When you exit through the west door of Montreal’s Jean-Talon metro station, when you walk away from the main road and wonder in the residential streets, you find yourself in one of the nicest parts of town. Houses are well kept, colorful, clean and stylish: You can tell that people take pride in their property. There are numerous cafés – some of them, rumor has it, serving the best espresso in town –, restaurants and a couple nice shady parks. Many people are outside their home, chatting with each other. If you wander in the back alleys – where, often, the scenery is even more interesting than on the streets – you’ll see that almost every back yard has its home vegetable garden, with tomato, cucumber, eggplant and squash plants carefully taken care of. Also, surprisingly, you’ll realize that you’re one of the few tourists around.
That’s Montreal’s Little Italy, located in the heart of Rosemont la Petite-Patrie’s neighborhood. This small community has a rich history and a vibrant life. But walking along its lively streets is not enough to fully grasp its spirit: For your visit in Little Italy to be complete, you must swing by the Marché Jean-Talon.
Back in 1933, Montreal mayor Camilien Houde inaugurated the “Marché du Nord”, on the site of the Shamrock Lacrosse Grounds, the old playground of the Montreal lacrosse team. Back then, the market was much different: Along with fruits and veggies, you could also buy live animals, and, throughout the years, some of the buildings were used as libraries, offices, even as a bus station. It is only in 1982 that the Marché du Nord became Marché Jean-Talon. Major renovations occurred in 2004 and, nowadays, the market is home to over 30 shops and boutiques, to countless farmer’s stands and has the honor to be North America’s biggest open-air market.
You’ll find fresh, in-season, delicious fruits and vegetables at Jean-Talon market. You’ll also find wines and a selection of great cheese stores such as The Fromagerie Hamel, where top quality cheeses from around the world can be bought. You’ll come across fine charcuteries, foie gras, duck confit, as well as exotic fruits, imported treats and rare products. But Jean-Talon market is more than just a market: With its great diversity of colors, flavors and smells, to me, it is the symbol of Montreal’s eclecticism and multicultural richness. Jean-Talon is not just about food: It’s about human connection. It has the reputation of being held by a friendly, welcoming and tightly knit community. If you go there with an smile and an open mind, you’ll find plenty of colorful characters to chat with. Nearly everyone will speak English, but why not take the occasion to practice a little French?
I always buy my meat at Les Fermes St-Vincent, an organic stock breeder with fairly decent prizes. The meat is delicious, plus the personnel is friendly, helpful and always wiling to give out tips, insights and recipes. Also, for a rich variety of Quebec products, do not miss the Marché des Saveurs on the South-East corner of the market. All the products they sell there are made in Quebec. Cheese, wine, preserves… You’ll be impressed by the quality and by the huge selection. For a refreshing treat on a hot summer day, do not miss the Havre aux Glaces, a sorbet and gelato maker that’s absolutely amazing. Apart from the classics – chocolate, vanilla, mango – they offer a wide variety of flavors, with novelties coming in weekly or monthly, according to the fresh arrivals at the market.
■ Avoid eating at one of the market’s restaurants or food counters. Don’t get me wrong: You’ll find all kinds of good stuff, such as European hot-dogs, Mexican food, paninis and more. But the Jean-Talon market is more a place to buy tasty ingredients for a home cooked meal, or nice cheeses, bread and cold cuts for a picnic. There are so many fantastic Montreal restaurants in the nearby streets! Try Montreal’s oldest – and most delicious – pizzeria, la Pizzeria Napoletana, for example, or the famous and hip Kitchen Gallery.
■ Know that if you go there during the week-end, especially in the summer, there will be a massive crowd. The best way to discover the market quietly is to go on a week day, preferably Monday or Tuesday – or to get there before noon on week-ends!
■ And, finally: Do not hesitate to wander away from the main rows of market stalls. The small farmers all have their stand away from the center of the market – and, be sure, that’s where the good stuff is.
The Jean-Talon market is mostly outdoors, but there’s a portion of it that’s indoors. Therefore, it is opened all year long, so you can visit it anytime you come here. Enjoy!
Caroline Simpson is a writer, a translator and a travel addict who’s always looking for ways to make life easier. She works as a freelance blogger for Tourism Montreal, an organization that helps travelers finding the best downtown Montreal hotels.