By Natalie Taylor
When the maple-syrup-drenched croissant touched my tongue, I knew that this Martin Picard brunch was worth the delighted squeals escaping from my fellow hungry foodies who had made the hour-plus pilgrimage from Montreal to his remote cabane à sucre (sugar shack) in Mirabel, Quebec.
The croissants were flanked by other delicacies–smoked meats, homemade yogurt infused with maple syrup, gravlax, a variety of pickles and breads. This was only our first course at the McAuslan Brunch, one of many events Picard hosts throughout the year at his sugar shack, where reservations are made months in advance and every menu is unique.
Huddled around the picnic tables, our group was ready for the imminent food coma to be brought on by dishes like tourtière filled with sweetbreads and chicken stuffed with foie gras and lobster. While the plates kept coming, I let the experience–a continuation of a long tradition of family and friends gathering for a communal feast at a sugar shack before sugaring season–wash over me.
Quite the opposite of hibernation, winter in Quebec is a time for togetherness. The barriers of sitting together with strangers at our table were gone with the platters edging the corners of our table; everyone enthusiastically discussing our journeys to this cabane and making memories over jugs of McAuslan ale. Sometimes, the simplest things are the sweetest.
Whether you’re a traditionalist or in search of a modern take on Montreal’s culinary landscape this winter, here are seven ways to get a taste for this vibrant French-Canadian city:
1. The Classic: Poutine
A side of french fries piled high with oozing cheese curds and gravy is the unofficial way Montrealers warm up on cold, winter days. Twenty-four-hour La Banquise is the most popular spot for a casual (and relatively cheap) indulgence, offering up more than 30 “styles” of poutine to choose from, including the high-voltage La T-Rex, which features ground beef, pepperoni, bacon, and hot dog.
Au Pied de Cochon and Garde Manger opt for decadent toppings (think lobster and foie gras) in their takes on the classic Québécois dish, while Blackstrap BBQ’s “Burnt Ends” version features skin-on fries slathered in brisket and an herbed hickory sauce.
2. The Festive: Montréal en Lumière
In just 15 years’ time, Montréal en Lumière (February 20-March 2, 2014) has established itself as one of the world’s biggest winter festivals. The multidimensional fete includes a fine-dining program centered around a theme. To underscore the milestone anniversary, this year is dedicated to celebrating all things Montreal. Included in this year’s program are a tribute to Montreal’s chefs and their signature dishes, regional wine tastings, and dozens of other special events.
3. The Indulgent: Hot Chocolate and Sweet Treats
Cacao 70’s take on the simple winter warm-up is nothing short of sweet and and includes nine different choices. Taste test their inventive desserts, which range from chocolate-peanut-butter pizza and grilled marshmallows to its “worldwide cocoa collection,” which features two dozen different kinds of chocolate from all over the world.
4. The Traditional: Sugar Shacks
Quebec’s sugar shacks now produce up to three quarters of the world’s maple syrup, but historically they were a luxury–a private source of sugar for families of greater means.
La Sucrerie de la Montagne is one of the most famous shacks in the greater Montreal area (about an hour west of the city center), where guests gather over a traditional meal that can include pea soup, ham with maple syrup, eggs, sausage, pork rinds, crepes, and, of course, maple taffy or maple syrup hardened on snow. The “sugaring off” experience includes musical entertainment and a ride in a horse-drawn sleigh or wagon in addition to the feast.
In downtown Montreal, the shack’s latest incarnation is an urban pop-up called La Cabane, a prix fixe menu created by celebrated Montreal chef Giovanni Apollo. The menu fuses the classics with modern twists and runs from March 6 to April 20, 2014.
5. The Intoxicating: Winter Cocktails
Homing in on the right bar becomes more important in the winter when the streets are icy. For an extravagant night out, my choice is La Champagnerie. Though bubbles reign supreme here, as the bar’s name suggests, a Flaming Buck–a special winter cocktail concocted from maple syrup, Jim Beam Black, Jägermeister, and mint leaves–will warm you up tout suite.
Happy hour, or cinq à sept, is another popular option for cheap and cheerful cocktails in the City of Saints. Le Lab Comptoir à Cocktails pays homage to tiki drinks with their “it’s five o’clock somewhere” special, and locals love Bar Waverly in Mile End.
6. The Playful: Nordic Cuisine In A Yurt
Experience the nomadic cultures of northern Europe the Montreal way at the Society for Arts and Technology (SAT). This winter, the Society’s Culinary Lab is hosting a playful celebration of Nordic cuisine in a traditional yurt constructed on the SAT’s roof. Share plates of smoked fish, a selection of Nordic cheeses, grog, and mulled wine–all from the comfort of a fur-clad seat. Claim your spot until March 1.
7. The New: Montreal’s Newest Take on Tea
Tea salons are not only a great way to escape Montreal’s frigid temps, they’re also one of its newest trends. Popular brunch spot The Sparrow recently opened its non-traditional tea room, Le Salon Cardinal, for an inspired selection of teas, scones, and other treats. The two-level space allows for tea and conversation on the first floor; on the second, you can work on your computer and hang out in a room full of eclectic decor.