I didn’t prepare for the sensory overload. Peruvian flute players perform in the street in front of me. The smells of flowers and freshly baked cannoli tickle my nose. The vibrant colors and textures of the world’s produce dance around me. I had come to Montreal’s Jean Talon Market expecting a large farmers market but I didn’t imagine that it would involve so much more than some fruits and vegetables.
With Michelin-rated restaurants, specialty food shops and chic cafes on every other corner, Montreal qualifies as a true foodie destination. So it would make sense that the city’s landmark market would be a gastronomic spectacle. I just hadn’t equipped myself for the sheer size of it. With over 300 vendors, Jean Talon Market is the biggest outdoor market in North America. Located in Montreal’s lively Little Italy neighborhood, it has been a major shopping destination since its opening in 1933.
The market attracts locals as well as tourists and it provides a dizzying selection of gourmet souvenirs. Gazing at the rows and rows of stands and shops, I spotted everything from cheeses and fresh honey to candy and wine. Almost every vendor offers samples and you can get stuffed just from nibbling the seasonal fare. But pace yourself. Save room for one of the charming restaurants or street food stands. I suggest trying a smoked fish plate or maple-soaked salmon from the Gaspesie region at Poissonnerie Atkins.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You want to experience North America’s largest outdoor market.
- You live for culinary adventure.
- Great for enthusiastic shoppers and souvenir collectors.
What to Buy at Jean Talon Market
Once you move past the beautiful displays of produce, there are some great foodie gifts to buy. It’s easy to get overwhelmed so I suggest focusing on a few basic categories that will bring exciting memories of Montreal.
Quebecois Products: Jean Talon supplies quintessential products of Quebec that you might not find at airport shops. Of course, maple syrup is a Canadian staple and you can buy bottles of it in interesting flavors like blueberry and strawberry. I also found some maple favored tea and pure maple syrup lollipops in the shape of maple leaves. Ice wines and ciders are very popular but you can also choose from a selection of Quebecois craft beers. Local honey and preserves in flavors like raspberry and citrus make great souvenirs.
Cooking Utensils: The market displays myriad cook books and magazines in French and English as well as everything you need to create gourmet delights. You’ll find elegant whisks with carved handles, colorful mixing bowls and imported glassware.
Spices and Herbs: Whether you seek gourmet sea salts or basic cooking spices and herbs, you’ll find it here. You can grab fresh herbs at many of the farmer’s stalls but a must-see is the Olives et Epices shop, which supplies a selection of spices from regions around the world. The walls are covered with spices labeled according to region and growing conditions. The little silver tins of ground mixed spices and rubs for everything from fish masala to Morroccan stews make perfect gifts.
Cheeses: The fromagerie, or cheese shop, is a staple in Montreal culture and they are scattered everywhere at the market. I nibbled fresh goat cheese and mustard-flavored Camembert with mushrooms at the iconic Fromagerie Hamel shop. Handmade fresh cheeses are the most popular buys but you can also score packaged and powdered versions to pack in your suitcase.
Two hours after my arrival at Jean Talon market, I had only managed to skim the periphery of the vibrant, bustling scene. Although I had savored and sipped many exotic specialties, my favorite keepsake was much simpler. Strolling out of the market, I clutched a small bottle of raspberry cordial with an image of my childhood literary hero, Anne of Green Gables, pasted onto the front. Anne’s unexposed palate had confused the cordial for current wine but thanks to my Jean Talon experience, I know the difference.
- The market is open all year round from 6 a.m. to 6 or 7 p.m. every day but the earlier you are, the better the selection.
- Comfortable shoes are a must.
- Come on an empty stomach; the samples and cafes should not be missed.
- Plan on spending at least two hours, you won’t see enough of the market with less time.