*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on July 9, 2018. It can also be found online here.
Roland, our food tour guide on a recent vacation to Montreal, had a great personality to match his great size. Reassured by the reverse of the aphorism to ‘never trust a skinny chef,’ you couldn’t help but like and put faith in Roland’s recommendations.
Roland was our key to unlock Montreal. He marched our group of 12 or so around the Old Port, where we ducked in and out of restaurants, nibbling samples of spectacular eats while Roland taught us about the 4 million inhabitants that call the island of Montreal “home.”
The name “Montreal” means “royal mountain,” a nod to the 764-foot, three-peaked Mount Royal that stands watch over the city. French traders arrived in 1642 at the spot where the Great Lakes intersect with the Saint Lawrence River (which, in turn, connects to the Atlantic Ocean). It was ruled as a French colony until the Seven Years’ War (what we call the French & Indian War).
Beginning in the 1760s with the conclusion of that conflict, the British exercised rule over Montreal. A clash of cultures ensued, including a very serious French-Canadian separatist movement which began in the 1960s that almost led to the breakup of Canada.
But Canada held together. The cauldron of rivalry cooled and revealed that a stew pot of many cuisines could coexist and even flourish together.
Of course, French food remains first among equals. While the region is mostly known for its maple syrup (did you know it takes 40 liters of sap to make a single liter?), there’s a lot more on offer north of the border next to the rivers. We ate delicious croissants, cretons (a pork spread with onions and spices…way better than it sounds), and poutine. Yes, poutine! Pronounced “poo-teen,” which sounds a little like referring to a dirty teenager, poutine is a working-class pub food, pioneered in the 1950s, and essentially comprised of French fries, cheese curds, all slathered in gravy. Roland pointed out that “food is memory,” and I’ve got a lot of food memories from our stay in Montreal.
Roland also used food as “an excuse to talk about the world.” I can’t count how many times he started with food and then veered into the social and cultural history of the city.
Croquettes (small, fried potato cakes) got us onto Portuguese and Jewish immigrants, who worked at the docks for a time. Fresh noodles being made by hand got us thinking about Chinatown’s origins. And our last meal in town was at a Venezuelan restaurant with sandwiches and yucca root fries. (Note to restaurateurs: I will drive any distance, through any weather, pay any price, and tip any tip to get my hands on more yucca fries!)
The global food competition in Montreal, like a mini-World Cup or Olympics, is fierce. Roland said Montreal has the most restaurants per capita in all of North America.
And after the food fills you, the art has no end. We were there during Montreal’s Mural Festival, when some of the world’s finest street artists used the city as their canvas. There was also Citè Memoirè (“memory city”), a series of projections and laser light shows, initiated using a smartphone app, that told the story of Montreal to visitors out for an after-sundown stroll. My wife said she had never felt so “immersed” by art.
Is there anything we in Colorado Springs can learn from Montreal? Especially as the city’s “PlanCOS” blueprint for growth, including tourism, nears publication?
Yes. While Montreal is different, some things are eerily similar. Their newspaper is also known as The Gazette. Canada recently legalized pot. And, of course, this city is inextricably linked to Canadians through NORAD.
If there is one takeaway from this experience in tourism, it’s that people like Roland matter most. Characters introduce you to cuisine, creative arts, and culture—the things that make a place special.
While we typically focus on the food or location — we forget that there are people like Roland that function as human spotlights, shining bright light on fantastic food and the unique aspects of a particular location.
To make Colorado Springs a tourist destination, invest in exceptional guides. If you do, then Roland from Montreal might fly down for a visit.