When asked why the Jean-Talon Market held such an important place in the hearts of Montrealers, the overwhelming response from a dozen or so vendors was quite simply, “This is where you find all the people who love to cook and eat.”
Inaugurated in 1933, the Jean-Talon Market is the largest farmers' market in Montreal and one of the largest in North America. Its primary mission all those years ago is the same one it still promotes today: to feed people with the freshest ingredients.
More than a place to sell produce, it is an impressive area of nearly two city blocks where farmers and the public connect and exchange. That conversation is fundamental and unequivocal to the producers who tend to their stand, the public who shop there and the city’s chefs who look for inspiration among the colourful displays.
“They contribute to what I serve on my plate. Without these people, I wouldn't have been able to create my vegetable-forward cuisine when I cooked at Laloux and that has become the norm today,” explains chef Marc-André Jetté of Hoogan & Beaufort, emphasizing the market’s educational importance for young chefs.
Take a stroll through the market’s aisles and you'll understand perfectly well what Jetté means. A vibrant tapestry of colours, flavours, and aromas unfolds as you weave your way through the stands piled high with perfectly ripe fruit and vegetables.
The market is open seven days a week and 361 days a year. It marks the seasons from the first Christmas tree to late summer’s bounty. The abundance and generosity are a constant, not only in the open-air farmers booths, but also in the multitude of shops that surround them. Spices from around the world, sustainable fish and seafood from Quebec and beyond, ethical butcher shops, specialty markets, cheese stores, bakeries as well as restaurants and cafés are lined up around the perimeter of the market forming a delicious border that encloses this invaluable Montreal landmark.
“I love the abundance of it. You really get the feeling that it just came off the truck and they laid it down,” explains chef David Ferguson of Restaurant Gus about Ferme Jacques & Diane, who have been selling their goods exclusively at the market since 1976.
Today, Jacques’ son Patrick is the welcome party behind the stunning display of root vegetables. “I bring what I have in my field. In grocery stores, there are tomatoes 12 months a year, but tomato time is here and now. In three weeks, they won't be good anymore.”
Short of growing your own vegetables, this is where you’ll find the freshest produce. Plucked from the earth hours prior, the lettuces of Les Serres R. & F. Lacroix—who have been at the market for 40 years—are a reminder of how crisp the leafy greens are meant to be. Behind her contagious smile, Julie is a source of knowledge and is happy to reassure her clients when they worry about her family’s business during a particularly rainy summer.
Two stalls down, Le Roi du maïs’ George Deneault is now retired but his family has taken over their 30-year-old spot. The corn is harvested every day by hand and sold before it has time to cool from the morning sun. A loyal clientele driven by the consistently great cobs year after year gathers around the tilted bed of their truck to fill up on the sweet treat.
Alongside the dozens of stalls who have been there for 40 or 50 years, there are also a few “kiosques de la relève” meant to encourage young farmers eager to showcase their goods. Like many of their peers, the market is their lifeline, but it is really their eagerness to share tips about each variety they grow that remains so appealing to restaurant owners, chefs, and the average customer.
Chef Joanne Geha of Restaurant Candide visits the Jean-Talon Market daily. “I inquire about what’s coming in the next few weeks so I can plan my menu. We’ve been working with the same suppliers since the beginning.”
That symbiotic relationship between chefs and producers is essential for both parties and for the evolution of Montreal’s food culture. “When I first started going to the market, you couldn’t find a poblano, a tomatillo or many ingredients that you find today, all grown locally. The market is having a bigger dialogue with the community and the diverse groups that live within it,” explains David Ferguson, whose restaurant is a 5-minute bike ride from the market.
Founded by fourth-generation forager François Brouillard, Les Jardins Sauvages has been at the market since 1986. Brouillard’s desire to pass on the ancestral knowledge of consuming our indigenous plants was part of the conversation he had with chef Normand Laprise that ignited the locavore movement which most Montreal chefs adhere to these days.
His stand is where you’ll find the first fiddleheads in the spring and where a bounty of wild plants and mushrooms attract passersby. “It starts with the restaurants but for the past 3 or 4 years, there has been a noticeable enthusiasm for foraged ingredients and the average Quebecer who shops at the market is curious by nature”, says long-time employee Jean-Philippe.
“The market's customers are people who like to cook and who are concerned about where their food comes from,” adds Isabelle Drouin of Le Marché des Saveurs, a specialty store that supports and features products from some 400 regional artisans, producers, microbreweries, cider and wine makers for the past 24 years.
The Jean-Talon Market isn't simply a place to shop for food. It's a culinary odyssey through Montreal's cultural richness and diversity. It's where chefs find inspiration, the city finds nourishment, and farmers find their livelihoods. It embodies Montreal’s dedication to sustainable living and our desire to encourage and support those who feed us and inspire us to take care of ourselves.