The Best French Food May Not be in France: A Culinary Tour of Quebec
The French are known for their superb culinary prowess.
Fresh homegrown food, attention to detail, top of the line chefs with an experimental nature and plates arranged to resemble art, all put France at the top of any foodies list.
But, you don’t have to travel all the way to France to enjoy a memorable French food experience.
Join me for a tour of the French-speaking province of Quebec where we will explore the best authentic French food that would delight even the most finicky culinary gourmand.
Every French chef, housewife and home cook knows that the secret to preparing a great French meal begins with the ingredients. Each neighborhood in the big cities of France or villages in the French countryside have a local food market. On market days you will find farmers selling fresh, local, in-season and often organic produce that puts supermarket food to shame. To replicate this adventure in Canada, head to the Marché Jean-Talon in Montreal. Farmers from the Montreal countryside have trucked in their produce to the market located in the Little Italy district of Montreal since 1933.
The market is open year-round, but boasts over 300 vendors in the summer months. It encompasses several city blocks and carries everything from ornate Moroccan teapots to Louisville Slugger-sized leeks and has entire produce stalls dedicated to mushrooms and olives. Meat, cheese, fish, spices, baked goods and culinary tools can be found in many of the adjoining stores surrounding the market square. Foodies will feel like they’ve died and gone to heaven!
There is nothing like a golden, buttery, flakey, warm croissant that just melts in your mouth. The best of the best are made in France. Many a baker has attempted to duplicate a real French croissant, but few have succeeded. Those that have tried attribute their mouthwatering goodness to the better quality water in France. Others claim it’s the rich French butter. Whatever the secret, whether a special ingredient or a hush-hush technique, a proper croissant is definitely hard to come by outside of France.
Paillard, in Quebec City, is the exception to the rule. This café-boulangerie on rue Saint-Jean, in Upper Town, has only been open since 2006, but is already establishing quite a following. The pastry-obsessed can order their croissants in massive quantity to-go, or for a special treat, grab one with a cafe au lait (served in a traditional white porcelain bowl) and sit at a little café table in the front window overlooking the European style cobbled street for a real French petit-dejeuner.
Another ubiquitous treat in France is the crêpe; a thin pancake made from a batter, which originated in Brittany. They are made in both savory or sweet varieties. Savory crêpes are typically served as a meal and can be filled with any combination of cheese, asparagus, spinach, ham, and/or eggs. Dessert crêpes, savory’s sweet counterpart, are filled with jam, chocolate, Nutella, banana, berries or syrup. It is no surprise that crêpes can also be found in Canada because of the French influence, but finding delicious and authentic crêpes is another story entirely.
Juliette et Chocolat, located on rue Saint-Denis in Montreal, offers up the ultimate in crêpes. In true French culinary style – it is all about the beautiful presentations, especially with the dessert variety. And though it is common to find street vendors selling crêpes to take along in France, you’d be better off grabbing a table inside this cozy bistro. Or dine on one of the outdoor terraces in summer. And while you’re there, don’t forget to sample some chocolate!
Ridiculously low prices, classic French food served on white-clothed tables, diners seated along tall red banquettes, cheeky, yet efficient, waiters agilely maneuvering in and out of ill-positioned chairs and smoky mirrors reflecting the smiles on the raucous crowds’ faces. Sounds like none other than a typical French Brasserie, the kind you’d find in Paris. Au contraire – this one is in Old Quebec City. Favorites like Mussels, with choice of preparation and crusty baguette for juice sopping, Osso Bucco and Coq-au-Vin are just some of what’s on offer at Les Frères de la Côte.
Many tourists make the grave mistake of passing up this rather lackluster facade thinking it’s just another overrated hotel restaurant, but locals know better. Head here for a simple French lunch or dinner in a fun, rowdy environment at prices some would consider highway robbery. And if you’re wondering about the name, like I was, it’s a French children’s book about…Pirates!
This delicious sandwich first made its way onto a Parisian cafe menu in 1910. It is a ham and cheese sandwich served on thick slabs of bread and placed under the broiler so that the cheese gets bubbly and crusty. Each region has a different variation-some add a creamy béchamel sauce, others might toss on some tomato. Top it with a fried egg and it becomes a Croque Madam! No matter were you are in France it proves an oozy-gooey staple in most cafes.
If you have a Croque craving in Canada, head over to the Marché de la Villette in Old Montreal. Part gourmet market, part bistro, it offers a fun and convivial atmosphere with about six tiny tables squeezed into the storefront, fake hams hanging from the beams and flamboyant French-speaking wait staff who spontaneously break into song. They serve breakfast and table d’hôte lunches at downright inexpensive prices. And if you close your eyes, you might just think you are enjoying your French ham and cheese sandwich in a tiny French village.
Every French citizen has his or her own local neighborhood café. You know, the kind that’s open long hours, serves simple classic food, offers daily prix-fixe menus and embraces the art of uninspiring decor. The kind where you sit and watch the breakfast rush belly up to the bar to gulp down an espresso while speed reading an article in the rolled up newspaper they brought with them. The local cafe to the French is what local watering hole like ‘Cheers’ is to Americans. I was lucky enough to run across one of these gems in Old Quebec.
Chez Temporel is tucked into a tiny nook on a cobbled street in a very picturesque section of Upper Town. Grab your shot of strong brew at the bar or sit and enjoy the three course table d’ hôte for under $12.00 CAN, while soaking in the bohemian vibe. Homemade classics like quiche, salad, carrot soup and crème brûlée will have you claiming this place as your very own favorite French café, complete with nicotine-tinted walls. And as a sign of the modern times – enjoy the added bonus of wifi!
One of the most traditional dishes served in the South of France, Bouillabaisse originated in the port city of Marseille. A lesson in complexity and patience, this delicious fish stew contains no less than three types of fish, vegetables, herbs and saffron, which is responsible for the deep orange hue of the broth. The ingredient deck for a proper Bouillabaisse is the length of a spoiled child’s Christmas list, which coupled with the timely process, explains the high cost of this Provençal jewel. Luckily, a French chef from Toulouse opened Mistral Gagnant (named after a French candy), in Quebec City to share his secret recipe.
The tiny bistro is all dressed up in typical Provençal decor-mismatched bright yellow, orange and turquoise chairs with traditional Mediterranean fabric tablecloths. French-themed paintings and photos hang on rustic brick walls. Though the menu is loaded with French classics like escargot, pastis, roasted lamb and sweetbreads, opt for the Bouillabaisse, served with small toasted baguette slices and plenty of rouille, the thick garlic mayonnaise served on the side. Make sure you score a table in the window, which overlooks the cobbled rue Saint-Paul in Lower Town.
photos by Robin Locker and may not be used without permission