March 22, 2009--
TORONTO-- The big deal on my travel plate this summer is to visit lots of
farmers markets. You can see a city through the eyes of vendors,
hear about area restaurants and learn about growing patterns unique
to the region.
I began checking out markets in 2004 while working on a book on the Farm Aid movement. I spent time in Seattle interviewing rocker Dave Matthews, a Farm Aid board member, and discovered much about the city while working the aisles at Pike Place Market (established in 1907), which is actually much more than a farmers market. You still can find out-of-town newspapers at Pike Place.
Toronto was a good place to start this season of tasty tourism.
The St. Lawrence Market is one of the oldest markets in North America. The market is just east of downtown.......
......Food & Wine magazine ranked it among the 25 World's Best Food Markets. Others in that group included the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco and the Mercado Municipal in Brazil.
The St. Lawrence Market features 65 vendors, an art gallery and a bit of flea marketing. I bought a wooden heart-shaped jewelry box from Toronto painter Anne Abbott. Like a clover in a book, she was tucked into a corner of the market's lower level. The 50-year-old Abbott cannot use a paintbrush. She has had cerebral palsy since birth and paints with her right index finger (artistanneabbott.com). We talked for a while as Abbott answered questions on her low-tech communication board.
It was food for thought.
The market's roots go back to 1803, when Gov. Peter Hunter designated the area as "The Market Block." The current South St. Lawrence Market building opened in 1901 in Toronto's old city hall (circa 1845-1899). The colorful brick exterior and arched windows reminded me of the Illinois State Fair building in Springfield.
Action also takes place in a smaller North St. Lawrence Market across the street.
I took the advice of locals and headed to the Carousel Bakery & Sandwich Bar in the south building. I had to try their Peameal Bacon on a Bun sandwich ($5.30 Canadian; $4.14 U.S.). The sandwich is served with two slabs of hot peameal (Canadian bacon made with the back loin of a pig) rolled in yellow cornmeal. The bacon is laid out in a huge, soft Portuguese bun. I recommend adding a hearty dose of honey mustard. I chased the sandwich down with a small glass of lemonade. And it was only 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday.
Robert Biancolin owns the Carousel Bakery with his brother Maurice. They have been in the same market location for 31 years. Carousel serves a couple of thousand Peameal Bacon on a Bun sandwiches on a good Saturday.
A good tourist would ask, "What do you mean by a peameal?"
"Over 100 years ago, the meat was rolled in crushed peas," Biancolin explained. "That's why the name 'Peameal' is there. The coating changed, but the name stuck. Crushed peas were used as a preservative before refrigeration was as rooted as it is now."
Biancolin sees tourism meshing with the market more than ever.
"People are becoming aware that to understand the city you go to the local market," he said. "There has been a resurgence and a lot of it has to do with the food networks. We get people from all walks of life. Emeril Lagasse has been here, and so has Bobby Flay. You hear all kinds of stories. A couple of years ago, two big guys showed up, and one had a thick Australian accent. He said he couldn't wait to have a peameal sandwich."
The dudes were traveling to a trade show in Milan, Italy, and their connection was in Toronto. They had an eight-hour layover and took a limo to the market. The Aussie's friend was a champion of the peameal.
"They polished off about six sandwiches," Biancolin said. "We're a local specialty, just like Montreal has its smoked meat."
In May 2005, Mayor Daley and his delegation sampled peameal sandwiches during a market visit. "Chicago and Toronto are sister cities," Biancolin said. "Apparently Chicago doesn't have a market like this and they came here because they want to establish something similar. Both cities were major pork producers."
Traveling also is about making connections.
To properly devour my sandwich, I sat on a Witteveen Quality Meats countertop across the aisle from Carousel. I saw an autographed photo of National Hockey League bad boy Eddie "The Nose" Shack, who played from 1959-75. It turned out he lives in the neighborhood and is a market regular.
"We fix him up and he says a few curse words," said Kathryn McLean, who works for the meat company based in St. George, Ontario. "My father used to watch him, eh? Eddie also goes downstairs to a delicatessen called European Delight."
McLean said local chefs come to the stand for local pork chops, chicken and marinades. Witteveen began operations in 1954.
"We see people from all over the world," she said while putting smoked back bacon with a brown sugar glaze in a vintage oven. "It's a fun place to work."
The most fun way to experience the market is to hook up with local historian Bruce Bell , who hosts walking tours of the area. Bell looked at a small plaza in front of the south market and said, "This is the old town square where they used to do a lot of the whippings. It was illegal to sing 'Yankee Doodle Dandy' in Toronto in the 1830s because it was a protest song. America split in 1776, and we stayed loyal to the king. We did not want a democracy."
And now, there is no better democracy than a good farmers market.