon, into the mix.
It’s simplicity means there’s little to dislike about it – who doesn’t like chips and cheese? – but after scoffing one we agreed it’s probably better enjoyed if you’re either stoned or cold, but not so much when you’re sober.
Where’s the booze?
After such a massive hit to the arteries, we attempted to be healthy for a few days and make some light meals at home. For further arterial benefit we also skipped over the supermarket’s extensive beer selection and headed over to the red wine selection. It soon became clear that the word “selection” would be stretched to its limits. The sad cluster of generic-looking bottles each going for more than CAD$11 (£7) and without a familiar label or AOC in sight was a bit of a surprise. Perhaps the Quebecois are more into their beer? Reminding ourselves that, despite the familiar language, we are no longer living in France and there must be a reason why these wines had been chosen by the store manager, we picked one at random. Leaving the booze aisle we also noted the lack of any kind of hard alcohol…
The evening’s roast beef and brocolli kale salad went down a treat. The wine in our glasses, as predictably crap as it had looked, ended up down the sink and the bottle relegated to the closet with the olive oil for use in a future bolognaise.
We couldn’t bring ourselves to believe that this was the state of alcoholic affairs in Montreal. After some creative searches online – it really was not as obvious as it now seems – we finally uncovered the SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec). A government-owned organisation, it essentially has a monopoly on the trade of wine and alcohol in the province. Any other store can sell only beer, alcopops and non-vintage wine that has been imported in bulk and bottled in Quebec.
While I’m sure many good arguments can be made for this system, perhaps including increased control over consumption of alcoholic drinks or extra income for the state, it seems sad that an independent wine cellar essentially cannot exist in Quebec.
Luckily for us though, there happens to be one of the biggest SAQ stores in Montreal just around the corner from our apartment. However, in true government-owned style it also closes promptly at around the time you would be heading out to a dinner party. If you fail to plan your wine purchases in advance, you put yourselves at the mercy of the supermarket or the numerous corner stores called “dépanneurs”, which translates literally as “fixers” or, as I like to call them, “un-fuckers”. On the plus side, the average dépanneur has compensated by having a better-than-average selection of beer, including many Belgian imports and offerings from smaller American breweries.
As suspected, the beer culture is very much alive and hopping (ba-dum-cha!) with numerous artisanal breweries in the province and more than 10 brewpubs in Montreal alone. Our local one, Benelux, is the apex of a golden triangle including Mile End’s Reservoir and downtown’s Brutopia.
Smack in the middle of Crescent Street, the centre of downtown’s bustling nightlife, Brutopia’s first-floor terrace is perfect for enjoying a chocolate malt or honey beer while watching the famously under-clothed Montréalaise strut by or while considering important philosopical questions such as why Crescent Street is arrow-straight…. or why the French are credited with founding Montreal when, with their chips-and-gravy and scantily-clad girls, the Geordies clearly got here first!