Cultural background of Montreal gastronomy

Here is a small text for those curious on the influences of our current gastronomic roadmap.

The cultural foundation of what was to be Montreal was arguably rooted in the treaty of Paris following the French and Indian war where France, preferring to keep its rich Caribbean colonies to what amounted to a few acres of snow in North America, decided to give most of its holding in North America to British rule.

French Canadian culture at the time had much more to do with the colonial spirit that animated the 13 colonies than with metropolitan Paris. Even before the English came the continental French complained that the French Canadians were arrogant, didn’t know their place and refused to be called “peasant”, preferring the term “inhabitants” (habitants).

Consequently, the food that we ate had little to do with the refined French tables we so often find nowadays (that came with the 1960’s). Our original food was lowbrow peasant’s fare. It intermingled with English, Scottish and Irish culture, giving us our versions of Shepherd’s pie (Paté Chinois), local variants of boston baked beans (fêve aux lards), ci-paille (originaly “sea pie”), french canadian meat pie (tourtière), our own variations on shoo-fly pie or chess pie (tarte aux sucres, made with maple sugar or brown sugar), ect.

French Canadian owe a lot of their cultural preservation to the “Quebec act” of 1774, where the British crown guaranteed the free practice of catholic faith. We would still have French without the Quebec act but it would not be as prevalent as today. As it stands, French Canadians were devout Catholics from the Quebec act to the 1960’s, the church acting in turn as a cultural beacon, a safety blanket and political tool. Maybe that’s why our swear words, to this day, are religious in nature: “baptism”, “chalice”, “calvary”, “ciborium”, “Christ”, “damn”, “host”, “sacrament”, “simony”, “tabernacle”, “virgin mary” and “moses” are all used as swear words (baptême, calisse, calvaire, ciboire, crisse, maudit, osti, sacrament, simonaque, tabarnak, viarge and mozus respectively).

Religion played an important part in the Quebec of 19th century, especially in Montreal where most of the immigration established themselves. The dividing line between Protestants (English and Scots) and Catholics (French and Irish) seemed much more important than language at the time. The English and Scots tended to have a bigger presence in business and politics where the French and Irish were the bulk of the manual labor.

Subsequent waves of immigration marked the culinary history of Montreal. Scots came following the clearances in 19th century, Irish immigrants came following the enclosures movement and the potato famines, Ashkenazic jews came following pogroms in Russia, the 20th century saw Italians, Portuguese, Spanish, East Europeans, Sepharadic jews, Levantines, Maghrebans, Haitians, Africans, Chinese and Vietnamese (among others) come to Montreal and establish themselves.

Initially, most communities would move in near to each other and offer their own brand of cooking. Some communities are still very concentrated (Little Italy, Chinatown) but many disappeared as they were absorbed in a bigger Montreal landscape (the Portuguese community being absorbed by the Plateau Mont-Royal for example). As time grew, Montrealers adopted some communities cooking tradition as their own. Bagels and smoked meat, coming from our jewish heritage, Portuguese chicken and Shish taouk are example of popular Montreal dishes that originated from immigration.

Montreal was, at least until the construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959, an economic powerhouse. The golden square mile, established in the 19th century in what is now downtown by rich Montrealers to get away from the crowded Old Montreal , was once said to contain 70% of Canada’s wealth. Montreal’s economy greatly benefited from the fact that ships could not go further and a lot of cargo was either transferred to trains or transformed in Montreal proper. Goods would come in by boats and tourists would come in by train at Gare Windsor and Gare Bonaventure. Gare Windsor still exists but Gare Bonaventure is now a shopping mall (Place Bonaventure).

The city benefited also from the American prohibition. It became a party town and, until the mid-1950’S had a famous red light district, well established clubs, boatloads of illegal casinos, more whores than you could throw a stick at and a metric ton of booze. Most tourists had access to whatever sin they would prefer. As a result, there was a lot of corruption in Montreal and, predictably, there was a backlash.

The 1960s were a period of tremendous change for Montreal for a number of reasons:

•The construction of the Saint Lawrence Seaway took away a lot of the industrial activity in Montreal as primary goods now bypassed the city to go elsewhere.
•Political reforms greatly cut the influence of the churches and French Canadians decided to throw away their Catholic security blanket
•The political and religious reform helped to bring about of a new nationalist movement and provided the environment for the initial articulation of the separation movement
•The 1960’s witnessed the core of the Jean Drapeau reform. Drapeau, mayor of Montreal from 1954 to 1986, kicked off the initial “cleanup” of Montreal’s crime scene in the 50’s(eliminating much of Montreal’s red light district in the process), the institution of the metro system, the construction of “La place des arts” (the place of arts), Expo 67, the Olympic games, ect
•Tramways were retired in 1959
•The 60’s saw the last gasp of well-known clubs. From cabarets to legendary jazz clubs to the French “boite à chansons”, a number of Montreal landmarks became ghosts.

The 60’s were a weird period. A lot of baby boomers see it as a fabulous era, most French Canadians see it as a tremendous period of liberation and a lot of Anglophone probably see it as the start of a pretty gigantic headache. As the son of baby boomers, I can only mourn the loss of so much of our 1940 and 1950’s heritage. I read Montreal Confidential, a tourist guide written in 1950 by a Montreal journalist named Al Palmer and it might as well talk about another city.

1960 saw the arrival of a lot of French cooks who decided to stay after the world expo in 1967. Le Mas des Oliviers, Chez la Mère Michel and L’express come from that era. French gastronomy was the golden standard in the 1970 and 1980 until a new generation of Quebec chefs, presumably coming from French kitchens, started to take over the scene in the 1990s. Quebecquers always loved food and cooking but most of the farm to table aspects we take from granted now are pretty recent.

Our current staples, from refined bread and pastries to specialty cheese to microbrewery beer to ice cider, are barely older than 25 year old. In my youth, during the 80’s, cheese were Mozarella, Cheddar and Swiss. “Fancy” french cheese were Camembert and Brie. There were a lot of cooking shows but I credit the explosion of our more refined options to a cooking show by a journalist named Daniel Pinard in the late 90’s. This position is very controversial as few people remember Pinard fondly these days and he is not considered as having had the same influence as, lets say, a Jehane Benoit (our Quebec Julia Child). He isn’t even a chef! However, I remember most of my friends and family watching his shows. Produce would disappear from shelves after he talked about them and he spent a lot of time talking about speciality cheese, local products at Atwater market and Jean-Talon Market. My family started to introduce a cheese course to our holidays and started debating about the provenance and specifics of specific local cheeses. Moreover, they are convince that they always had that custom, even before Pinard’s show (which is false). That, to me, is a true cultural change. From “le Petit Québec” to “le Louis d’Or”. Its a hell of a step.


I took the liberty of translating in english a number of classic Quebec dishes to give access to our anglophone friends to classic dishes from the Quebecois repertoire. I also sprinkled some modern variations from one of our most famous chef: Martin Picard. His iconic restaurant was all about revisiting those classics and adding foie gras when he could.

Some of my links created pictures, some none. I don’t know why. Click on the text in the grey box to get access to the tumblr page when there are pictures (“”), just click on the link where there are none. The tumblr format are identical for both.

Bonbons aux patates (Potato candy)
Bonbons aux patates (Potato candy)
• 60 ml (¼ cup) mashed potatoes smooth and cold (no butter or milk)
• 7.5 ml (1 ½ tsp.) Vanilla extract
• 750 ml (3 cups) icing sugar, about
• 75 ml (1/3...

Tarte a la farlouche (Farlouche pie)
Tarte a la farlouche (Farlouche pie)
• Pastry dough (2 disks)
• 1 tablespoons butter
• 1 cup brown sugar
• 1 cup boiling water
• 1 ½ cup dry golden raisins
• 1 full tablespoons...

Tarte au sucre (Sugar pie)
Tarte au sucre (Sugar pie)
• 4 cups brown sugar
• 3 tablespoons flour
• 10 tablespoons butter
• 2 beaten egg
• 2 cups evaporated milk (Carnation style)
• 1 teaspoon vanilla
• 4 pastry...

Sucre à la crème (Creamed sugar or Sugar & Cream… basically sugar fudge)à-la-crème-creamed-sugar-or-sugar

Pets de soeurs (Nun Farts)
Pets de soeurs (Nun Farts)
• 1 cup flour
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 4 c. tablespoons soft butter
• 3 oz chilled water
• Brown sugar
• Soft butter
• Cinnamon...

Pouding au pain (bread pudding)
Pouding au pain (bread pudding)
• 4 cups stale bread (preferably from a baguette a few days old), cut into 1-inch squares
• 4 cups hot milk, but not boiling
• ¼ cup melted butter
• ½ cup...

Pouding au riz (Rice pudding)½-cup

Grand Père au sirop d’érable (Maple syrup “Grandfathers”)ère-au-sirop-dérable-maple-syrup

Pouding ChĂ´meur de Martin Picard (Martin Picard unemployed pouding, adapted from book)Ă´meur-de-martin-picard-martin-picard

Pouding ChĂ´meur (Unemployed pouding)Ă´meur-unemployed-pouding-ingredients

Cipaille (also called Cipâte)âte-ingredients-1-1-½

Paté au poulet (Chicken Pot Pie)é-au-poulet-chicken-pot

Pain de viande (Meatloaf)
Pain de viande (Meatloaf)
Meat Preparation:
• 2/3 cup bread crumbs
• 1 cup milk
• 1 ½ lb ground beef
• 2 eggs
• ½ cup finely chopped onions
• 1 teaspoon salt
• ¼ teaspoon sage
• 3...

Ketchup maison de Martin Picard (Martin Picard home made ketchup)
Ketchup maison de Martin Picard (Martin Picard home made ketchup)
• 25 ml (about 2 Tbsp.) Vinegar
• 800 ml (about 3 ½ cups) chopped onion
• 1 can (800 ml) of tomatoes
• 1 pinch of...

Fève au lard de Martin Picard (Martin Picard baked beans)ève-au-lard-de-martin-picard-martin-picard-baked

Jambon à l’érable et à l’ananas (Pineapple and maple syrup ham)à-lérable-et-à-lananas-pineapple-and

Ragoût de pattes de cochon (Pork Trotters stew)ût-de-pattes-de-cochon-pork-trotters

Ragout de boulettes de Martin Picard (Martin Picard meatball stew)
Ragout de boulettes de Martin Picard (Martin Picard meatball stew)
• 5 kg of ground beef
• 10 potatoes, peeled and cut into 4
• 200g Butter
• 2 cups flour
• Salt and pepper
• 5 ml of maple...

Ragout de boulettes (meatball stew)
Ragout de boulettes (meatball stew)
• 1 piece of 1 kg (2 lb) of pork in the thigh or shoulder, trimmed and boneless
• Olive oil 30 ml (2 tbsp.)
• 1.25 liters (5 cups) chicken broth,...

Pâté Chinois de Martin Picard (Quebecois Sheperd’s pie, Martin Picard version)

Pâté Chinois (Quebecois Sheperd’s pie)âté-chinois-quebecois-sheperds

Tourtière (meat pie… one variation amongst thousands)ère-one-variation-amongst

Martin Picard Quebec Creton
Martin Picard Quebec Creton
• 400 g (7/8 lb) pig fatback
• 100 ml (3/8 cup) water
• 250 ml (1 cup) chopped onions
• 10 g (1 tbsp.) Chopped garlic
• 20 g (about 1 Tbsp.)...

Martin Picard Foie Gras Pea Soup
Martin Picard Foie Gras Pea Soup
• 832g (about 4 cups) whole yellow peas, soaked for 12 hours
• 1 onion, chopped
• 2 medium carrots, cut into 1cm cubes
• 2 stalks celery, chopped into 1 cm...

Traditional Quebec Pea Soup
Traditional Quebec Pea Soup
375 ml (1 ½ cup) dried yellow peas
1.5 liters (6 cups) of water for soaking
100 g (ÂĽ lb) flank of salted pork (streaky salted pork), cut into 2
625 ml (2 ½...


Thanks, CC.
I will most probably be visiting Montreal next autumn for the craft beers (and food of course).

No problem!

I’ll have more specific Montreal recommendations to contribute but they will take a bit more time to get together. This I had already ready.

Great post! Even I learned something, being an Anglo Montrealer…

Lived in Toronto a few yrs and really missed some of our local favorites. You can’t even get a steamé there!

Thanks! I’ve always been happy with that post. It was made to answer to a tourist asking about the cultural influences of “Quebecois food” and I always have been happy with that answer although it was a bit hidden in a tourist suggestion thread. I’ve always thought it would be neat to have a single thread dedicated to the origin and influences of Quebec and Montrealer food (there is a lot to discuss on the subject!)

The lack of steamé hot dogs in other cities was always something that bewildered me. It would be akin to learning London doesn’t have access to hamburgers. Its just something so prevalent you take it for granted and so low key you don’t necessarily notice the lack of offer in other cities.

Here is, for those who speak french (unfortunately, there are no english translation), an example of the style Daniel Pinard used to introduce new Quebec products in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. His cooking show was a tremendous success in its time and in my mind he provided a crucial boost toward the diffusion of information on products from our terroir. I am convinced, in one case, that the Quebec cheese industry would not be where it is without Pinard’s efforts.

He is a journalist, not a chef, so he never stayed as a gastronomic reference. He also used a rich grammar and a pretty involved communication style that made him different from other communication specialist. It probably helped giving him a flair that made him stand apart while he was doing his show but never helped in making him “populist”. There was also a kerfufle involving his status as a gay man that lead to his temporary retirement from public life (he was outed without his approval on a tv show and he didn’t like it)

In this video the “ice cider” style is probably not older than 5 years old and the company “face cachée de la pomme” has probably been in operation for 2 years or so. The product has its big reveal the year before so everything is incredibly new. Face cachée de la pomme is now one of the strongest player in ice cider and can be found in all liquor store in Quebec.

Notice the founder of “face cachée de la pomme” suggest a “saint benoit” as paring and Pinard countering with a “Ciel de Charlevoix”, a Quebec cheese not very well known at the time but well established now.

Here is, in contrast, the communication style of Jehane Benoit (still in french unfortunately).

Jehane Benoit was our french Julia Child and her “l’encyclopédie de la cuisine canadienne” (first published in 1963) was our own version of “Mastering the art of french cooking” (which was published in 1961). Some bad mouths even said that Benoit liberally “borrowed” from Child for her book but I would not know.

An example of the original version of her cookbook. I have an early copy given to be by an aunt that looks exactly like this:

Apparently there was an english version:

It still remains that a lot of women from my mother’s generation learned to cook by looking at this book. My mother still holds on that book and its dog eared and marked with use and time. Its full of annotations, variations and news paper clippings of other recipes. A friend of mine told me he tried to leave with his mother’s book when he first moved in his apartment and almost got killed for daring to do so.

The book is pretty special as it tries to cover everything, from tools and measures to how to prepare sandwiches for a family of 10 kids. The recipes looked a lot like Julia Child’s book and it was in a style pretty standard for the time. It was edited and re-published recently but I don’t know what was changed.

Modern french edition:

Jehane Benoit communication style is incredibly dense and matronly. Here she tries to teach us lowly peasants how to do a “proper” salad in a 1959 TV show. It looks uselessly complicated and involved and would make me want to order out.

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I make my salad dressing in salad bowl much the same way, but that garlic/coarse salt trick is fabulous! My stepmom who is French Canadian had her book too. I was fortunate enough to grow up with an Italian stepparent, and a French one too.

What slays me is when she says that you have to have done “about 6000 salads” before daring to season your salad liberally. Talk encouraging people to cook!