A Market for All Seasons

Michael Nagrant / 07.10.06

atwater berries
Metro Population of Montreal – 3,635,700

Metro Population of Chicago – 9,391,515

Almost three times as many people are breathing in Chicagoland as are in metropolitan Montreal, and yet Montreal has almost four times as many major public markets? I arrive at this math by considering Chicago’s Green City Market as half a market, since it only operates during the summer, and part of the Fall at the Lincoln Park Zoo, while the Atwater and Jean Talon Markets in Montreal operate year round in permanent facilities.

Chicagoans may be breathing, but are they really living?

Can you blame it on Quebecois vs. Midwestern sensibility? Are Chicagoans just a bunch of deep dish pizza slurping, hot dog guzzling fatties committed to Cheez Whiz, green can parmesan, and over-oxygenated bloody red deli counter meats? Why does our neighbor to the north care enough to establish two full markets when we can only muster one?

These are the things that go through my mind on warm morning at Montreal’s Atwater Market. It’s a Sunday morning, when people should be sleeping, or luxuriating at home over a coffee and a newspaper, but even at 10 a.m. the Montreal masses are out in forces. The public market is Church for the Francophile set.

chorizo atwater
It’s no surprise. The market is full of beckoning idols, juicy berries, egg washed glistening pastry, and ruddy meats. The duck confit is the size of Barry Bond’s head, while the blood sausage is as fat as the crown of his bat.

We stop at Premiere Moisson, a palace off sugar and yeast. Floured loaves spill over the counters, while the pastry cases brim with jiggly custards, shiny icing, and glazed fruit. It’s like we had just emerged from rationed war ghettos. We buy up pastries like traders eating up internet stocks in 1998. If there was any question about our provenance as American tourists used to scrambled custards and dry pastry, it’s gone. The irony is that Premiere Moisson, while regarded as a fine bakery, is part of a chain, more McDonald’s than idiosyncratic family run patisserie. Then again, if the boxed hot cherry pie tasted like the glazed strawberry tart from Moisson, there would probably be more McRib sandwiches in my future.

After Moisson, it’s off to Fromagerie du Marche, where we score some Camembert rustique, a nice runny funky cheese, along with some Gruyere. The transparent rich jellies of Serge Boucier are filled with tiny pectin encased bubbles that glint in the morning light, and the nearby pizza shack hawks heart of palm flatbreads. I could blow my unborn child’s college fund if I stayed too long.

I am enrapt, because I know a similar experience is seasonal and short lived in my hometown. To be fair, Chicago’s market is more stringent. Green City only allows vendors who use sustainable and organic farming methods, and as a result, the quality is second to none, even the glorious markets in Montreal. That’s not to say you can’t find sublime producers in Montreal, but almost the entire market in Chicago is composed of the best of the best. Alice Waters once called it “the best sustainable market in the country.” But, this is not enough. We must establish a year round monument to market perfection. In the meantime, there’s always Montreal!