Carnaval at Pâtisserie Simon

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I was explaining Montreal’s Wilensky’s Light Lunch to a friend in Quebec City last week. I think I used the phrase “wartime-food-shortage charm,” a charm that translates all the way down to the food itself. We all like the fact that Wilensky’s is there, but I’ve never met anyone who’s actually had one of their bologna sandwiches.

“I see,” she said, looking for some way to relate it to Quebec City, “so it’s a little like Pâtisserie Simon.”

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Pâtisserie Simon was founded in 1943 by an anglophone named Simon Wilson. It claims to be a genuine pâtisserie française but it feels more like old-school Quebec than France. Very little has changed since the days of WWII. It has the same wartime-food-shortage charm as Wilensky’s. You won’t find multigrain organic bread here. There’s white bread, only white bread, but it comes in a variety of odd shapes. The window displays are mostly empty, aside from a tray or two of cakes looking lost and lonely. A board lists some of the stodgy meat-and-potatoes takeaway dishes on offer. Their specialty has been the “pizza du vendredi” for decades, or Neapolitan pizza—pizza dough with tomato sauce, no cheese, nothing else, sold only on Fridays. I’ve lived in the neighbourhood several years and never even considered going in, preferring to pay a little extra for real food.

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Pâtisserie Simon’s bare-bones window displays

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Some of the takeaway specialties on offer

In the past 15 years, fantastic bakeries have sprouted up all over Quebec’s Saint-Jean-Baptiste district. Paingruel, the “artisans du pain,” offer countless varieties of fresh bread made with kamut flour, sunflower seeds, olives, tomatoes, goat cheese, pears, white chocolate, etc. The next bakery down the road is Italian, selling fresh focaccia, sicilian pizza, aniseed canestrelli, and reblochon or calabrese panini. Who needs white bread?

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Bread shaped like Bonhomme Carnaval, winter canoes, and Casper, the friendly ghost

It wasn’t always this way. In the 1980s, Pâtisserie Simon was one of the rare alternatives to the baked goods section of the supermarket. Growing up in Quebec’s suburbs, a trip there was a wonderful nostalgic journey into the traditions of Quebec past. My mother grew up in Saint-Jean-Baptiste in the 1940s, and going there gets her memory reeling. “We used to buy two patés aux saumon every Friday,” she recalls, “because religion didn’t allow us to eat meat on Fridays. The place hasn’t changed since I was a little girl, even the counters. I think they even sell the same things. It’s like stepping back in time.”

The food on display often follows monthly themes. December was (and still is) “sucre d’orge” month–the store full of home-made red lollipops in a variety of shapes. Come January, Patisserie Simon is the place to go for a real homemade galette des rois, complete with the traditional hidden bean that has been supplanted by printed plastic cards in the mass-produced supermarket versions. During February, you’ll find “Bonhomme Carnaval” cakes, cookies and bread.

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Joyeux Carnaval! It’s a Bonhomme cake!

I decided to go to Pâtisserie Simon today to see what I’d been missing. I walked out with a few Bonhomme cakes, a meat pie, and a tin of pouding chômeur. The meat pie was cheap, filling, and tasty. The cakes were a kid’s dream, full of colours and thick with frosting. The pouding chomeur hit the spot just right. All in all, I began to see the reason it had endured so long despite new fancier bakeries. Patisserie Simon’s appeal lies in simple unpretentious comfort food.

This entry was written by Patrick Donovan , posted on Monday February 12 2007at 12:02 am , filed under Food, Society and Culture . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Responses to “Carnaval at Pâtisserie Simon”

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    I’ve had a Wilensky’s special! It’s surprisingly tasty. Their pickles are quite good, too. In fact, you’ve inspired me to go to Wilensky’s for lunch tomorrow, if only to try the egg cremes I never knew they had.

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    By the way, I’m not sure if growing up in Quebec City desensitizes you to this, but Bonhomme Carnaval really freaks me out. He looks like some sort of monster who feasts on human flesh but tries to disguise himself as an innocent habitant by wearing a floppy tuque and a ceinture fléchée.

    Judging by that photo of the Bonhomme bread, though, it looks like someone uncovered his ploy and murdered the poor guy. What was the murder weapon? The Naya water, the candy sex toys or the frosted turds?

  • Patrick Donovan says:

    I think it was Professor Plum in the library with the frosted turd.

  • Niya says:

    Mmmmmmmm, maybe it was all the sugar. I don’t really care, I want some of these. I’ve always wanted to visit Quebec.

  • Michel Laflamme says:

    I am a quebecois living in Boston who still shops at Patisserie Simon. My family has been a customer for 4 generations. I was very upset at the beginning of your article but I feel you are starting to see the light of what a wonderful store this is. You are correct that the place hasn’t changed since its opening. That is what I love about it from the old wooden floors to the old style window displays to the boxes wrapped with string… It’s like walking back in time. I strongly suggest you try the “pailles au fromage”, they have been the staple of cocktail snacks for good quebec families for years. The “tarte au citron” is the best lemon meringue pie other than your mother’s and their vanilla cake with white icing is to die for if you are a fan of cakes like wedding cakes. All of this + white bread may not fit the latest trends but even though I am a runner that eats well all week, I allow myself one day a week of treats and that is when I dream of having a Patisserie Simon in Boston.