Squeezed into a narrow aisle with row upon row of exotic labels vying for attention, I become transported to another place and time: little hole-in-the-wall shops in Andalusia; small grocery stores in Florence; food vendors crammed into impossibly small spaces in the ancient buildings of Venice's Rialto. Some people travel the world to gaze upon ancient wonders; I shop for food in Montreal.
Food is one of the great treasures of any culture, and a quick perusal of the cookbook section of bookstores demonstrates the popularity of French, Italian, Asian and other cuisines. The problem with authentic ethnic cooking, though, is tracking down essential ingredients that might be staples in somebody else's culture but are hard to find on the shelves of local groceries.
To make a simple Truffled Shrimp salad, for example, requires truffled olive oil. I also use this delicacy over handmade spinach, asparagus or porcini mushroom ravioli. Top with Parmigiano-Reggiano and coarsely ground black pepper -- delizioso. But this expensive condiment can't be found in most corner stores.
It's this truffled oil, or more accurately the lack thereof, that initially prompts me to drive north in search of culinary adventure. Montreal is famous for its restaurants, but there's more cooking in this diverse city than meets the eye. I'm specifically looking for the neighborhood known as La Petite Italia, but on my first foray I don't make it past La Vieille Europe, a well-known specialty food shop on Rue St-Laurent.
Although La Vieille Europe has existed since the 1950s, it nestled into the gourmet niche about 30 years ago. Paul Raimundo has worked here for two decades and is now the current owner. As he roasts a batch of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee beans, he talks about his store with obvious pride. No one in Montreal offers such a wide range of products, he claims. But some of the store's offerings are especially noteworthy: the incredible selection of cheeses, cured meats and in-house roasted coffees.
Raimundo says that when he takes on a particular line of products, he stocks the entire line, not just the best-sellers. The importance of this policy quickly becomes evident as I try to focus on the thousands of labels on bottles, cans and packages lining shelves stacked from tiled floor to pressed-tin ceiling. Sitting on the top shelf among the specialty olive oils is the object of my quest: a tall-necked bottled labeled Tartufo bianco pregiato condimento.
On another trip to Montreal, I manage to find my way up Rue St-Laurent to Little Italy. There I discover the Fruiterie Milano, which began as a simple fruit and green grocer, but over the past 49 years has expanded into a full-sized supermarket. It would be outstanding even in Florence. Unlike La Vieille Europe, Fruiterie Milano isn't trying to position itself as a specialty-food market. But with its mostly French and Italian clientele, the stocks of staples here seem plenty special to me.
As I push my cart from one end of the store to the other, I begin to accumulate essential ingredients, such as Parm-igiano-Reggiano, pecorino with black peppercorns, and prosciutto crudo di Parma, an air-cured, uncooked ham from Parma. I have a passion for spaghetti al nero di sepia, but my local grocery stores don't stock this black pasta -- most Americans probably get squeamish about the squid ink -- so when I discover it on the shelves I pick up several 500-gram packages.
Basil bouillon cubes are one of the best culinary shortcuts to be found in Italian supermarkets, but they just don't seem to be imported into the United States. A half-dozen packages go into the cart. I'm having a blast, quickly adding Alessi soups, dried porcini mushrooms, and Golia candies to my cart, but get hung up trying to decide about coffee. Faced with the largest selection of espresso-roast coffee I've even seen outside Italy, my final selection of several cans of Caffe Fantini is based more on price than anything else: At $2.49 for a 250-gram can, how can I refuse?
Little Italy and Chinatown are two of Montreal's better-known ethnic neighborhoods, but this city is populated by immigrants from around the world, and each community has its own dietary preferences. My girlfriend is Polish and, in her home, she's queen of the kitchen. Meals there tend to offer such treats as fresh white sausage or kabanos, pierogi and cabbage rolls purchased from the local Polish shops. But if your culinary preferences lean towards Greek, Russian, Indian, Caribbean, African, Vietnam-ese, Peruvian, Kosher, Middle Eastern, Spanish, Chinese or French, there's a food store somewhere in the city catering to your desires.
After enjoying a Laotian/ Thai meal on Rue Decarie, Ewa and I venture into Marche Mit-Thai-Lao to see what this moderately sized grocery store has to offer. Great prices, for one: Packages of seaweed used to make nori rolls are just $2.89. I can't pass them by, even though I still have some far more expensive sheets in my cupboard at home. This store offers a wide selection of Oriental teas, noodles and canned goods. I'm tempted by the variety of dried mushrooms and fungi tagged with ridiculously low prices, but not so much by the dried whole squid. Some day I'll try a jar of fried garlic, but for now I'll stick with the pickled variety. However, I've decided that this is where I'll shop for Thai and Asian foods from now on.
Ethnic food shopping is an exploration into the very heart of a culture, and in Montreal it's doubly so. By law business signs must be in French, but seemingly all the written languages of the world flow across storefront windows. Next to a place identified in English, French and Sanskrit as a Hindu Center is a Pakistani establishment with a vivid, blue neon body-builder sign. A few doors up the street, two men smoking a waterpipe sit beneath a bold, red-on-yellow sign advertising a Lebanese restaurant. The sign over the door of an Oriental nail salon is in French, but the brush-gold advertising on its window is not. The Thai food store has Francophonized its sign by adding "Marche." Although English is generally spoken as a second or third language in this city, its near absence in written form makes for an exotic atmosphere.
After these excursions north of the border, opening my cupboards back home in Vermont becomes an international adventure. Product labels are in Italian or French almost as frequently as English. Besides the obvious gastronomic delight that comes from having these items readily available in my kitchen, sampling their rich ethnic diversity on a daily basis makes me feel like a citizen of the world. It's a delicious feeling I intend to keep feeding -- starting with that truffle oil.