I think it’s no secret that I love to grocery shop. As much as I love cooking, I actually love the hunt for ingredients even more. I put a lot of thought into where my grocery items come from, how they’re sourced, even the carbon footprint they create in getting to my table. I believe in locally sourced and farm fresh; not because I’m trendy, but because I’ve been blessed enough to grow up in a farming community with parents who always believed in taking advantage of the bounty being offered. In fact my Dad was a truck driver so he brought food home from the road all of the time, taking advantage of the bounty in every county he drove through. He had his own mental trail map of stops along the way. I remember the sweet tastes of black plums from a farm near Kitchener, peaches in St. Catherine’s, hams from a hog farmer in St. Jacobs and cheese from Tilsonburg. His list could be endless, the offerings always amazing.
During the winter months we’d often be kicked out of bed to attend the weekly city market 45 minutes away, it started at 5am every Saturday morning and sometimes we were early enough to watch the farmers unload their trucks. During the summer that didn’t happen very often. Instead my parents would hop in the car for a Sunday ride – packing us all into the hot steamy car too – and drive the curving county roads in search of freshest offerings. Sometimes when we were lucky at a stop the farmer would be coming from the field as we pulled up; there’s nothing fresher than a melon or tomato warm from the sun and only minutes from still feeding on its mother vine. A musk melon picked ripe from the field, sun kissed, fragrant and juicy will never taste better than when the farmer cuts it open with his pocket knife (please ignore the germ factor here it was the 70s!) and shares a bite with you just to prove his product is worthy. Never! It’s warm, sweet and so juicy, not at all like the dry pale orange husks grocery stores offer. For childhood me every bite of that melon was a reminder that this farm also grew corn, some of the best sweet corn ever tasted, so every bite of melon was a reminder of the corn and in turn later that day every bite of the corn was a reminder of the juicy sweet bites of melon shared in the summer sun. Adult me still seeks the same melons and corn every year. Same farm, Heritage seeds, same flavor no Monsanto – more reasons to #supportlocalfarmers. My parents taught me that, I’m forever grateful for the lessons.
I remember, back a millennia ago when I was a child, the anticipation of growing seasons and only eating food when it was fresh and available. Asparagus would be first. Plentiful in ditches everywhere, most people didn’t buy it they foraged for it. Strawberries were not fist sized, they were berry size, and were only available for three weeks in June. My parents bought flats (I’m still not sure what quantity that entails) and washed, cleaned, sugared and froze an entire years-worth at a time. Melons would be available for a few weeks after that with raspberries and blueberries staggered in. Corn season was always exciting; so much shucking and fighting with the silky hairs, always made worth it once the butter and salt were applied just before eating. Until that point dealing with dozens of ears at a time was a relentless, thankless chore that I always tried to be absent for. Everything, except the melons, got purchased in a quantity large enough to allow the enjoyment of some now with the focus on thoughts of having the rest later in the cold winter months. My mother was not a fan of canning. She was once hospitalized for food poisoning when she was a child and the cause was improperly canned cherries at an aunt’s house. I only remember her canning chili sauce a few times, and with great anxiety, everything else was prepped and stored in the freezer for what she considered “our own safety”. We had two fridge freezers and a chest freezer that started summer full of popsicles and ice cream and ended it full of that year’s harvest.
Besides the cornucopia of gems stored in the freezer there would be the root vegetables and fruits that could be stored for winter use. Potatoes bought new fresh and thin skinned in July were eaten immediately in salads, baked or just boiled. The thick skinned potatoes (potatoes left longer in the ground to toughen them and then cured so the skin protects the potato for storage, but just as new as the new potatoes) would come into the house in 20lb or 50lb bags. These ginormous mesh bags or paper bags could be purchased for under $5 in late summer or early fall; my parents always bought a few of them. Onions in various colours were stored beside apples and pears. Our basement fridge that usually held pop or extra bags of milk would be full of beets and carrots in large quantities. All of these were purchased at farm prices not grocery store prices so they were much more affordable. Plus local and farm fresh were always a part of my father’s food perspectives, Dave was always a vocal supporter of farmers, his consistent lecture went something like this:
“Farmers grow better food then corporations. Corporations ruin everything with chemicals, money and corruption, all the while forcing rules and costs on with the plan of making the farmer go bankrupt so they can steal the land at below market prices. We support the farmers so they can buy trucks that I deliver parts for. They grow, we eat; they eat and grow, so we can eat again. It’s the circle of life we need to survive!”
Dave died in 2003, yet I can often hear him in my mind, losing his mind, at the food atrocities of today. His lectures could be preached to wider audiences, the message more a necessity than ever. My own choices have always been easy, to circumvent overthinking the where what and why of what I buy, I buy local and fresh as much as possible.
Sometimes I still take that county ride – for nostalgia, for ice cream, for that one dollar bag of curly cucumbers only found at a road side stand. I like to take the winding trek that is Highway 20 and stop at any stand that catches my fancy. It’s not just a trip for produce. Olive oil, vinegar, honey and so many other local treasures can be found at the most unassuming roadside stands and some of the little markets are one of kind moments that deserve your visit. Criss crossing county roads can also be an adventure and making it all of the way to the docks in Wheatley can net you the freshest catch of the day. I do not can, freeze or store the quantity of food my parents did; but I seek all of the treasures I can when they’re in season and there’s still a few things like apple sauce that I make in massive quantities every year. My upright freezer holds some tasty secrets based on the large quantity of fresh produce I find in my travels every year.
I’m happy to say in 2019 I don’t have to make time for a complete tour of the countryside every week. With the wave of hipster culture – the movement to rediscover where food comes from – there are so many options that bring the farm closer to your table than ever before. I’m thankful that I can find Farmers Markets not just in the city, but in almost every little town and hamlet community close to it. There’s Saturday markets and Sunday too. There are night markets to be found all week long including on Fridays and Sundays. While all of these may be in different locales the chance that you will run across many of the same vendors is one hundred percent. It’s easy to create bonds with the vendors and a simple choice to keep your life stocked with their products. From soap to pickles, jams and the freshest picked just today produce. There’s no possibility of a listeria recall on romaine picked this morning and never processed in a mass producing plant and I prefer my pickles made locally not in third world countries with labels that say “packed for USA” hiding their true origins. The people are always interesting and the trip through any farmers market is an experience more than a grocery shopping trip. It’s about being social, being supportive and ultimately bringing back at least a portion of a way of life we’ve lost to the powers of evolution and progress.
Also nestled throughout the city is an explosion of ethnic markets, catering to a very specific culinary genre, yet offering the average shopper the opportunity to explore ingredients and tools from the great unknown as viewed on the internet or Food Network anywhere and everywhere. There’s also a couple of mulit-vendor markets that hide serious food options – from an orchard with a stand selling the most amazing pears ever grown, to butchers, bakeries and the very popular meal-prep caterers our society is screaming for. If you’re looking for meal-prep there are so many options. From easily accessible store fronts to one of the best food options available in this city hidden in a City Park & Rec building fresh, farm to table and diet perspective included can be yours with very little effort.
The food trend that makes my heart beat the fastest is specialty shops. I cannot lie I love the posh, extravagant feeling of going gourmet. I like to know the olive oil I buy is actually olive, not blended canola. I like to know the story of the small batch cheese maker so I can tell it over the elevated macaroni I make with it for dinner. Does it enhance the flavor? Maybe or maybe not, for me it creates the experience. I like eating my macaroni knowing the aged Gouda and the black truffle Gouda I melted into it was made in Ontario by a real Swiss cheese maker, exactly the way he made cheese before coming to Canada. I have no way of verifying any of this information, no comparisons beyond the grocery store stuff I’ve been exposed to, but I like it any way. I like the store I buy it from and I like the person who sells it even more. She’s enchanting when she talks about cheese and her passion is contagious. Her knowledge always welcome. I love sausages and live near a shop dedicated to creating them. Not too far away is another shop where just pulling the door open invites you into a world of pierogi and other house made delights that cannot be compared to anything you’ve ever tried. These are not your standard dumpling, they’re a moment to trip the flavor light fantastic. There is an Italian Grocer in my city’s little Italy that sells farm fresh chickens every day. Their entire meat counter is impressive. It’s spotlessly clean, always smells fresh and is full of dreamy cuts and above average quality. They also sell the most beautiful Brussels sprouts I’ve ever seen, every time I go there I buy a bag, it would be a crime against food not to. On the same street you can find fresh roasted coffee, bread and bake goods – choices of Italian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern steps apart, fresh pasta and a number of deli’s full of imported meat and cheese not to mention beautiful cookware. Across the city there’s a European Market that I count on for sour whole cabbages and dried sauages, not to mention their hot table.
I could go on and on about the wonderful places I’ve discovered in my search for the unique and my epiphany of the truly amazing options our local businesses have to offer; but I don’t think you should take my word for it. Instead I encourage you to google your own food interests, pick the markets that best fit your schedule and go to them. Wander table to table, dare to buy something new while still getting the same old stuff on the list. Taste the difference between picked this week and shipped from half a world away and picked last month. Take the time to care about where your food comes from and meet the people who have dedicated not just their lives, but their family’s lives to feeding yours. Better yet, throw the kids in the car and take them for a weekend drive. Show them where food comes from, teach them what it means to live in the greenbelt of Canada, help them grow up with a palette that appreciates everything their surroundings has to offer. Make the memories. Stop for the ice cream. Make it a day and go to the beach or hike a provincial park. It will be winter before you know it. Our produce options will once again center on greenhouse availability and product shipped from unknown countries far away. Wrapped in parkas, dragging wet boots on our feet, all of our shopping will take place in big box stores under harsh glaring florescent lights. Fruit and vegetables will come in bags or be wrapped on the same trays as meat. Pre-cut and holiday size party trays will be hot buzzwords. “Lifeless, colorless and often flavorless with a story of questionable labor practices attached” will be the tales told about groceries in the winter months. Now is the time to enjoy the positive narrative. Get yourself out. Meet the farmers. Shake the hands of the producers and the brave souls standing at booths testing their newest ideas. Teach yourself and teach your children to want and expect more from food choices than basic nutrition or gluttonous joy. Take the time to connect with your surroundings and really see what your community has to offer.
I’m not saying you should enjoy grocery shopping as much as I do. For almost everyone, I think that would be impossible. At the same a lack of interest in cooking or shopping shouldn’t stop anyone from caring about what they eat, where they buy it and how their choices add to or take away from the world. For the few that share my passion, you know what I mean when I say there’s excitement in the search. There’s satisfaction in the accumulated knowledge that leads you to it and there’s ultimate pleasure in producing meals that tell the stories of not just your efforts, but the stories of the efforts of the farmers and the sellers that brought the food to your table as well. Whatever your level of interest I encourage to check out as many local markets, shops or roadside stands as you can. Explore the flavors, push your boundaries and experience food like it’s the very first time.