The restored former streetcar barns at Wychwood are home to one of Toronto’s most interesting year-round Saturday farmer’s markets.
In the search for farmers’ markets in Toronto for my new television series, Market to Table, I was constrained by the weather and shooting the scenes in February. So it was a great relief to find The Stop Farmers’ Market at the Artscape Wychwood Barns. Not only was it a busy and bustling spot with loads of great vendors, but it was light and bright and most importantly indoors. The lighting made the cameraman happy and the indoors made us all happy, for shooting outdoors in the cold really saps everyone’s energy and makes for an uncomfortable day.
Artscape is a great organization that has saved many old buildings around town and recycled them into community hubs and artists live/work spaces. I worked with several of their principals when I was head of the organization that runs the Performing Arts Loge for seniors in the acting world, and always had a great deal of admiration for their imagination and forward thinking in finding alternate uses for old public buildings. At the Wychwood Barns, the entire operation is self-supporting. The artists have their studios and homes around the site and when there’s not a market, the place is busy with other paying gigs. A while ago we went and saw the launch of the new Jaguar F type there and the market space was filled with Jags, Bentleys and Rollers. On this visit, its a more mundane spectacle.
I was thrilled too that when we went looking for a chef for this episode, our choice was someone who had been a chef at The Stop’s community café in the barn, next to the greenhouse where they grow all sorts of interesting greens and herbs and veggies for the pot. Anne Sorrenti now heads up Morgans on the Danforth, a fun pub in a gastronomic wasteland in Toronto’s east end. Last year she beat out several guys to win the Chopped Canada tv series competition. I know her because she’s married to the chef at The Hot House Restaurant, one of my regular spots. Curt runs the kitchen at this huge resto at the corner of Church and Front, and never misses with all time faves such as wild boar Bolognese, spectacular gnocchi and wonderful soups. The friendly owners, Andrew and Eleanor, always welcome us, Scotty serves us impeccably and Seamus pours a Gentleman’s Portion of scotch at the bar. The link here is that Andrew also own Morgans, but I digress.
Anne joins me for a Saturday shop at the market. She introduces me to vendors who have what she thinks will make an interesting meal for the show and that oils the wheels of our subsequent visits to finalize participants and finally for the shoot.
At one of the stalls Liz Foers, of Essa Seedlings and Edible Flowers, tells me of the benefits of fresh spouts and promises an abundance of fresh flower petals for Anne’s taping date. She comes through in full bloom and they enhance the presentation beautifully. I’ve written about how petals and sprouts can enhance a dish in The Joy of Fresh, so I won’t repeat myself here.
Natasha Akiwenzies, of Akiwenzies Fish and More, sells me the last piece of fresh fish. I’m just steps ahead of the formidable lady chair of the market committee, I’m later informed, who wanted that piece of fish for herself. I tell Natasha that the demands of television trump all, but she isn’t swayed by that argument, just that I was luckily ahead in the line up. The reason she’s short of fish this particular week is that the weather has been foul on Georgian Bay, where her husband Andrew fishes from a small boat all year. If it’s just too dangerous to go out, he sensibly stays ashore and the customers in Toronto have to wait until the weather improves.
Fortunately, Natasha also has some fresh frozen stock too. What I find wonderful about the whole experience of shopping in a farmers’ market, is that I meet the woman who personally snipped the sprouts off the growing table before dawn this morning, or the wife of the fisherman who hauled the fish out of the water and brought it fresher than you can believe to market.
Another bubbly personality, who tells me more about mushrooms and edible fungi than I can possible retain, is Sean Declerk, who’s company is cleverly labelled Fresh and Tasty Mushrooms. There’s no doubt about what he’s selling and we pick up a bunch of wonderfully coloured cinnamon caps. Anne will use those to finish her presentation.
Alma Bowman has an eponymous organic produce stand, bursting with seasonal veggies. One week I buy her last pack of rainbow heritage carrots, but when I come back a couple of weeks later to shop for the show, she’s still got some left. The winter has been so mild, she’s still harvesting kale in mid-February. She tells me its much sweeter for being in the ground a few weeks longer. We chat about root cellars and all sorts of old fashioned farming methods, not surprising as Alma is an Old Order Mennonite. She has to have a man to drive her in a truck to market, one small nod to modernity. Years ago they’d have arrived in a horse and cart, which they still use locally.
Peter Chorabik has a great story to tell at Toronto Bee Rescue. Not only does he market great honey, but he and his colleagues also rescue bees from unwanted spots all over Toronto, including a swarm that hung about on the wing mirror of a parked car. That’s even worse than an unwanted ticket. The bees were rescued and taken to Peter’s apiary in the Downsview Park, where they happily made honey for all to enjoy. The wonderful benefit of the operation, is that Toronto has been pesticide and herbicide free for more than five years, so Toronto honey is actually more authentically organic than some from the countryside, where so-called neonics are causing havoc among the hives.
We get some thick cut bacon from Wendy Elrick at Green Gate Farms. On the show we have a good chat about the need to keep farm animals happy and contented in humane surroundings. Her pigs live in barns with exits to the outside world and can come and go as they and the weather please. Happy bacon sure tastes better. Off camera, we both shudder at the stories that are going around in recent newspaper articles about pigs kept in horrible conditions on some farms, or pregnant sows kept in crates.
(SPOILER ALERT: If you like bacon, don’t read this. On factory pig farms sows are kept in a gestation crate. Each steel crate is approximately seven feet long and two feet wide. It is large enough for a pregnant sow to stand up or lie down. But at 24-inches wide, it is too small for a 400-pound pig to turn around. For most sows, the only time they leave the crate is about twice each year to deliver a litter of piglets. That happens in a larger stall called a farrowing crate, which confines the mother pig in a way that prevents her from accidentally crushing her newborn babies. Otherwise, a sow’s whole life is usually spent in a gestation crate — until she’s about three years old and sent to slaughter.)
Market manager Cookie tells me she or one of her colleagues visit all the vendors farms to ensure claims of organic status are verified and that what they say at the market when they sell their produce is true. Cookie runs the farmers’ market with tough love, so I’m sure when Wendy says her pigs are happy pigs, she’s on the mark.
Visit The Stop Farmers’ Market at the Artscape Wychwood Barns in Toronto on any Saturday, year round. Cookie opens the market by ringing a bell at eight o’clock sharp. No early shoppers beating the rush here! In the summer the market spreads out around the site. You’ll see me shopping there, I’m sure.
Another day, I’ll reveal what Anne cooks up on the show and share the recipes.
NEWS UPDATE: My fully illustrated e-book, Market to Table: The Cookbook started as a project for novice cooks, but after I was picked to host a cooking show featuring food bought at farmers’ markets, developed into a more complete collection of the recipes from the series, including some from guest chefs on the show, as well as those from my well-read foodie blog. It is easy to read, divided into chapters that cover the main mealtimes of the day, and into recipes that are concise and guaranteed to work. Most recipes are accompanied by an entertaining story. Brilliant young Chef Dan Frenette, who now hosts the TV series, has written the Foreword and contributes to the book.
Categories: Market to Table