MONTREAL - Last summer, we rented an apartment in Montreal and quickly learned to shop at the Jean-Talon open-air market, where most of the city's restaurateurs and chefs go for fresh fish, meat, and produce. Located at the edge of Little Italy, with its own stop on the M etro's orange and blue lines, Marche Jean-Talon is a foodie's dream in the summer, when the harvests pour into the city from across Quebec.
Quebec bounty isn't only a warm-season phenomenon, however. The province's fabulous cheeses begin to reach the peak of ripeness in winter, and the breweries and cider makers are relatively unbeholden to seasons. Two of our favorite shops in the ring of buildings surrounding the market are just as good now as during the late June strawberry harvest.
The Quebecois assert their French cultural lineage in part through a love of cheese. As do comparably great cheesemongers around the world, les Fromageries Hamel specialize in the products of their own region. Depending on the season, Hamel carries around 240 artisanal cheeses made in Quebec province. The horseshoe-shaped shop (one of four Hamels) is lined with cases of beautiful cheeses, an almost overwhelming number of choices. We quickly discovered that if we could articulate a little something about what we wanted, the staff would make unfailingly good suggestions, giving us slivers to sample until we found precisely what appealed to us.
We were already familiar with Quebec's ``monastic'' cheeses, most of which come from the abbey of Saint-BenoÂit-du-lac in the Eastern Townships, just north of Newport, Vt. In fact, we've even spotted the occasional wheel of Bleu Benedictin, the abbey's top prizewinner, in Boston and Cambridge cheese cases. The monastic cheeses are made from pasteurized milk, which makes them easier to get through customs.
The true prizes of Quebec artisanal cheesemaking, we learned, are labeled ``fromage de lait cru,'' or raw-milk cheese, and we spent the summer (in vain) trying to taste our way through Hamel's offerings that we will never find at home.
Judging by the cheese plates of high-end Montreal restaurants, locals prefer soft-rind cheeses. In advance of a visit from a friend with a highly developed palate, we assembled a platter of three soft cheeses: one cow, one sheep, one goat. We listened to a sales clerk's advice, nibbled a little, and settled on La Sablon de Blanchette, a creamy soft-rind goat cheese with an explosive pungency, and a gentle, slightly tangy St-Basile sheep's milk cheese. When it came to brie-style cow's milk cheeses, we were hard-pressed to choose between Riopelle and Mi-CarÁeme, both from tiny l'Ile-aux-Grues, near the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. They shared strongly nutty overtones and a melting richness but were as different as two beautiful sisters. We bought both.
On the south side of Marche Jean Talon, Le Marche des Saveurs du Quebec (``market of the flavors of Quebec'') promotes provincial agriculture. At some level, it's a predictable shop, full of many of the ``souvenir'' foodstuffs you'd find in gift shops in Old Montreal (honey, jams, jellies, tins of maple syrup), but at much lower prices.
The shop hardly stops there, however. It carries a range of artisanal breads trucked in fresh daily and has great charcuterie: smoked hams, sausages, bacon, and ``viande fumee'' (the famous Montreal ``smoked meat''). The cheese cases are not quite as encyclopedic as Hamel's, bypassing some of the tinier farmstead producers, but they do offer a wide range.
Le Marche des Saveurs excels in its exhaustive coverage of the wines, beers, ciders, and liqueurs of Quebec. A handful of the wines stand up to scrutiny (L'Orpailleur sparkling brut, for example), though they tend to be priced higher than the taste warrants. What Quebec lacks in top-flight wine making, though, it makes up for in brewing and cider making.
Montreal has been making ales since 1786, when young immigrant John Molson opened his first brewery along the riverfront. The current taste king of the beer scene, however, is MacAuslan Breweries, which produces both the best-selling St-Ambroise Pale Ale and the more complex St-Ambroise Noire, with overtones of chocolate, licorice, and roasted malt. Some of the more rarefied microbrews of the province can be found at Le Marche des Saveurs as well, notably the unusual Folie Douce, a Belgian-style acidic ale brewed in the Saguenay region and steeped with wild blueberries from Lac St-Jean.
Several farms in the townships just north of Vermont make and bottle excellent hard ciders in both British and Norman styles. Perhaps the region's best apple beverage is what some producers call ``ice cider,'' a hard cider fermented from partially frozen fruit in a style that mimics a sweet ice wine. Our favorite, Pinnacle, makes a perfect complement to one of the shop's other Quebec specialties, foie gras.
La Fromagerie Hamel, 220 rue de Jean-Talon est (Marche Jean-Talon), 514-272-1161, www.fromageriehamel.com. Le Marche des Saveurs du Quebec, 280 Place du marche du nord (Marche Jean-Talon), 514-271-3811.