Montreal is different from other cities — European in North America, French in an otherwise mostly English continent. We’ve heard all of this before but sometimes we need a reminder.
For example, what is the third most common language in Montreal? Spanish? Italian? Creole? How about Arabic? Yes, according to the last census more people speak Arabic at home than any other language apart from French or English. Go back 70 years, and the third most common language in this city was … Yiddish!
More than anything else, this shows me that our city has been a cosmopolitan Mecca for more generations than most of us can remember. What makes Montrealers different is that so many of us are attuned to this. We have antennae that signify for MOTs (members of the tribe) as my folks used to say. In Montreal, Jews seem to recognize other Jews a block away as I presume Muslims note other Muslims, and similarly Mexicans, Italians, and Greeks.
Montrealers know how to relate and communicate with people that are ‘different.’ We chat easily but politics is out and so is religion. Subjects include the weather, the difficulties of getting around Montreal in orange cone season, and of course food.
As the Flavourguy, I have found that nothing gets a warmer merci, shukran, gracias or todah rabah, than discussing what to eat. This is why our restaurants, shops and markets are so important. In autumn, the harvest is at its fullest and city markets bring out a full spectrum of Montrealers. If I want to get to know those from a different community better, I just watch what they are buying and ask how they cook it.
I wander into a store on Jean Talon or Victoria and check out the spices and sauces, the olive oils and condiments. I ask for recipes and advice. If we get friendly, I may ask how their family is doing back home and gradually step into more fragile discussions of history and contemporary politics. I always learn something.
A pesto primer
One area of fierce debate concerns pesto. Everyone I know makes it in the fall, and everyone has a special recipe — parsley added to basil, or not. Garlic or maybe garlic scapes. Pine nuts roasted and mixed or added after or both. Maybe walnuts instead of pine nuts.
Romano or parmesan cheese, or both, or something else incorporated into the blending. Mortar and pestle or Cuisinart. And once made, kept in the fridge with a little olive oil to seal it in the fridge or frozen in ice cube trays ready to pop out portion-sized for pasta. The word pesto is Italian and means to pound. Some also add red peppers or tomatoes. Omit the cheese and pine nuts and we have the French pistou. Vegans forego cheese but may add miso.
The key is to make what you like. I use a mortar and pestle for smaller quantities. For larger amounts, a food processor works fine.
For each cup of basil leaves (and maybe some flat leaf Italian parsley if you like), remove the stems, grind them with a clove of garlic and a tablespoon of toasted pine nuts or walnuts, a 1/4 cup of olive oil and the same amount of freshly grated cheese. Taste and add salt as necessary. This simple recipe is based on one from the New York Times, which has an excellent on-line recipe section. I serve this with more toasted nuts on top and more freshly grated cheese passed around.