MONTREAL — When David Chang, owner of the celebrated Momofuku restaurants in New York, visited the Jean Talon public market in Montreal’s Little Italy, he was astonished at the variety and quality of food available.
“I can tell that people cook at home here,” he told his tour guide, chef David McMillan, owner of three acclaimed Montreal restaurants.
McMillan recalls the local food scene 15 years ago, when mesclun arrived by special order from California, and rugged greens such as Swiss chard, kale and collards were almost nonexistent.
“Now I can get anything, even 10 kinds of Jerusalem artichokes,” said McMillan, who sources local produce from grower and Jean Talon vendor Bruno Birri. “It’s almost too much.”
The sprawling market, with its carnival-like atmosphere, aisles of produce and ever-present free samples, is one of four large public markets in Montreal open daily from 7 a.m., year-round. Built in 1933, it even boasts two stories of underground parking.
From spring to late fall, up to 150 local producers and merchants set up shop under canopies around the edges of the market, making Jean Talon the largest outdoor market in North America, said Isabelle Letourneau, communications director for Montreal Public Markets.
In winter, about 25 produce stalls and 28 permanent boutiques remain open, selling everything from cheese to spices.
About 60% of the vendors buy local produce from Montreal’s central wholesale market, then turn to wholesale companies for imports, said Andre Plante, executive director of the Quebec Produce Growers Association.
Jean Talon alone attracts more than 2 million visitors a year, most over the age of 35, Letourneau said, but her group has noticed more young families and more men frequenting the public markets in recent years.
“The ambiance, the fresh produce arriving daily and the ability to chat with local producers all make them a destination,” Letourneau said.
“The produce is cheaper than supermarkets during the harvest,” she said, “and there’s more variety.”
To keep visitors coming back, there’s always something happening at the market. In summer, young chefs showcase ingredients and hand out recipes, while in February you can buy a stick of Quebec maple syrup poured on fresh snow to freeze.
“The vendors are already planning activities with a Christmas spirit,” Letourneau said.