Montreal – Going Green with Melissa Simard’s Round Table Tours
What do you think of when you hear “Montreal”? Poutine? bagels? smoked meat sandwiches (pastrami’s cousin)? Not so fast. There is a new trend in the Montreal’s food scene that focuses on sustainable approach to the production and consumption of foods. Not that the bagels and smoked meat aren’t there, but more and more businesses and dining establishments are dedicated to high-end plant based gastronomy producing interesting and healthy foods made from ingredients grown locally in a sustainable way. Mais oui.
On a recent stay in Montreal I took a sustainable table tour with Melissa Simard, owner and operator of Round Table Tours (Tours de la Table). Melissa holds a Canadian Studies degree from Mcgill and has a DEP in professional cooking. After setting up her business in 2012, she has already received a “Best Female Entrepreneurial Project” award and won second place for services to businesses in the 2013 Quebec Entrepreneurial Contest. She has been filmed in documentaries about Montreal, is a regular presence in local media and usually ranks first on Trip Advisor for Montreal foodie tours.
Melissa offers several tours around the food scene of Montreal that will take you on gastronomic expeditions exploring neighbourhoods, cultures or food genres through food or the stories of the chefs or the entrepreneurs. She offers five different tours through the ethnic neighbourhoods of this beautiful city, the Jewish section, Iberian section, food truck scene and more. The tours offer walking or biking expeditions along the bike trails crossing the city and include touring, eating, drinking and learning. With the tour she hands you a cloth shopping bag containing a recipe booklet with recipes from the establishments we are to visit (in French or English), a map to the stops we make on the trip and a couple of extra culinary goodies. Always fun to get a goodie bag.
I joined Melissa on one of her specialty tours she calls Montreal: The Living Table. This tour takes you through some highly creative and green gastronomic destinations in Montreal featuring entrepreneurs and chefs that pursue business ideas and create innovative foods that are good both for the consumer and the environment, which are really one and the same when you think about it. “I developed this tour to highlight and explore business that innovated based on their principles, so they built business out of their ethics” says Melissa. “A lot of them are the kind you will not see anywhere else.” Tourism Montreal has a mandate to promote green tourism and responsible restaurants and hotels and Montreal is the second biggest conference host city in North America after Las Vegas. Montreal is also green in the way that it is the cycling capital of NA with 600 km of bike path in and around the city and the green route connecting all through Quebec. Joining us on the tour were Melissa’s Mom Valerie Simard, a chemical engineer living in Northern BC (originally from Quebec and fluent in French), and Judith Colombo, the agricultural director of D-Trois Pierres, the largest organic farm on the island of Montreal.
Our tour took place around the Plateau neighbourhood beginning at Mile End. The narrow streets are lined with trees and special wrought iron staircases that are so typical of Montreal. It’s a beautiful, authentic part of the city. In fact, the Plateau is featured right now at the archeological museum Point-a-Calliere special exhibition “the Life and times of the Plateau”. History, art, architecture, politics and religions were all showcased and explained in a fascinating multimedia presentation on the second floor of the museum, two stories above the archeological remains of where Montreal was born.
This was not a typical food tour walking you through one iconic food item to another (although she does those as well). This tour highlighted a unique phenomena that is developing in the city. Montreal has an emerging class of business people but no men in business suits or women in Chanel and high heels among them. This is a new class of business leaders that work in jeans, sweaters and runners and invest in businesses that are close to their hearts and are often related to a healthy life style. They come to the job highly educated and funny enough, more than one of the people we met had formal education in music. Their office is not a corner office on the top of a high-rise office building but rather a sometimes grungy warehouse in old buildings where everyone shares the space with equipment, desks and boxes of their products. They seem to be putting countless hours into their business to make it happen but they remember the community they live in and contribute to making life better for others through their outreach programs. They are creative, energetic, and tend to think outside the “pot” (this is a food blog:). Hearing them speak about their ventures you can really sense the excitement and conviction that they bring to the business and cannot help but being impressed with this emerging group of entrepreneurs. I think I heard Melissa’s heart beating a little faster when we saw a couple of these guys:).
Our first stop was at a warehouse serving as the headquarters and factory of Rise Kombucha, a company producing Kombucha, an alternative to conventional soft drinks made with fermented sweet tea. The company is a sister company to Crudessence that was founded by David Cote and Mathieu Gallant, both young travellers and healthy eating enthusiasts who met and joined their talent in establishing this company. Their product, Kombucha, is raw, organic, vegan, fair trade, local and sustainable (did I miss anything?) sweet and sour drink made by transforming tea into a soft drink using yeast and bacteria. They make some five or seven flavours ranging from ginger to lemongrass to blueberry and rose. Simon Bertrand, the President of the company, took us around and showed us the various steps they take to produce and bottle the beverage. We visited the fermentation area that was heady with aromas and saw the brownish leather-like deposit that forms on top of the fermenting brew. “The longest fermentation may take 6-9 months and the shortest perhaps a few weeks and the rest everything in between” says Bertrand. We left with a few bottles of the brew and I have to say it was refreshing and flavourful. Crudessence, it’s predecessor has three restaurants, a juice bar, numerous health counters, an online boutique and an Academy of Living Foods as well as five cookbooks. They serve raw plant based food they call “living food”. More on that later.
Next stop was, you guessed it, at an urban beekeeping operation called Alveole. The company begun as a small endeavour between three friends who worked at an uncle’s apiary operation in Manitoba during summer break. From a few bee hives in the first year they grew to 30 in the second year and are growing exponentially up to 150 in this third year. Also situated in one of the old warehouses in the Plateau, this company was built on the view that we as a society need to rely more and more on local production in order to survive. By helping bees live among people in urban areas they believe they not only save the threatened bee species but also “help us view our environment differently and make us more aware of the intricacies and wonder of nature.” In their words, they are “determined to change the urban landscape of Montreal”. The company’s business is setting up bee hives in city residents’ yards, on their rooftops or even on balconies. They install a colony of bees at your location and teach you (if you want) how to become essentially a beekeeper. The company provides support by maintaining the hive and extracting the honey, which is then yours to keep. They guarantee 10 kg of honey per hive. We were shown around the operation by Declan Rankin, one of the three founding owners. “The anti pesticide regulations in Montreal, the vast floral diversity and lack of pollinators are such that the city is an ideal environment for a bee colony” Says Declan. “The resulting honey is free of pesticides, unpasteurized and as local as they come”. We tasted several of their honeys and they ranged from the delicate to the bold and were all delicious. Since bees feed on flowers from their area, each bee colony produces honey of its own unique flavour. The diversity of vegetation in each area creates a micro environment with specific flowers and trees that yield a different flavour palate in the honey that comes from there. I bought a jar of honey from the Saint Laurent area which tasted different than honeys from other parts of the city. If I wasn’t so afraid of being stung and swarmed by nectar seeking bees I’d consider putting one of those on our own rooftop patio in Kelowna.
Our last stop before the “eating” part of the tour was at Santropol Roulant, a not for profit organization serving as a holistic community food centre using food to break social and economic barriers between people and cultures. Their fundamental goal is to produce food through sustainable agriculture and make it available to people in the community without regard to their ability to pay. Through urban agriculture they provide food for their Meals on wheels, Fresh Basket (a produce delivery service), neighbourhood markets as well as conduct workshops teaching the basics of organic gardening among several other activities. We climbed to the rooftop of the building to find urban agriculture at its best. 140 square meters of a “farmer’s field” with rows of vegetables, as well as several dozens self watering container gardens sit on top of the building with a gorgeous view of the Plateau neighbourhood and beyond. They even had two bee hives up there. This rooftop vegetable “farm” together with their other “farm” at McGill yield more than 2 ton of produce for their program a year. The food is prepared in the kitchen on the premises and delivered on bicycles to the needed destinations. In the basement of the building they run a worm-based compost operation. These are a few of the program that this not for profit organization carries out in Montreal.
Next it was to restaurants serving plant based and even raw foods but don’t leave yet, this was an eye opening experience you would want to hear about. You may have noticed that I don’t like the word “vegan” because to me it doesn’t mean anything. Coke and potato chips are vegan. The more appropriate term I think is plant based foods, although this can have it’s pitfalls too. The first place we stopped at was one of the Crudessence group restaurants. The restaurant we went to was a smallish operation somewhere in the Plateau (105 Rachel Ouest) and I was not expecting much. I tend to associate vegan places with alfalfa sprouts and avocado sandwiches on thick whole grain bread or tofu where it doesn’t belong (tofu cheesecake? sorry, it’s my pet peeve). Well, I was in for an eye opening experience. Melissa ordered their living sushi and when it came I knew I had found something special. Their living sushi was made of raw vegetables and sprouts wrapped in an uncooked Nori sheet, topped with pea shoots and sprinkled with black sesame seeds. The sushi rolls floated on a nut based paté, drizzled with ginger and “cream” sauce and served with a bottle of water tinged with green chlorophyll. Delicious is not describing the sushi fairly. The range of flavours and textures and balance between savoury and sweet were perfect for my palate and I could have easily stayed there alone with the sushi and not shared a bite. I took some pictures in a hurry but they do not do justice to the dish. It was fresh, flavourful, beautiful and had just enough familiarity and just enough surprise in each bite to make it a memorable culinary and artistic experience. And all it was was vegetables and herbs, remarkable. The Crudessence group is affiliated with the Rise Kombucha I wrote about above. This group promotes organic and sustainably sourced food served off a menu they call “raw living cuisine”. They have published several cookbooks that have been translated to english and I am certainly going to get a few of them. They now run three restaurants and are definitely on my list to go to when I am back in Montreal, which hopefully will be soon. The menu features a few raw rice paper wrapped salad rolls they call wraps and interesting salads that I would like to taste, as well as sandwiches, “bowls” with Japanese style black bean noodles or quinoa and millet, even vegetable lasagna, burger and pizzas (remember, it’s raw). Although we only tasted one item it certainly gave me a new appreciation for the raw food phenomena that has been springing in around the world.
Next and last stop provided another eye opener experience in flavours coaxed out of plant based (okay, vegan if you wish) foods. Melissa took us to ChuChai, a vegan Thai cuisine restaurant on Rue Saint Denis where we tasted a number of dishes and two types of rice (steamed and sticky). The food at this establishment is vegan made from ingredients obtained from mostly organic farming with no animal by-product whatsoever. The dishes, shaped and texturized to look like chicken, beef and fish or shrimp are made with seitan (wheat gluten) and tofu (soy protein) and beautifully served with exquisite sauces and vibrant vegetables. I can no longer remember the exact dishes we had (Melissa?) but vaguely remember either eating or seeing on the menu beef satay, spicy beef salad, ginger chicken and lemon fish cakes. I usually don’t like to create “imitation” dishes but these brought the whole concept to a new level. It was a taste experience so beautiful to both the eye and the palate. The intricacies of flavours and accurate textures are something to experience and savour.
This brought a lovely afternoon to an end and we parted promising to stay in touch. Melissa was an excellent tour guide, knowledgeable, considerate and fun. The other tour participants contributed to the success of the tour by asking pertinent and interesting questions and making good observations throughout the tour. I think Melissa is on to something here and I look forward to touring more of Montreal food scene with her next time I visit.