Saturday, March 12, 2005

Plus ça change...

When I got back from Germany early last fall, it didn’t take long before Michelle and I went up to Jean-Talon Market in order to take advantage of its typically abundant/overwhelming harvest offerings. Michelle had warned me that change was underfoot at the market, and when we arrived I noticed that there was indeed a large building being constructed on its eastern edge. There’s been a lot of discussion about the fate of Jean-Talon Market over the last few years, and much of it has revolved around building a multi-tiered parking garage, further “beautifying” the market (i.e., putting up more of those awful garish painted wood signs that are meant to convey “good taste” across so many of Quebec’s most affluent districts, from Magog to Mont Tremblant), and trying to attract even more customers. As much as I love Atwater Market, and especially the beautiful honey-colored market hall that houses it, I find the prices there to be a bit over-the-top, and in my mind it ceased to be a true farmer’s market and developed into something more precious a while ago. Talk of renovation has had me worried that a similar transformation would happen to Jean-Talon Market, and this new building, which I just assumed would be that dreaded parking garage, seemed to confirm my worst fears. Well, it turned out I was wrong: this building isn’t a garage, it’s a new pavilion, one that provides less makeshift quarters for some of the vendors that occupy their stalls all year round, and one that has also introduced a number of new businesses to the market. Now, among other additions, you’ll find an ice cream and sorbet specialist, a new fish market, and a couple of new butchers’ shops. You’ll also find a pretentiously named kitchen supplies shop (“Cuizin”), a cookbook retailer named Librairie Gourmande, which doesn’t quite live up to the breadth and character of its Parisian namesake (4, rue Dante, 5e;, and a cheese and dairy specialist that definitely has nice products on offer, but also features absurdly high prices and an absurdly bad name (“Qui Lait Cru?”—contributing another terrible pun to Montreal’s ever-expanding collection).

All of these additions indicate a desire to transform Jean-Talon Market into something along the lines of Vancouver’s s touristy Granville Island Market, or maybe even San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market—some kind of self-conscious “foodie haven,” with all the inflated attitude and prices that come with such territory. The difference here is that both the Granville Island and the Ferry Plaza were in states of relative disuse prior to their respective face-lifts, whereas Jean Talon Market has been a fully functioning farmers’ market for decades now, one that has served as an anchor for the neighboring Italian community since its beginnings, and one that has proven to be a magnet for subsequent ethnic groups, including North Africans, West Indians, and Southeast Asians. Now, I don’t want to make too much out of this new building, because I don’t think it’ll change things at the market all that radically from the way things already were before its appearance, but I still worry about the track the market is on.

Nonetheless, Wawel Patisserie Polonaise, with its phenomenal plum and apricot-filled doughnuts, and Patisserie Khaima, with its North African delicacies, have also moved into this new pavilion, and I’m happy that both of these businesses will receive more attention because they both deserve it. Perhaps the best news, though, has to do with a business called Olives & Épices. At first, the two of us wrote it off as part of that growing legion of olive oil specialists that have invaded the city in recent years, and we didn’t really give it a second glance. However, we later learned that O & É—as its name suggests—also carries a phenomenal range of spices including the entire line of chef-traiteur Philippe de Vienne’s “épices de cru.” Jean Talon Market has been the #1 place for hard-to-find fruits, vegetables, and herbs for quite some time—now, with the addition of O & É, you can also find two different types of Mexican oregano (including one harvested by an associate from a backyard garden in the Yucatan), Trinidadian cocoa, epazote, Tonka beans, and true cinnamon. The selection here is incredible, but what really sets O & É apart is the quality and the freshness of their herbs and spices. Stale spices can really deaden the taste of a dish, instead of enlivening it. With Olives & Épices' line of "épices de cru" your spice rack will never be the same again, and your tastebuds will thank you for it. Check it!


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