Having heaped praise on the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market throughout the better part of last year, I was curious to revisit the fabled Marché Jean-Talon during my Montreal visit. Partly, I wanted to see how the Market held up to my year-old memories of the place; but also, having learned a lot about food and local agriculture this year, I wanted to look at the Market with these new eyes.
Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market and Marché Jean-Talon have very different missions. Old Strathcona is a traditional farmer’s market, promising that every vendor is directly responsible for growing, raising, baking or crafting the products you can buy. The Jean-Talon Market, on the other hand, offers no other promise than to allow a variety of relatively small food vendors to congregate in a common space. It has more in common with “ethnic” markets (its roots as an Italian market still show today), offering specialized food products to a segment of the population.
Jean-Talon Market is split in 3 distinct parts: the periphery of the market is made of various shops that have more in common with modern stores than stalls at an ethnic market. You get a mixed bag of shops in the periphery: from the spectacular (Fromagerie Hamel or the absolutely awesome Marché des saveurs) to the forgettable (the bland fruit supermarket Sami Fruits and baker chain Première moisson.) The second part of the market is a recent interior construction hosting year-round producers selling their wares, while the third part, only open in summer, is the exterior market, where seasonal producers come in droves. To be fair, Jean-Talon truly comes alive in the summer, but being that this is January, I had to content with vendors in the interior part.
I remember my delight at purchasing meat at Jean-Talon, and what I saw today pretty much confirmed this. Judging strictly from the look of it, and from the claims and explanations seen around the shops, the quality of the meat at Jean-Talon Market seems exceptional. Whereas I can only choose from four small-scale meat producers at Old Strathcona (albeit of very high quality), the meat on offering here is as varied as it is mouth-watering: elk and bison from Petite-Nation, Charlevoix lamb, organic pork… It’s all there, and I was pleased to recognize the signs of care and pride I associate with small producers (“happy lamb!” proclaims a vendor’s sign.)
The produce, however, were a huge disappointment.
Oh, they were pretty, and varied, and perfect… like at the supermarket. If you go to Jean-Talon Market in the winter, you’ll find fruits and vegetables regardless of the season. Today, I saw asparagus, cherries, avocados, and even bananas. Naturally, none of these are from Quebec: cherries were from Chile, avocados from Mexico, asparagus from as far as Peru. The bananas hailed from Columbia.
Now, that’s fine in itself, except that these imported produce are sold at stands claiming to belong to small farms from the regions of Quebec. The cherries, for instance, were sold at a farm’s stand, alongside with Quebec-grown hothouse tomatoes. The sign proclaiming the tomatoes’ origin is huge; to find the cherries’ origin, you have to crouch and inspect the crates.
I don’t know how much this fools the Market’s patrons. Most likely they do not care, as they go to the Market because the produce are fresher than at the supermarket, and a few of the items in their bags end up being regional. But I can’t help but feel there’s some amount of deception involved. When a stall claims to sell heirloom tomatoes from a South Shore farm, and you end up buying cherries from Chile, you’re no longer dealing with a farmer, but with an importer. And aside from mandarin oranges from Morocco, all these non-Quebec origins were kept quiet: not hidden, but not advertised either.
Walking these aisles, I suddenly understood the Old Strathcona’s Farmer’s Market’s insistence on vendors being growers. This single principle has ensured that I can stop at a stall, and engage in a meaningful dialog with the person who raised my beef, roasted my coffee or grew my carrots. Over the last year, this relationship with the people growing my food has played a key role in shaping my worldview and my eating habits.
I don’t begrudge the farmers who pay the winter rent at the Jean-Talon Market by adding imported produce to their stalls. But as I leaned forward to study the elastic band on the asparagus stalks, I remembered how precious the asparagus I ate last summer had been. They had shown up in June, giving a summer flair to most of my dinners. Come mid-July, they were gone, announcing the autumn days ahead.
It’s summer in Peru, so the Jean-Talon Market gets asparagus in January. But I can’t shake the hand that grew these. And in that singular absence, I feel a quiet but disconcerting loss.