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 Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Canada - CATHER­INE MAR­SHALL ADAM MCCUL­LOCH

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

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