Strolling the streets of Montreal you could sometimes be forgiven for thinking you were in Europe.

It has a distinct feel from other Canadian cities such as Toronto, unsurprising given that as well as being the largest city in the province of Quebec it is the second-largest French speaking city in the world after Paris.

"Montreal is basically a French city," Josh Freed, a journalist with the Montreal Express, says. "This is a little slice of France in North America, where people speak French, live in French."

Just as the French language is at the heart of Quebecois identity, so too is food.

"I just read a poll this morning: with the current economic problems, what would you give up first? And Quebeckers unlike the rest of Canada, the one thing they won’t give up is their food shopping," Freed says.

"Food is just food in English Canada. In Quebec food is like holy material and that's a very French thing."

With a burgeoning reputation as a "foodie's" paradise Montreal has largely foregone traditional street food and roadside snack vendors or outlets are a rare sight.

High-end eateries however are not, such as Europea, where Francoise Kayler widely regarded as the doyenne of Quebecois cuisine often enjoys dishes such as Quebec-reared scallops served on foam scented with real sea water.

"For a Francophone cuisine is a language of its own – it is a means of self-expression like painting or writing," she says. 


Political language

"I feel that Anglophones are more in a hurry at the table – restaurant owners will tell you that they eat and run; whereas we Quebecois stay longer and talk about what we've eaten, and even what we’re going to eat."

Such freedom to express their Qeubecois identity has been a long-fought political struggle for Montreal residents.

Despite a French-speaking majority dating back to the 16th century, Quebec was largely English until the 1960s.

Fine eating is easy to find in Montreal

A nationalist movement to empower the Francophone majority grew in strength until the province came within one per cent of declaring independence in a referendum in 1995.

Separatism has declined since then, but Anglo-French tensions remain, particularly when it comes to language.

In the 1970s French replaced English as the province’s official language. Even many well-known international brands must still be translated into French and a so-called language police the "Office de la langue francaise" was created.

Such linguistic tensions have invariably spilled into the gastronomic arena and the zealousness of the language police have annoyed some establishemnets.

"We received a letter… stating that an inspector came into our establishment and noting that the signs on our walls were all in English," Dean laderoute, the owner of McKibbins pub, says.

"We were instructed in the letter either to translate the signs or remove them. All the signs in question were basically antiques, decoration, signs that we purchased in Ireland that can’t be translated.

"We do live in a French society. However… where do you go next? Do you say that the ambient music should be in French too?"

Melting pot

The politics of language are increasingly of little importance to many young Montrealers.

Most places choose to comply with the language police

Largely bilingual they are increasingly drawn from not only across Quebec and Canada but the world in general.

St Laurent Boulevard, known to locals as "the Main" was once the dividing line between English and French speaking communities in the city but today is testament to the myriad of cultures that exist in modern Montreal.

A Main mainstay and Montreal institution is Schwartz's Hebrew Delicatessen which has been selling bagels for decades and, according to food writer Barry Lazar, looks largely the same as it did 50 years ago.

But while Schwartz's may have stood still in time, the large Jewish community it originally served has not been immune to the Anglo-French struggles which so dominated the city recently.

"The Jewish community was not allowed to go to the French school system because it was Catholic," Lazar says. “So you had an entire generation of the Jewish community that was not allowed to learn French the way French people were.

"They were disenfranchised about what was going on in Quebec... And so they gradually moved to various places: a lot of people moved to the States, a lot of people moved to Toronto."

Earlier immigrants to Montreal came largely from Eastern Europe but the multiplicity of ethnic restaurants on the Main reveal that today's arrivals come from more impoverished or troubled parts of the world such as Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa.

Twenty five-year-old Omeed came to Montreal from Iran as a teenager and like many immigrants he spoke some English, but no French.

However a controversial Quebec law rules that new arrivals are offered a state education only in French.

"It's very good, because if there is not this law, they won’t go. And for them to learn French is necessary to live in Quebec," he says.

Still hungry

Omeed’s willingness to embrace the Quebecois way indicates the lengths people will go for a chance of a successful life in Montreal.

Canada's aboriginals sometimes find themselves stereotyped

Despite the importance given to eating well and the obvious joy taken in it  lack of food is a growing problem and despite Canada's generous welfare state, poverty is not hard to find.

Montreal is home the largest food-bank in Canada helping to feed over 150,000 people a month by distributing free food to various charitable organisations.

One such group is the Native Friendship Centre which caters to Montreal's community of aboriginals, Canada's indigenous inhabitants.

Many aboriginals left their reservation for the city in search of better opportunities but fell on hard times and were victims of negative stereotyping that can still be found in Canadian society.

There is a certain irony that while so much energy continues to be expended here on the struggle between the French and English speakers, from the aboriginal perspective both were imperial invaders.

And while new immigrants may encounter opportunities - many aboriginals continue to be marginalised.

But as Brendan, an aboriginal who helps manage the friendship centre, says the joy taken in food in Montreal provides some common ground and is what the city is all about.

"Feasts have always been a part of native, and Inuit, tradition," he says.

"To get people together, to eat, to socialise, to share."

Source: Al Jazeera