Tacos on the trot in a city of long lunches
A big green truck is at the vanguard of Montreal’s street food revolution
THE phrase ‘‘Canadian desert’’ may sound like an oxymoron but there’s a block of land in the southern Okanagan Valley in British Columbia where scorpions and rattlesnakes go about their business as if they were in Texas.
This is the Osoyoos, and although it’s technically classified as a grassland or shrub-steppe ecology, it’s known locally as Canada’s ‘‘pocket desert’’.
‘‘Not all of Canada is covered in snow,’’ says Emily Lomas, the snake biologist and master of science student who co-ordinates the rattlesnake research program at the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre.
‘‘The region contains many plants and animals found nowhere else in Canada, including amphibians, reptiles and invertebrates. And most are rare or endangered.’’
Much of this habitat has been eroded by human activity. This is not surprising given its hot, dry summers, which guarantee one of the longest growing seasons in Canada and the region’s popularity as a holiday destination.
In 2003, the research program was set up as a joint venture between the Osoyoos Indian Band (one of seven aboriginal Okanagan Nations) and Environment Canada with the aim of determining the depth of the problem and identifying solutions. Rattlesnakes, which are frequently killed during encounters with humans, face increasing difficulties due to habitat loss and altered land use. By focusing her work on the largely untouched Osoyoos Indian Reserve, Lomas is able to compare snakes in their natural habitat with those affected by human encroachment.
‘‘An ongoing goal of the project is to identify movement corridors of both the [threatened] western rattlesnake and the great basin gopher snake, from den sites to lower-elevation summer foraging areas, to identify important sites and habitat features and to get an idea of how many snakes live in the area,’’ she says.
‘‘Once we have all the data analysed, we can start to make some conclusions about the population, and from there we can make recommendations that will [have an] impact. Other aspects of the project so far have paved the FOR half a century Montreal has embraced fine dining and rejected street food. But a humble taco truck might just be the first shot fired in a foodie revolution.
Montreal has much in common with New York, barely an hour’s flight due south. Both are celebrated culinary capitals. Both were settled by European immigrants with thick accents and thicker cookbooks. Both are unbearably cold in winter, yet have a vibrant street life throughout the year.
Montreal should, by rights, be the Canadian equivalent of New York for street food, yet in this proudly francophone city the practice is illegal.
Montreal’s lack of street vendors can be traced back to Jean Drapeau, the bombastic mayor who ruled the city for almost 30 years until 1986. He took to eradicating street food as if it were a cockroach in a kitchen (he also nixed pinball machines).
‘‘Street food was outlawed for bureaucratic reasons,’’ explains Hugue Dufour, a Montreal chef who recently relocated to New York to open M. Wells, a hip diner with a menu that includes tamales stuffed with foie gras, hot dogs and rabbit, and fried frog’s legs.
‘‘In Montreal the health department wanted to be able to visit a physical building and stick a sanitation rating to the window. They didn’t want to have to run after food trucks,’’ Dufour says.
For a long time, Montrealers weren’t aware they were missing anything. After all, the city’s culinary landscape is amply populated by award-winning eateries that lift French culinary traditions to dizzying new heights. Take Au Pied de Cochon, one of Canada’s best known restaurants, founded by chef Martin Picard in 2001. For a decade, nose-to-tail aficionados have travelled from far and wide to tuck into delicacies such as duck in a can, foie gras burgers, happy pork chop and fries cooked in duck fat. PDC ( as locals know it) became the crucible for a new generation of street-savvy chefs such as Hilary McGown, who teamed up with Marc-Andre Leclerc last year to create Grumman 78. The pair bought a boxy old German truck from the fire department, gave it a $C25,000 ($ 24,600) makeover and repainted it in the original, rather eye-popping, shade of chartreuse green.
Before their first taco could be sold, they ran into trouble.
‘‘The law is very clear about selling food on the street. It’s illegal,’’ says Gaelle Cerf, the company’s manager, another PDC alumna. The team found a loophole by declaring their new business on wheels a catering venture. The truck can sell tacos only on private property and at festivals, but given that between May and September Montreal hosts no less than 67 big festivals, it effectively gave them a street food licence.
The big green truck has been a smash hit all summer, serving innovative twists on the Mexican staple snack, including banh mistyle braised pork tacos and a vegie version featuring black beans spiced up with cumin, wrapped in a soft corn tortilla and topped with pickled onions, fetta, radishes and coriander. Priced at about $C10 for two, they’ve got to be the city’s best gourmet bargain.
The Grumman venture mirrors the taco truck trend that has been sweeping the US for several years, particularly in Los Angeles (where the cult Kogi Korean BBQ-to-Go launched in 2008), Portland and New York. Unlike those cities, where food trucks are a longestablished tradition, Montreal’s is the first of its kind.
‘‘Some of our local customers walk around the truck a little confused,’’ Cerf says with a laugh. ‘‘They’re unsure of where to order, pay and receive their food. But people whohave travelled a bit just dive right in.’’
Montrealers are catching on fast, eagerly tracking the truck’s daily locations via Twitter.
‘‘Food trucks are a great way to let young chefs with good ideas try out something new without the expensive real estate of having a restaurant,’’ Cerf adds.
One truck might not a trend make, but the Grumman 78 team has received so much enthusiasm and support from the public and other chefs that they’re helping other restaurants set up trucks and aiming to form a collective of gourmet food trucks in the city.
So, is this the start of a foodtruck revolution for a city once obsessed with sacred French traditions and long lunches? The talents behind Grumman 78 are counting on it as they take their delicious message to the street.
grumman78.com way for how and where to implement snake fencing, and have investigated whether or not certain snake management practices are beneficial.’’
The program also plays an important role in raising the profile of these reptiles among residents and tourists, and providing effective solutions.
‘‘These rattlesnakes are a natural part of the ecosystem here. They may play an important pest-management role by feeding on the rodents in the area. [Besides], by conserving rattlesnakes and their habitat, you are also conserving [the] habitat for many [other] rare and endangered species.’’
Although the nature of this work means there aren’t many volunteer researchers, the Nk’Mip Desert Cultural Centre relies on helpers to convey the importance of its cultural and ecological programs. And visitors are encouraged to get involved with conservation through an adopt-arattler program. Funds raised are used to purchase microchips and radio transmitters, and adopters get special access to biologists. It’s just another way in which Lomas can share her enthusiasm.
Grumman 78 has beaten Montreal’s restrictive street food laws and become hugely popular
Rattlesnake research program co-ordinator Emily Lomas