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Hunting and gathering for dinner at St. Lawrence Market

Around 9 o’clock on Saturday morning, while less obsessive types have barely settled down to their first cup of coffee and favourite section of the paper, I hot-foot it over to St. Lawrence Market for the ritual foraging that, in my book, weekend cooking demands.

St Lawrence Market 01I have a route through the warren of stalls, and it keeps getting longer as I find new vendors with interesting specialties. Eggs, no more than two days old, from Harlan and Norine Clark, the octogenarians who have been selling their wares here for more than 60 years. Artisanal cheeses (I’m hooked on the cheddar with garlic scapes) from Monforte Dairy. Fragrant green bouquets of any herb I might fancy (this time it’s coriander and mint) from the farm stand that also sells the plumpest, whitest garlic. One stand for nitrate-free ham, another for the best bran muffins in town. And just look at those firm, tawny onions, not a bit like the mouldy, sprouting old things that supermarkets sell in mesh bags!

At St. Lawrence Market the homeliest vegetables reveal their forgotten seductive side. Celery, for instance. I used to wonder why I bought those pale supermarket stalks, rigid in their rubber bands with tips turning brown where the leaves used to be. Market celery is deep green and crowned with a froth of pungent leaves that get me fantasizing about soup.

Now, where was I? Just halfway through my Saturday rounds.My arm already aches from the weight of my bounty, but I’m just getting started, with one whole building of the market yet to tour. As usual, I don’t open my wallet without first circling the place, eyes peeled for unblemished peppers and nicely marbled chunks of stewing beef. (Why does anybody buy extra-lean stewing beef? No flavour at all in that stuff!) I compare the harpooned Canadian swordfish at adjacent stalls, then settle for the glistening steaks at Mike’s. Must watch for local baby Yukon golds…

It would be so much simpler to fill my cart at the shiny temple of cans and blister packs across the street. Why am I wedding to this Neolithic exercise of gathering dinner bite by bite? I once thought the attraction was flavour, but I’ve since cottoned onto the social dimension. Supermarket shoppers are a faceless throng, sighing at the checkout line. St. Lawrence market shoppers are a proud community of eaters who delight in talking about what they’re buying—and why you should buy it, too. A young South Asian couple recommends the purple fingerling potatoes (preferably roasted). An intense-looking woman with a Jewish Afro sees me hesitating at a family-run stand featuring olive oil from the ancestral farm in Greece. “You mean you’ve never tried this stuff?” she exclaims. “It’s the best in Toronto, bar none!” Okay, who am I to argue?

Market shoppers chat with the vendors. How was your drive into the city? Any word from so-and-so lately? At the organic vegetable stand, I compliment the cashier on last week’s luscious avocados (she talked me into buying two). “I wouldn’t steer you wrong,” she says. “My boss always tastes before he buys.”

I almost leave my shopping list on her counter, but she calls me back. Really, though, who am I kidding? No matter how carefully I think I’ve composed this list, I often find a reason to dash back at the end of the day, when the vendors start cutting prices and the crowds thin out. It’s not just for the food that I come here. My Neolithic foremothers would be proud of me.

Click here for more about my favourite foods (including a few St. Lawrence Market finds). Here’s where to read about the joys of bacon and other cardiologically incorrect foods. You’ll find more of my writing on food under the Pleasures heading.

Posted by Rona

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