Last weekend we took a walking food tour with Fitz & Follwell. They specialize in bike tours of Montreal but also have a couple of highly recommended food tours. I’ve mentioned it before – I get irked by non-Montreal bloggers who come here and write as if there’s nothing more to Montreal than poutine, smoked meat, and bagels. It is this generalization that prompted us to take the tour. We wanted to see firsthand how tourists are exposed to Montreal’s culinary traditions.
Fitz & Follwell’s tours are from a historical perspective and are focused on the culinary heritage of immigrants that settled on St. Laurent boulevard, otherwise known as “The Main”. They have two food tours: Segment 1 of the “Flavours of The Main tour” starts in Chinatown and works its way through the former Jewish quarter as well as “Little Portugal”. Segment 2 covers Mile-End, Little Italy, and the Jean Talon Market. With Lissette being vegetarian, F&F recommended that we take the 2nd segment of the tour (note: both segments are about 3 hours long and can be done as one, extended 6 hour tour).
Quick summary: We met up at Fitz & Follwell’s bike store on Mont-Royal. This was the starting point for segment 2 of the tour. Melissa was our guide, there were 11 of us on the tour. We walked up St.Laurent, Melissa pointing out a few restaurants on the way (Aux Vivres and Robin des Bois) before stopping at Saraphin, a Portuguese-owned bakery on the corner of St-Laurent and St. Joseph. There we were treated to some Pasteis de Natas (custard cups with a flaky crust). The tour continued, taking a little detour up an alley (Montreal has some very pretty alleys) before coming out on Fairmount street. There we had two stops: the first at Wilensky, where we were treated to a bologna/salami sandwich (no vegetarian options here) and an “egg cream soda” drink. The 2nd stop was at Fairmount bagel, where we all had a bagel. Fairmount has a rich Jewish heritage. We continued our walk north through the neighborhood, turned right on St. Viateur (which is another pretty street which has developed tremendously in the last 5 years) and walked a block to St. Laurent. There we took a city bus. 10 minutes later we were in Little Italy. Melissa pointed out Milano’s, a large, Italian owned grocery store (I know it having lived in the neighborhood previously – lots of great food imported from Italy). We sat down at Café Italia, an institution in Little Italy and were served coffees. After a 20 minute break we walked down Dante street, stopping first at Dante “hardware” store (they’re actually known more for their beautiful cooking ware) then at Alati Caserta, an Italian bakery. We were served Cannoli, a Sicilian pastry. Following this, we continued to the Jean-Talon market which is very close by. We briefly cut through part of the market before being taken to the le Marché Des Saveurs du Quebec, a large store that supplies a whole bunch of products made in Quebec: cheeses, wines, beers, jams, maple syrup, and smoked meats and fish. We finished the tour with a sampling of Quebec cheeses and apple cider.
Above and Below: Wilensky
Below: Fairmount bagel
Below: House and church around St. Viateur.
Below: Café Italia
Below: Pretty restaurants in Little Italy
Below: Marché Des Saveurs du Quebec
The strongest aspect of the tour was Melissa. We thought she was a great guide; a lot of enthusiasm, very knowledgeable, very good rapport with both customers and merchants. The mission of the tour was to link Montreal’s history, immigrants, and food. It did an excellent job achieving that. We really liked some of the stops on the tour. The coffee at Café Italia was fantastic, one of the best we’ve ever had. The cheese and apple cider at Marché Des Saveurs were very good. We’re going to come back on our own to both of these places. I can attest to Milano’s and Quinqualerie Dante which are both excellent destinations for imported food/cookware.
The weaknesses of the tour in our opinion: a lot of the tour is taken up walking without seeing/tasting anything. Maybe some improvements could be made with the itinerary. For instance, the walk from the beginning of the tour up the 1st stop (Seraphin) was a bit long without much to see. That stretch of St. Laurent is quite unattractive. On Fairmont street: I didn’t much like the sandwich at Wilensky (although that’s personal taste) and I was disappointed that there was no alternative for Lissette after having understood that there would be a veggie option when booking the tour. I will say though that the egg cream soda was fantastic. After Fairmount we walked up to St. Viateur, only to turn and take the bus. I think a bit more time could have been spent on exploring Fairmount, St.Viateur, and Parc – an interesting neighborhood tourists would enjoy seeing in more detail. We also thought that the itinerary was weak in its coverage of the Jean Talon market. It would have been good to take 5 minutes to explore the various food and vegetable stalls as well as the flower markets. Last negative comment: there’s a lot of sweet stuff in the Segment 2 of the tour. Lissette didn’t even get the sandwich as a break. She was high on sugar by the time we finished the tour.
As far as the generalization that Montreal is all about poutine, smoked meat, and bagels; well, I read that Segment 1 serves up poutine and smoked meat. Segment 2 serves up the bagel.<sigh>. So Fitz & Follwell doesn’t do anything to dispel the generalization. With all the fantastic food in this city it is a shame that so much energy is spent vaunting these culinary coronary delights.
Would I take the tour for the food? No. But the tour is a great history lesson on Montreal, its communities and their food. I think it is a fun and insightful activity for tourists new to Montreal. As a Montrealer, the tour also introduces you to some interesting spots you may not have known about beforehand.
Website: http://www.fitzandfollwell.co/. The cost was $69/person not including taxes for the 3 hour Segment 2 tour. They specialize in bike tours and are soon introducing a walking tour of the underground city.
Other food tours
http://localmontrealtours.com/. They have a food tour in the same price range as F&F ($65/person) concentrating on the Jean-Talon market and Little Italy. There’s a bit of an overlap in the spots covered but some of the sampling promised sounds very good (sausages, Breton crepe with salmon and goat cheese. Yum). My impression is that their tour is focused more on food than history. They do say however that it is not suitable for vegans, vegetarians, or those on a gluten-free diet. Local Montreal also has a beer tour that sounds interesting – we might try that out sometime soon.
If you have more money to spend and want something high end, I’ve heard excellent reviews of Round Table tours (http://www.roundtablefoodtours.com/). They have for example a Vegan tour and a Iberian Montreal tour. Tours last 4 ½ hours and are in the $165/person range.