Farmers’ markets have been a moving fixture in my life –long before its welcomed rejuvenation and craze of today. Different variants of farmers’ markets and their local goodies punctuate my past and present, as a customer and visitor.
It started off with ritual weekly visits as a teenager, with my mother to the Kitchener Farmers’ Market in Ontario. I plodded behind her and helped her carry bags or pull along the shopping cart buggy, while we weaved among the crowds and stands of vegetables, fruits, German sausages, and Mennonite shoo-fly and apple pies. I didn’t discover the famed Waterloo Farmers’ Market where black-clad Old Order Mennonites sold their wares, until I was in my late teens. It was over 20 kms. north and my parents didn’t have a car in those earlier years.
Market Food Schlepping During Teen Years- By Transit
Then we boarded the local transit bus, with our overflowing, heavy shopping buggy. After all, it was stuffed with cheap cuts of chicken necks, pork hocks and seasonal produce to feed a family of 6 children. Through the eyes of a disgruntled teenager, this earthy shopping experience by using buses, was far from a chic outing with a wicker basket, to meet a 100-km. diet menu. It certainly wasn’t about buying artisan bread, sans fats and sugar. It was about hauling enough butternut squash –at a cheap 25 cents each because squash didn’t have the foodie chic cache and popularity, as it does today.
I was bored when we shopped at the farmers’ market. It felt uncool. Unfashionable people seemed to frequent the farmers’ market. I assumed this was another daily typical market experienced by every Canadian. It never occurred to me, a farmers’ market could be a tourist destination.
In Lieu of Farmers’ Markets
How wrong I was. While living and studying at university in London (Ontario), when it was still strongly WASP, I quickly learned there was no farmers’ market in town at that time. Nor did everyone knew anything about the Mennonites. Nor were there sausages, ham and sauerkraut in great abundance in stores. Here, I was even more bored with local food choices and ambience. Asian groceries had not even penetrated any grocery stores.
When I moved to Toronto, I initially visited the St. Lawrence Market every few months. It seemed remote since I still only used subway and bus. Why would I go there when I could get quality or a lot more interesting food choices in Chinatown, Kensington or High Park-Runnymede areas?
Visiting Farmers’ Markets Coincides with Regular Cycling
It was not until I returned to cycling in 1992, when the convenience of a bike got me to the St. Lawrence Market weekly and easily, for schlepping groceries back home to Scarborough. Maybe as a cyclist, I had heightened awareness of
what I was buying and hauling home. That weight of food had better be solid, good choices, worthy of vigorous cycling sweat and effort. I started to buy interesting breads with all natural ingredients. And lovely cheeses, strong and more rich in flavor– beyond typical cheddar cheese. Downstairs one could discover the diversity of rice at Rube’s where he had well over 20 varieties. Though I knew what to buy in Chinatown, the St. Lawrence Market conveniently supplemented the Asian grocery pantry, with a good sampling of its Old World European food items, under one roof. I could fill up on some Greek and Italian foodstuffs as well as bagels if I didn’t want to run in multiple directions west, north and east to large ethnic neighbourhood areas in the city.
Still, for awhile, I didn’t catch onto the buy-local food mantra yet. Jack, a former weekend farmer for a decade, initially puzzled me with his insistence to support the farmers by buying local produce when he could afford it when visiting local farmers’ markets whenever we went on our cycling vacations in Canada, U.S. and Europe. (I am not sure if he went to a market in New Zealand during his 6-month long cycling foray there.)
Cycle-Touring Markets Beyond Home: Canada, U.S. and Europe
So I have cycled the paths and roads leading several times to the market in Peterborough, Ontario; the Atwater Market in Montreal (for lovely Quebec cheeses and pastries); Ottawa’s Byward Market downtown, fish-throwing antics at Pike’s Market in Seattle and the hordes thronging at Portland’s market by the grounds of its local university. We have cruised the market plaza in Santa Fe, New Mexico where we saw pottery and bundles of red dried chilies shining under the cold bright blue sky. There was no seafood in sight here.
Local Market Becomes Trendy Hang-Out
Farmers’ markets offers an inexpensive way to see local foods, crafts and meet locals who offer their food tips, even if it meant they want to sell a food goodie to you. At Hilo’s famers’ market on Big Hawaii Island, we drank in the bright explosions of fresh cut tropical flowers at ridiculously cheap prices. There were heavy-headed, red wild ginger flowers at $5.00 per stalk or less; bundles of birds-of-paradise flowers, mangos and scented, ripe huge papayas at 25 cents each. Of course, you could get local sushi stuffed with Spam meat or tuna poke — Hawaii’s version of ceviche where raw tuna is marinated and mixed with various spices and juices.
When I was in Paris on the Left Bank for several days, my sister and I stayed at a pension where at the doorstep, there was a neighbourhood morning market with an abundance of freshly baked bread, fruits and vegetables. Of course, we went to the famous Dutch cheese market at Gouda, in the Netherlands, where costumed teams of 2 cheese-bearers hauled around large orange cheese rounds on cradle flats hung from their shoulder straps.
Earlier, I wrote about our recent visits this year to the Freiburg market in Germany or the Munsterplatz, under the shadow of a 700 year old cathedral and surrounded by carefully restored medieval and renaissance buildings. In Karlsruhe, Germany each day, we visited a farmers’ market a few metres away from our hotel. It was right in the heart of a major junction where there were streetcars, cyclists, shoppers, commuters, cafes and a local summer festival event that had a children’s carousel, stalls with German street food, candy and concert stage.
Coastal Markets, Prairie Markets
Back in Vancouver, we cycled several times weekly, to Granville Market where unlike most other markets mentioned earlier, you could buy a wide range of local seafood year-round. This abundance plus its proximity to Japanese culture and history, accounts for Vancouver’s notoriety for the highest number of sushi and sashimi joints in Canada.
At this market, you need to be alert for short seasonal runs on salmon or for spotted shrimp. During summer, there are impressive piles of local blueberries and raspberries at competitive prices. British Columbia is Canada’s biggest raspberry producer. It’s always a careful balance to cycle back with a basket of ripe raspberries.
For a change of pace to shop outdoors, we cycled to the seasonal markets set up at Trout Lake, the railway station, and Kitsilano. There, as well as at the popular Saturday farmers’ market on Saltspring Island, you were within view of distant mountains which truly marks a Northwest coast outdoor market experience. I don’t know how many other regions in Canada, a cyclist is pumping up the hill several times during the year, with bike panniers jammed with several fresh salmon over 3 feet long.
Local abundance of higher quality red meat, is apparent at Calgary’s farmers’ markets: there is no shortage of beef, either marbled or not, as well as several vendors of choice for bison, elk, and ostrich. A great reflection of ranchland Canada. But we also saw and hauled by bike, enormous globes of red beets and kohlrabi –twice or three times the regular size. One of the markets, Crossland Market, had various established Eastern European vendors with more Ukrainian and Hungarian food. They were joined by more recent fare from the Middle East, Mexico and India.
So far it’s been a long, exploratory journey of farmers’ markets from teenage jaded boredom to now, as an interested consumer, spectator and visitor when we bike over to a market, find bike parking and settle down for coffee, local bakery pastry before stuffing our bike panniers with food from the stalls.
By now, Vancouver and in some major North American bike valet parking crept as an expectation for farmers’ markets. No longer are trees, rails or fences are satisfactory to park their precious steed. Some mainstream retailers seem to object to cycling facilities or bike parking gracing their storefronts, although cycling customers would be happy to spend some time buying and browsing.
Chong, Jean. Cycling is For Foodies and All: Getting the Retail Connection Right. Jun. 2, 2010.