I remember my first excursion to buy some wine at the SAQ in Montréal in 2004. Naturally, I gravitated to the California wines (those were the labels I knew at the time) and I found 1) a tiny selection, and 2) some pretty mediocre wine.
It tainted my view of SAQ for a long time after.
Of course, as my knowledge of wine grew, I discovered that I was complaining about a poor selection of California wine in stores featuring rack after rack of really wonderful French wine. And that was when I understood that good wine in Montréal means French wine. I learned not to fight it; in fact I love it and now I wander through wine stores in Boston (where I live) and wish for a better selection of French wine.
I’ve had several occasions to think about this in the past year: there were the trips to Montréal in December and June; and in January, I read The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts by David McMillan and Frédéric Morin.
Let me get this recommendation out of the way now: read the book. It’s great. Yes, there are recipes in the book, which you might re-create at home, or which you might read about and then order the next time you’re at Joe Beef or Liverpool House.
But this is a cookbook that you read, and I love the chapters on Montréal’s culinary history, the romanticism of train travel, the square meals at the casse-croûtes (snack bars) of Quebec, as well as the story of how Joe Beef and Liverpool House came to be in Montréal’s Little Burgundy neighborhood. It’s absorbing reading, but my favorite part of the book is David McMillan’s chapter on French wine, in which he writes, just to start things off right:
“I love red burgundy wine so much I want to pour it into my eyes.”
McMillan writes that he’s opinionated about wine and his restaurants reflect his worldview: mostly wines from Burgundy, Beaujolais, Loire and Alsace. There are a few bottles of American wine and Canadian wine on the list.
McMillan writes: “The air in Quebec is sweet and old, and we’ve been drinking French wine with French food here for more than three hundred years.” Montrealers dine out often and despite the proliferation of cuisines representing the more recent waves of immigration to Canada, and despite the various fine dining trends that have swept North America, Montréal remains a city where the best wine selection on the menu is invariably French.
Here’s what McMillan told Eater National in an interview earlier this year:
There’s been a serious French wine program at our local SAQ wine stores for 100 years, you know. If you give an older French-Canadian person Australian Chardonnay, they’re like, “Get this the fuck away from me—what is this?” And if you say, “Here’s CA chardonnay,” they’re like, “Why?” So we’ve had to keep the path to French wine and old world-flavored wines. Even when we wanted to play ball [with bigger, more modern wines] like the rest of the world, it never worked, so we just gave up.
It’s hard to complain about that, since French (and other Old World) wines pair so wonderfully with food most of the time, but what I take away from the chapter (and, indeed, the whole book) is a deeper understanding of the history and culture of Montréal, and how it expresses itself on the plate.
And there’s the recipe for the famous Joe Beef Hot Oysters on the Radio – that’s just icing on the cake, so to speak.