Spring is approaching Montreal: the snow is melting, the temperature careening between cold and nearly warm, and soon the bars and restaurants will unfurl their summer terraces, and tables and chairs will pop up like flowers along the pavements. This is not a city that hibernates – new places have opened since I last wrote about the city’s amazing supply of great places to drink, and that was only in January. But the Montreal winter is a daunting time, with highs and lows that have nothing to do with weather patterns.
For me, it’s fascinating to watch those fragile and insignificant flakes mount up until they coat the city to waist level or higher. Every snowfall brings out armies of trucks, some to shunt the snow to the roadside, others to suck the banked drifts into vast open-top containers; smaller, more agile vehicles clear the pavements. Except when I’m out during the snowfall itself, I have never seen a big road snowbound.
But it’s only fun to watch because here, I’m always warm inside. In Vinvinvin and Bar Henrietta, I sat next to the window in shirtsleeves and watched the booted, insouciant locals, some carrying snow shovels or ice skates. I’ve eaten in a friend’s beautiful dining room that is glass on two sides as their large dog bounded joyfully around the garden chasing snowflakes in a full-throttle snowstorm, and I wasn’t cold. No Canadian will understand the significance of that statement, and nobody from our little island, where the mantra ‘put another jumper on’ is practically a national anthem, will fail to.
Still, it’s nice to see the pavement, to walk unimpeded. When I realised I was late for my rendezvous at Buvette Pompette, a bar so new I couldn’t write about it in January, I was able to break into a run without fear of a slip on ice and a broken wrist. Behind an unassuming shop front in an area known as La Petite Patrie sits a new bar whose owners include wine importer David Ward and Federico Rivas, who is responsible for the Iberian simplicity (his father is from Spain): an unvarnished bar, a list that includes several Spanish options, and a tapa that arrives unordered with your first glass.
I drank an excellent orange wine by Loxarel, made entirely from the Cava grape Xarel-lo, nibbled on a square of excellent tortilla and, while I wouldn’t have said no to a few degrees more heat outside, that was Spain enough for me.
A buvette is traditionally a place to get a drink in an environment that’s really about something else: a fairground, say, or a train station. But in Montreal, these are neighbourhood bars whose only aim is to serve good food and great wine, often natural: this city has a talent for finding natural wines that aren’t too funky. As regular readers will know, I view the whole project with a wary eye: I’ve drunk wonderful natural wines, usually in Montreal, but I have also tried plenty that are no more than the sum of their naturalness and I find I dislike the taste of dogma.
No matter how many snails you eat, or French wines you drink, you are still in North America, insulated from more than the weather
Still, at Buvette Chez Simone or Lundis au Soleil (the name means Mondays in the Sunshine) or Vin Mon Lapin or any number of other places where the menu is on a slip of paper or a blackboard, the décor is pretty but unpretentious and the staff are friendly and knowledgeable, I will happily take a recommendation and often, add a terrific producer to my ever-growing list. I don’t know any dedicated winemakers, whether their creed is natural, organic, biodynamic or unlabelled, who want anything less than the best for their soils, their grapes and their wines.
In Quebec, which until the 1960s was fiercely Catholic and is now just as fiercely secular, I think of the parallels with religion: we all want to get to the same place – we just have different ideas of the route. Montreal is a city that straddles many boundaries: it’s very hot and very cold, Francophone and Anglophone, historically Catholic (with an important Jewish community) and deeply irreligious.
It is also, these days, French and American, with fast food joints, obligatory tipping, but also, some of the best French restaurants I’ve visited, from L’Express, with its monochrome tiles, white tablecloths and vast cellars, to Café Cherrier, a bistro with a reputation as the hangout of choice for the Quebec politicians and literati of the last generation (and photos on the wall to prove it). Cherrier has waiters in ties and a menu of French classics straight out of the 1950s, but no matter their uniform, those staff have none of the hauteur of their counterparts in the old country. No matter how many snails you eat, or French wines you drink, you are still in North America, insulated from more than the weather.
I have been here since December and there have been ups and downs: snow and sunshine, meals with old friends and fears for the future (there has been far less ice-skating possible on the city’s many impromptu rinks than in other years, and in Ottawa, for the first time in a half-century, the Rideau Canal, which usually forms a marvellous skateway through the city, was deemed unsafe to open). There was the happiness of all four of my stepchildren with us for Christmas and the sadness of a bereavement in January: expected, but still unwelcome.
In the coldest part of winter, I brought my beloved mother-in-law Drappier Champagne, but she was too unwell to try it. My husband and I drank it later, and it will ever after remind me of her, even though she never tasted a drop. Wine memory has its own logic – and what has memory to do with logic anyway? Still, there can be few better places to deal with the vagaries of life than a city that knows how to enjoy both minus 28 and plus 35. I am only here until May, and I plan to make the most of it.