Archive for January 17th, 2012

Wandering through the Winter Wonderland of Captivating Christkindlmärkte in Montreal

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Entrance of the Marché Caisse Noisette

The holiday season, a hectic yet high-spirited time of warm reflection, joyful commemoration, and festive celebration of life, tradition, culture, heritage, and togetherness, embraces the spirit of giving and sharing. Filled with joy, goodwill, peace, love, and laughter, the various overlapping winter holiday festivities—Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa—steeped in rich traditions and customs, encompass the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere and honour light and the return of light.

People in many parts of the world observe the enchanting entrance into deep winter as they usher in the frosty season and, together with friends, family, and those nearest and dearest to them, celebrate the special occasion with food and drink. From light, crispy potato latkes, earthy, spicy Jollof rice, and succulent golden roast goose to honey-sweetened, citrusy ginger Lebkuchen, glacé-fruit-studded, nut-laden panforte, and decorative, rolled Génoise bûches de Noël, the repast tables around the globe are graced with delicious celebratory culinary delicacies. While the resplendent holiday feast is an integral and indispensable part of the jovial fête, gift-giving continues to be a favourite holiday activity during the winter celebrations. There are a multitude of holiday shopping destinations for people in pursuit of personalized presents, but the ephemeral Christmas markets, which abound during the four weeks of Advent, provide shoppers with a wide choice of inspirational and original gift ideas. These highly traditional winter street markets originated from Dresden, Germany in the first half of the fifteenth century, and since then, Christkindlmärkte, which continue to be highly regarded in that country, have flourished and branched out worldwide.

In Montreal and other cities in the province of Quebec, a number of annual Marchés de Noël and Christmas arts and crafts shows have become popular events with locals and tourists alike; many of them are artisan fairs and exhibitions which showcase high-quality wares deftly handcrafted and handmade by local and regional producers and designers. Although they are generally smaller in scale compared to the majority of Europe’s fabled urban Weihnachtsmärkte which are held outdoors in main town squares and neighbouring pedestrian areas, the Christmas markets in Canada’s City of Lights, which, for the most part, are staged in indoor venues, capture, nonetheless, the romance, revelry, splendour, and spirit of the holiday season.

This past year, I found the occasion to visit not one but several winter artisan markets. These cultural attractions, with their vast array of unique items, offer something for every taste and budget, from designer clothing, fashion accessories, and beauty care products, like fragrant perfumes and scented soaps, to home furnishings, children toys, and gourmet treats, like fine cheeses and high-quality teas. There were countless, fabulous finds that I had discovered, too many to recount and describe in this space, but here are a few selected highlights of two of the holiday fairs that I had attended.

Le Domaine de la Vallée du Bras Omerto tomato vintage wines

The second edition of the Marché Caisse Noisette, which represents the first philanthropic Christmas market in Montreal, was held at the Mall of the Palais des Congrès de Montréal, the interior space enchantingly transformed into a fairy-lit holiday shopping haven. During this enthralling event, ten percent of proceeds from each merchant and all revenues earned by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal (GBCM) went to The Nutcracker Fund for Children, initiated fourteen years ago by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal—which help ill-stricken and underprivileged children in the Greater Montreal region attend cultural and educational workshops and experience a magical performance of The Nutcracker—and towards production costs of the ballet. Out of the eighty exhibitors who participated in this fairytale fair, almost half of them were purveyors of specialty foods and wines.

A variety of fine artisan wines and liqueurs from Quebec were featured at the Marché. In addition to well-established, reputable enterprises such as the esteemed cidrerie La Face Cachée de la Pomme of Hemmingford and the venerable winery Vignoble de l’Orpailleur of Dunham, Le Domaine de la Vallée du Bras, located in the Charlevoix area, presented the world’s first tomato vintage wines with Omerto, its small but distinctive line of apéritif vintage wines made from locally grown organic heirloom tomatoes. Produced by Belgian-born viticulteur Pascal Miche, both the sec and sparkling wine versions, which are based on his great-grandfather’s recipe, exuded grapefruit and herbaceous notes and reminded me of some of the Bohemian wines that I had tasted in Europe. Absolutely mind-blowing.

Of course, the Nutcracker Market would be unthinkably incomplete without a Confiturembourg. At this past year’s edition, the lavish Land of Sweets enticed sweet-tooth visitors to alluring kiosks replete with confections, cookies, and cakes.

Cao handmade chocolate truffles

Among the chocolate artisans present at the fair, including Schokoladenmeister Hermann Zuccatti of Chocolats Suisses and confectioner Claudine Desnoyers of Le Comptoir Chocolat, who, along with her team, created a fair-trade and organic dark chocolate puzzle exclusively for the Marché, chef and chocolatier Alain Vaidie of Cao seduced shoppers with his ambrosial, textured chocolate truffles. Cloaked in different coatings like cocoa powder and minced nuts, the hand-sculpted, fungus-shaped nuggets, with soft ganache centres concocted from premium Valrhona and Cacao Barry chocolates and perfumed with fine, exotic ingredients like Iranian saffron, Madras curry, Japanese matcha, and passion fruit, titillated the fancy of foodie aficionados. From the traditional “truffe royale” and “caramel au beurre salé” to the innovative “pamplemousse confit” and “fenugrec érable,” these sumptuous, scrumptious delights were sexy, sensual, and sensory-provoking.

Domaine Pinnacle Réserve 1859 ice cider-apple brandy with Toque & Tablier’s limited edition fruitcake "Le Distingué”Besides the sweet and savoury shortbread cookies from Toronto’s Coach House Shortbread Company and the celebrated and colourful Parisian macarons from Montreal’s La Maison du Macaron, owned and operated by French pastry chefs-owners Johan and Gaëlle Crop, and from Boucherville’s Christophe Morel Chocolatier, owned and overseen by pastry and chocolate wizard Christophe Morel, other baked pastries awaited visitors. Among Toque & Tablier’s small yet ambitious collection of refined, sophisticated gâteaux which incorporate unusual flavours and ingredients, the Drummondville bakery’s limited edition of the renowned “Le Distingué,” which is filled with a generous mélange of fruits and nuts, soaked in rum, and ripened for one year, revives the glorious reputation of the classic Christmas cake. And this year, chef-pâtissier-designer Thomas Schneider of the Première Moisson boulangerie-pâtisserie-charcuterie chain collaborated with internationally renowned fashion designer Jean-Claude Poitras to conceive the special “Signature Chamade” dessert log, signed Jean-Claude Poitras, a chic and contemporary twist on the beloved bûche de Noël. Creamy and crunchy, intense and delicate, the spectacularly stunning sweet composition revealed a base consisting of an almond Joconde and Kohbz Tunes with caramelized pecans beneath a dense layer of Cluizel Maralumi 64% dark chocolate mousse and a copious cushion of guava and passion fruit crémeux and marmalade, the whole enrobed with milk chocolate frosting. With a simple touch of artistic flair and modern elegance, the luscious Yule log was surmounted with a dark chocolate female torso—a prominent design motive found in the Poitras, 13 rue de l’univers living collection of textiles, tableware, furniture, and art pieces for the home—and dressed with a signed golden ribbon, completing the gorgeous and glamorous presentation of the luxurious holiday dessert. The edible artwork, which harmoniously combined the past with the present and the familiar with the foreign, delighted not only the eye but also the palate of the beauty seeker.

Première Moisson's Bûche "Signature Chamade" signed Jean-Claude Poitras

Equally exciting, diverse, and accessible, the highly acclaimed Salon des métiers d’art du Québec (SMAQ), which attracts more than 200,000 visitors each year, continues to provide a window into the robust Québecois and Canadian cultural scene. Considered to be one of the most important professional arts and crafts show in North America, the annual Salon, in its 56th year, displayed the work and wares of about four hundred artisans in the exhibition hall of Place Bonaventure in downtown Montreal. The gargantuan exhibition-sale, which originally was devoted solely to textiles and design, has evolved gradually over the years due to the influence of cultural trends and movements. As the foodie culture continues to gain momentum, the Salon enthusiastically embraces gastronomic and œnologic pleasures, and this year was no exception.

As encountered at the Nutcracker Market, an abundance of condiments, confitures, sauces, and spreads were found at this large-scale event. The local Les Condiments Varia, which drew its initial inspiration from a family recipe of port wine jelly, has expanded its impressive lines of produits du terroir to include other wine jelly concoctions like jalapeños and white wine jelly, ginger and rosé wine jelly, and port wine and cognac wine jelly; onion confits starring unconventional combinations like cranberry and port wine, maple syrup and white wine, and blueberry and brandy; and caramel sauces inflected with ingredients like fleur de sel, amaretto, and brandy. At the stall of Ontarion Henderson Farms, the fruits of Robert Henderson’s labour were preserved in his all-natural jams, jellies, and marmalades, many of which have won awards at national agricultural fairs, festivals, and food shows. The collection, handmade in small batches, ranged from old-fashioned strawberry jam and orange and lemon marmalade to original spreads like apricot and jalapeño pepper jelly, which unleashed a spicy kick, and wild dandelion wine jelly, which was based on his grandmother’s wine recipe and made from organic dandelions from his farm. In a similar vein of remarkable culinary creativity, Gérald Le Gal’s Gourmet Sauvage, situated in Saint-Adèle, pays tribute to the Canadian wilderness and the rich, ancient Amerindian tradition of Canada with its unique gourmet specialties prepared from a variety of carefully handpicked organic fruits, vegetables, and mushrooms. Baies d’amélanchier compote, balsam fir jelly, milkweed pod ketchup, sea asparagus mustard, pickled cattail hearts, and dried morel mushrooms, to name a few, may sound wild and strange, but they were eye- and palate-opening examples of the producer’s phenomenal lineup of delectable botanical delights.

Entrance of Le Salon des métiers d’art du Québec

At other kiosks positioned in the exhibition’s “Pavillon des saveurs,” preserved meat and charcuterie fare were presented. There were pasture-to-plate Moulard duck foie gras and Muscovy duck rillettes from the artisanal farm Les Canardises in Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges, and pâté de campagne au canard, crème brûlée au foie gras, and imaginative game terrines from Ducs de Montrichard of Mont Orford. But there were also farm-to-table goose foie gras items from Natacha Jobin and Simon Brousseau’s La Ferme Québec-Oies, stationed in Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges. From silken mousse de foie gras to comforting cassoulet d’oie, the dainty, decadent delicacies, smoother, subtler, and less gamy than that of duck, were a rare luxury indulgence that was worth savouring and splurging.

The SMAQ also shone the spotlight on other professional crafts. Again this past year, jewellery design continued to dominate this major Montreal show as almost a quarter of the participated artisan exhibitors were jewellery makers. From simple earrings to elaborate necklaces, the eclectic creations were diverse in style, form, composition, and expression. Montreal-based joaillière Anne-Marie Chagnon, who launches a new collection every year exclusively for Cirque du Soleil, meticulously shapes fine leather, pewter, glass, resin, and 22-karat gold into bold, versatile pieces of wearable art, a harmonious and playful alliance of beauty and free-spiritedness. In the case of jewellery-artist Sylvie Beaulieu, she explores glass fusion and sterling silver—the transparency of glass against the opacity of metal—in her work. Among her mixed media collection, her necklace piece entitled “11111011001,” which depicts human dependence on technology, incorporates recycled copper wires fused between glass layers and features engraved binary code numbers which represent 2009, the year the piece was created. Every piece of jewellery tells a narrative, and this was just one of the many stories that were shared at the Salon.

Jewellery pieces, including necklace “11111011001” (top) by jewellery-artist Sylvie Beaulieu

At both winter events, I took the time to admire and appreciate the work of the artisan vendors, as I rambled around, weaving in and out of the numerous stalls. Instilled with nostalgic charm and heartwarming simplicity, the Christmas fairs provided an intriguing glimpse into a captivating world of artistic effervescence and dexterous craftsmanship, where timeless traditions mingle with creative imagination. It was an exciting and enjoyable experience to browse and shop for special holiday gifts and to explore, rediscover, and indulge in, some of life’s finest yet simplest pleasures during one of the most magical moments of the year.

Now that the holiday season celebrations have drawn to an end, we welcome wholeheartedly the arrival of the New Year. Yet as we close the chapter on our recent past festivities, another holiday festival is lurking just around the corner. The Lunar Year of 4710 will be upon us in several days, and I, along with numerous Asians here and abroad, will ring in the auspicious Year of the Black Water Dragon in grand style and with a mighty roar.

So on this jubilant and buoyant note, I would like to wish my readers a wonderful New Year filled with peace, prosperity, serenity, health, and happiness, and to those who also celebrate the Lunar New Year, gung hei fat choy!  Sun nean fai lok!  Gōng xǐ fā cái!  Xīn nián kuài lè! 恭喜發財! 新年快樂! Chúc mừng năm mới! Cung hỉ phát tài! Sae hae bok mani badu seyo! 새해 복 많이 받으세요!

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