‘Some say that no one ever leaves Montreal, for that city, like Canada itself,
is designed to preserve the past, a past that happened somewhere else.’
Let’s begin and end with its avatar. Leonard Cohen is the city. Beware of what comes out of Montreal, especially during winter.
But although it wasn’t winter, it was already chilly in Montréal in October. I had flown in for a cardiology conference to learn; my wife had come with me, to see Montréal.
Whenever we travelled to places with an interesting narrative, whenever possible, Robyn and I preferred to stay in historic accommodation, however obscure the reason for its fame. In Montréal we booked into a 281-year-old stone hostelry among the oldest cobblestones of Vieux-Montréal, the oldest house in its history. Its builder and owner had been a highly educated French Huguenot, a notorious republican, Freemason, merchant, Acadian aid worker, letter writer, and political prisoner.
Pierre du Calvet first sailed for New France in 1758 with a shipment of trade goods purchased with a loan from his cousin-in-law. Shipwrecked 100 miles from his destination, his cargo lost, he was forced to find employment on his arrival. After much hard work, he became a successful merchant, exporting corn and pelts to England and Spain in return for European spirits and products for domestic use. His later enterprises were more complex but his stature as an entrepreneur and statesman rose steadily. After the British conquest of 1760, the new overloads appointed him a Justice of the Peace, perhaps due to his Protestant faith. In 1771, Pierre bought an elegant stone building, intending to raise a large family with his new wife, Marie-Louise Jusseaume. Unfortunately, two of his three children died in infancy and, only 3 years after his wedding, his wife perished under mysterious circumstances. He was just some Joseph looking for a manger.
During the American Revolution the following year, George Washington’s Continental army occupied Montréal. Pierre openly supported the invaders with supplies, and entertained Benjamin Franklin in his mansion.
When the American occupation ended after 188 days, the British authorities accused Du Calvet of treason, seized his property, and threw him in prison.
Pierre’s later obsession with exacting retribution and receiving restitution for these three years of incarceration didn’t go well. He died at sea on a Spanish ship that sunk somewhere between New York and Paris in 1784. Almost a hundred years after he went missing, Louis Fréchette’s poem Du Calvet made him a Québec national hero. It was you, Du Calvet, who, despising the rage of the despot, alone dared to stand up to the storm... And brandish, above all those narrow foreheads, on your indignant arm the charter of our rights.
We found the Breton façade of La Maison Pierre du Calvet, fashioned with the crude grit of its age—massive stone walls, huge chimneys, a steep sloped verdigris copper roof, and iron shutters. Heavy wooden beams held up a wildly atmospheric interior of wood paneling, tapestries, rugs, exquisite antique furniture, and a small forest of flowers and potted plants. There was a library for guests, a small art gallery, a salon, a cozy gourmet restaurant, and a sunny glassed-in garden terrace with three bilingual parrots, where Robyn and I would joyfully nibble croissants and fruit salad every morning.
The French regency mahogany four-poster canopy bed that filled our room was fitted with Egyptian linen and a luxurious brocade duvet. The décor was deliciously dark and dimly lit, over-stuffed and over-upholstered with velvet curtains, an elaborate fireplace, a gold-leafed writing desk, numerous other heirlooms, and history and romance. My page was too white... My ink was too thin... The day wouldn’t write... What the night pencilled in.
Some might have immediately succumbed to the boutique charm of the place, but we worked longer to make it ours. Robyn washed and hung laundry in all the wrong places, and I started in on the firewood, determined to burn it all before the night was over. I dreamed about you baby. It was just the other night. Most of you was naked Ah, but some of you was light...
Then we were good. And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah...
The real story didn’t begin until next evening, after a day of hearty lectures at the conference for me, and several hours of meandering Montréal for Robyn. I had made reservations at the gentleman’s dining society founded in 1785 by Joseph Frobisher and the other highly respected men who controlled Canada’s fur trade. The original members of the Beaver Club had survived the difficulties and dangers of a savage country. Their character was detailed by a more contemporary physician, John Jeremiah Bigsby, in 1850:
‘Young men of good Scotch families, able, daring, and reckless, formed themselves into the North West Company to traffic in the forbidden land owned by the Hudson's Bay Company, in spite of its charter.
A first-rate Indian trader is no ordinary man. He is a soldier-merchant, uniting the gallantry of the one with the shrewdness of the other. They spend fast, play all the freaks, pranks, and street-fooleries, and originate all the current whimsicalities: but this is their brief holiday: when they turn their faces westward, upstream, their manners change.
The Indian trader is a bold, square-chested, gaunt man, sun-burnt, with extraordinary long hair as a defence against mosquitoes. He is at home on horseback or in a canoe—indefatigable, careless of heat and cold, and brave as steel, in countries where the law only of personal authority takes effect. He has not only to contend with the Indians and other traders, but he has to fight his own men hand to hand. Kindness, vigour, and sagacity, usually render but one such affair necessary.’
In 1786, there were 28 chief partners of the North West Company, their business conducted by 2,000 men, not including the native Indians. That year they exported 116,623 beaver skins and 473,534 other fur pelts with a value of £203,378. As profits soared, the partners retired from their expeditions into the wilderness to conduct their business with London and Paris from Montréal. They would still venture forth to annual meetings with their junior ‘wintering partners’ in what is now northern Minnesota and Northwestern Ontario:
‘They boarded their immense canoes manned by buckskin-clad voyageurs and hunters with bright silk bands around their heads. The partners took their seats dressed in ruffles and gold braid, with brass-handled pistols and daggers at their belts.
They traversed the rivers in a great state, like sovereigns making a progress. They were wrapped in rich furs, their huge canoes freighted with every convenience and luxury and manned by Canadian voyageurs as loyal and as obedient as their own ancestral clansmen. They carried with them cooks and bakers, together with delicacies of every kind, and an abundance of choice wine for the banquets.’
On their arrival, every hardy paddler received a régale gallon of rum. Back in Montréal, the barons of the Beaver Club, ‘thoroughly cosmopolitan by taste and association,’ had earned a reputation for hospitality and generosity, which led to many frittering away their fortunes:
‘This too often happens with the gentlemen of the North-west company who retire from the concern. They emerge suddenly into civilized life after a banishment of many years in dreary forests and among a race of savages; and are dazzled by the glare of refinement and luxury, whose temptations are too powerful to be resisted. Hence they are frequently led into error and extravagance, which ultimately despoil them of their hard-earned property.’
The club event that began their season occurred on the first Wednesday in December. Fortnightly banquets were held until April in private houses (notably at Beaver Hall, the home of Joseph Frobisher, whose dining table comfortably sat forty guests) and at various hotels and taverns.
Guests included Lord Selkirk, General Sir Isaac Brock, Washington Irving, Sir John Franklin, Thomas Moore, and John Jacob Astor.
North West Company coat of arms, ca. 1800-1820
The dinners commenced at 4:00 in the afternoon. Members arrived richly adorned in ruffles and lace with knee-breeches above their gold-clasped garters and silver-buckled shoes. A large gold medal hung from a light blue ribbon around their necks, inscribed with their motto. Fortitude in Distress.
‘The start of the festivities were marked by the passing around of a calumet peace pipe, followed by a speech or ‘harangue’ made by the evening’s president. Toasts were then made, and there were always five to: The Mother of all Saints; the King; the fur trade in all its branches; voyageurs, wives and children; and absent members. Then, accompanied by Highland Pipers, on a dais of red velvet a flaming boar’s head was brought into the dining room, a piece of camphor having been placed in its mouth before the grand entrance. The members and their guests were then permitted to pursue their own pleasures.’
In an unfamiliar atmosphere of crystal glass, crested silverware and soft candle glow, seated around a great mahogany table, servants presented their guests regular relays of Saskatchewan pemmican, braised venison, bread sauce, ‘Chevreuil des Guides’ stew, venison sausages, wild rice, quail and partridge ‘du Vieux Trappeur,’ fish from the Great Lakes, pickled turnips, ‘Sweet Peace’ applesauce, Atholl Brose, bear meat, buffalo tongue and bag pudding. The last plate placed on the table before each member held a cheque for a substantial sum of money.
After dinner, the men sang old voyageur songs and exchanged tales about their perilous adventures in their own fur trading days. The festivities ran into the early hours with the members dancing on the tables, re-enacting various canoeing adventures and breaking numerous bottles, plates, glasses and chairs. They arranged themselves on the floor in a row as if they were in a great canoe, imitating vigorous paddling (using fire pokers, swords, and walking sticks) and mounting wine barrels to ‘shoot the rapids’ from the table to the floor. At one such dinner, twenty revelers were still singing and dancing at 4 a.m. and close to 120 bottles of wine had been drunk, broken or spilled.
On 17 September 1808, the bill of £28.15 was itemized as follows: 32 dinners (£12); 29 bottles of Madeira (6/); 19 bottles of Port (5/); 14 bottles of Porter (2/6); 12 quarts of Ale (8/); 7 suppers (8/9); Brandy and Gin (2/6); Cigars, pipes, tobacco (5/); Three wine glasses broken (3/9).
The fare on offer for our visit to The Beaver Club’s namesake, after its second coming in 1958, was slightly less grand: Snails Flaky Pastry with a Garlic Flower and Riesling Wine Cream Sauce, Endives and Granny Smith Apples ($C21.00); Chateaubriand with Your Choice of Sauce: Béarnaise, Mushroom or Pepper ($C44.00 per person); Whole Dover Sole Meunière Style Served with a Vegetables Bouquetière ($C58.00 per person). The crème de la crème of formal haute gastronomy in Montreal had occupied a more modern space in the Queen Elizabeth Fairmont Hotel, and served such luminaries as her majesty herself, Fidel Castro, Charles de Gaulle, Princess Grace, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and John Lennon. The staff were less imbued with that early spirit of frontier adventure but, to be fair, Robyn and I were not the grand animated bons vivants and raconteurs with the jovial, rollicking behaviour that characterized Montréal’s 18th century fur barons. The maître d’hôtel supplied me with a jacket and cravat, and our black tie waiter brought a wine list that weighed as much as he did. I had lobster and prime rib and Robyn ordered the lamb shank. We left with most of our Happy Wedding Anniversary cake in a sac pour chien.
The original Beaver Club faded from history with the building of permanent trading posts and the loss of competitor territory to invade. By 1809, an old Montreal fur baron sung the same lament I would have about the next generation of professionals. All the new North westards are a parcel of Boys and upstarts, who were not born in our time, and supposes they know much more of the Indian trade than any before them.
The tale of the beaver didn’t end with the fur trade. Aboriginals would hand-stretch wheat-flour dough that required little or no rising and cook it over an open flame to make bannock. When Grant Hooker deep-fried and sprinkled it with cinnamon sugar in 1978, a Canadian staple treat with an iconic name was born. BeaverTail.
Signs of imminent winter weather welcomed us back to our maison on Place Jacques-Cartier. Attention Aux Chutes du Neige et de Glace Provenant du Bord des Fenetres—Beware of snow and ice falls from the edge of windows. I had a new pile of wood to feed the fireplace with. Leonard Cohen’s rabbinical, penitent voice cooked over my open flame like a bannock crust of unleavened toasts spread with smoke and subversive wit, warmed by the embers left down near the river after the gypsies had gone. A wailing plaintive cello played inside my chest. I’m just another snowman standing in the sleet who loved you with his frozen love, his second-hand physique, with all he is and all he was a thousand kisses deep.
Chalet du Mont-Royal. Photo: Denitsa Tsoncheva
An icy rain threatened to douse our enthusiasm for the following morning. Almost half a millennium after Jacques Cartier named and climbed the volcanic hill in the middle of what was the Iroquois longhouse village of Hochelaga, Robyn and I got lost in the forest below the summit of Mont Royal, on our way to Beaver Lake. By the time we reached the hundred-foot-high cross near the top, we were shivering and drenched to the skin. It’s hard to hold the hand of anyone who is reaching for the sky just to surrender.
We headed down, down, down through freezing drizzle, across Rue Saint-Urbain and St. Laurent Boulevard, to an old rundown brick and stone building that had emerged so inexplicably out of nowhere that it seemed to have been created by the rain itself. When you’ve fallen on the highway... and you’re lying in the rain, and they ask you how you’re doing... of course you’ll say you can’t complain.
We joined a queue of brave camaraderie that had formed under its multicoloured dormers and signs. Chez Schwartz’s... Charcuterie Hebraique de Montréal, Inc.
“What’s this?” Robyn’s glasses had fogged up from the wet weather exertion.
“The Promised Land.” I said. “The Holy Grail, the cosmic fabric of the universe. This is the Temple, this is the Shrine. This is why we wait in line.”
The procession moved quickly, filling each space abandoned by exiting patrons with new ones. We entered a long narrow humid humanity of small tables in tight quarters. The writing was on the wall, all kinds of writing, in a thousand different frames. The kitchen belched smoke and spice. Robyn and I found two empty stools at the counter.
“This is a cultural institution, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Montreal.” I said. “The original owner opened up here on December 31st, 1927.”
“Was his name Schwartz?”
“Reuben Schwartz.” I said. “Romanian Jew. Bad actor. Lousy businessman, nasty character, cheap and heartless jerk who exploited his underaged workers, Reuben was a boozer, gambler and womanizer. Even his own family couldn’t stand him. He ran the deli into the ground twice.” The waiter behind the counter finally turned to us through all the chaos.
“What’ll it be?”
“Two classics.” He was gone in a heartbeat.
“What did you order us?” Robyn asked.
“Two medium-fat Montréal smoked meat sandwiches on seedless, light rye bread with yellow prepared mustard, accompanied by fries, half-sour pickles, coleslaw, red peppers, and black cherry colas.”
“So why did it survive?” Robyn looked around at her no-frills spartan surroundings. “What’s so special about the meat?”
“Invading Turkish armies originally introduced the recipe for smoked meat to Jewish communities in Romania.” I took a bite from my sandwich. “Reuben perfected it to the point where Montréalers would even spend 13 cents on a sandwich and drink during the Great Depression. Alberta beef brisket is first salted and cured on location here for ten days in cracked peppercorns, coriander, garlic, and mustard seeds, and a little sugar. The same seasoning recipe was appropriated by a Schwartz’s broilerman named Morris ‘The Shadow’ Sherman in the 1940s and produced as Montréal Steak Spice. Back behind here, whole briskets are smoked for eight hours in the on-site brick smokehouse covered with over 80 years’ worth of built-up encrusted fat and flavouring ‘schmutz,’ and kept steaming and hand-sliced on demand when ordered to maintain its form. The high turnover ensures its uniform quality. Schwartz’s smokes 20,000 lbs in an average week, the same weight as an adult elephant, a tractor, or a mobile home.”
“It’s good.” Robyn lost herself in the sandwich.
“The Montréal writer Mordecai Richler thought so.” I said. A maddening aphrodisiac, made from spices available in Schwartz’s delicatessen. I’d call it Nectar of Judea and copyright the name.
“What happened to Reuben?”
“A musician named Maurice Zbriger rescued him from bankruptcy with dowry money he had smuggled into the country in a violin case.” I said. “Reuben went to live with him. Some say the relationship was more than platonic.”
“So if it wasn’t for bigotry and the persecution of the Jews, we wouldn’t have Montréal smoked meat.”
“It was the inspiration for a theatrical production written by George Bowser and Rock Blue called ‘Schwartz’s: The Musical.’ Folks of different races here sit and stuff their faces here... Hebrew or an Aryan, but not a vegetarian.
‘From, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland we were bounced.
Where there’s a bunch of place names that we never could pronounce
From Moldova to Bukovina, and as we were dismissed
You could hear us shout ‘We’ve been thrown out
Of better joints than this!’’
“Many Jews come to make their home here?” She asked.
“About ninety thousand, a fifth of whom live below the poverty line.” I said. “But it’s a rich culture that has blessed the city with notable residents like Saul Bellow, Charles Krauthammer, Irving Layton, Steven Pinker, Moshe Safdie, and William Shatner.”
“And Leonard Cohen.” She said.
“And Leonard Cohen.” We are ugly but we have the music...
That evening Robyn and I ate Chef Laurent Godbout’s eclectic French cuisine at his restaurant Chez L’Epiciers, just down Rue St-Paul Est from our room in Du Calvet. The portions were poky, sprinkled with pixie dust and drizzled with dressings. Thirteen years after our visit, Godbout permanently closed his establishment, citing ‘circumstances beyond our control.’ The silver knives are flashing in that tired old cafe...
On our last day in the City of Saints, we bought a few of the 350 artisanal cheeses of Québec at Marché Bonsecours across from our hostelry—among the breads and pastries and berries and different coloured cauliflowers, our daypacks filled with small bundles of La Sauvagine, Le Baluchon Lait Cru Bio, Le d’Iberville Artisinal, Gre de Champs, Chevre Affine du Quebec, Pied-de-Vent, Riopelle, Cure-Hebert, Tomme de Kamouraska, Oka, and Kenogami.
We hung out in the lobby of the Ritz-Carleton, and walked to La Belle Province to eat poutine, our national dish of twice-fried French fries and squeaky fresh cheese curds, topped with a ‘sauce brune’ combination of chicken and beef stock brown gravy. Its name came from Le Café Ideal restaurateur Fernand Lachance’s first reaction. ‘Ça va faire une maudite poutine!’ It will make a damn mess...
Superior poutines are identified by the crispiness of the fries, freshness of the curds, and the quality of the unifying gravy. Versions of the dish have spread as far away as Russia, where they call it ‘Raspoutine.’
In a 2018 promotional campaign for the film Crazy Rich Asians, the world’s richest poutine appeared, created with wagyu steak, lobster, truffles, shiitake and chanterelle mushrooms, edible orchids, and gold flakes, priced just under $US450.
Our traditional poutine was discounted considerably but we could have still ordered more elaborate versions—poutine italienne, poutine extrême, poutine saucisse cheddar, poutine viande fumée, poutine steak-haché, poutine sauce srirache, and my personal favourite, poutine pogo, with a genuine ConAgra cornmeal-battered hot dog in the middle of the mess.
Down Rue Notre-Dame Est in the Place d’Armes, we stopped before the Monument à Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve. Hired by the ‘Notre Dame Society of Montreal for the Conversion of the Savage Peoples of New France’ to lead and ensure the safety of the first 47 colonists in 1642, Maisonneuve founded the small fortress settlement of Fort Ville-Marie on the southern shore of the island. He became the first governor of Montreal and erected the first cross atop Mount Royal in 1643 (at the same site where Robyn and I had emerged from the forest that morning) in an act of obéissance to the Virgin Mary, for her response to his praying to stop a flood from inundating the settlement.
In 1895, sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert unveiled the monument as part of the celebrations for the 250th anniversary of the founding of the city. The glorious bronze of Maisonneuve, with his flamboyant hat, tall boots, and long sword, loomed over the square like a god, holding the flag of the King of France.
But on the base of the monument were disturbing violent images in the detailed bas-reliefs. They included Maisonneuve shooting the local Mohawk chief in the face at point-blank range, and another of a Haudenosaunee native strangled during the Battle of Long Sault.
All foundation stories are inherently symbolic, political, and full of lies. Ours are used to both cover up and justify the violence that have played out across the hemisphere since the arrival of Columbus. It was a time of different values. In this age of truth and reconciliation, it strains logic to think that the celebration of genocide still survived on a statue in a Montréal public square. The pigeons crapped all over it.
For our final evening in Montreal, Robyn and I ate within the rock walls of the Hôtel Pierre du Calvet, in its restaurant, Les Filles du Roy. The name referred to refer to the 800 young French women ‘of middling virtue’ sponsored by King Louis XIV who immigrated to New France between 1663 and 1673. The food was as magnificent as the décor. Back in our room, we dreamt Old Montreal dreams. The restaurant died a muted death not long after.
In the 17th century, the Bishop of Quebec declared that the beaver was a fish so his flock could eat beaver meat on Fridays during Lent. The same fate befell the capybaras of Venezuela. An old medieval legend records that if you hunt a beaver, it will save itself by biting off its testicles and throwing them at you. In a less macabre kind of karma, the Beaver Club and Chez L’Epiciers and Les Filles du Roy are gone forever. It looks like freedom but it feels like death, it’s something in between I guess. It’s closing time...
But every damnation is poisoned with rainbows and Schwartz’s delicatessen is still smoking along like Leonard’s velour foghorn voice, rubbed to a fine patina, like a carpet in an old hotel, showing us the markings where the pantyhose had been. And his cheerfulness keeps breaking through. You don’t know me from the wind...you never will, you never did... I’m the little jew who wrote the Bible... I’ve seen the nations rise and fall... I’ve heard their stories, heard them all... but love’s the only engine of survival...
Another Frenchmen, Napolean Bonaparte, made the observation. A nation that cries and fasts for over 2,000 years for their land and Temple will surely be rewarded with their Temple.
It’s still there, the embodiment of eternity, on Saint-Laurent Boulevard in Montréal, preserving a past that happened somewhere else.
Lawrence Winkler is a physician, traveler, and natural philosopher. His molecules have morphed from medicine to manuscript. He lives with Robyn on Vancouver Island and in New Zealand, tending their gardens and vineyards, and dreams.