With its medley of flavours and colours, Toronto’s vibrant St. Lawrence Market is one of the best places in the city to sample a huge range of fresh local meats, vegetables, fruit and decadent baked goods, as well as such specialty goods as olive oils and cheeses from around the world.
And you’ll feel like a local when you bite into a peameal bacon sandwich, a sublime creation that is authentically Canadian.
“If (visitors) want to see and understand Toronto, they have to visit St. Lawrence Market,” said Odysseas Gounalakis, who has owned the cheese and meat emporium Scheffler’s Delicatessen & Cheese for about 20 years.
“St. Lawrence Market is the place that I find transcends classes, races,” he added. “You can find all the ethnicities here, all the products in here. It’s exactly a mirror, I would say, of what Toronto is all about.”
The bustling market has been a cornerstone of commerce in the downtown area since 1803, and archeological evidence points to it being a trading site for First Nations peoples many years before that.
National Geographic’s website currently ranks the St. Lawrence Market as the world’s best food market. The list was compiled in 2009 for the book “Food Journeys of a Lifetime” and was based on efforts to bring authentic local experiences to readers.
“In this case, a market that’s been running since 1803 proved quite a draw. This particular market is also a good example of urban renewal, which jives nicely with our commitment to sustainable tourism and historical preservation,” the magazine’s Carrie Engel wrote in an email.
The St. Lawrence Market complex, owned by the City of Toronto, comprises three buildings.
The main South Building at the southwest corner of Front and Jarvis streets, with about 65 merchants, is open year-round.
The North Building directly opposite houses the Saturday farmers’ market in which about 40 farmers from around Ontario sell meats, vegetables, fruit, baked goods, flowers, jams and other goodies. Here, too, is the Sunday Antique Market.
St. Lawrence Hall, farther east on Front Street, was built in 1850 as a meeting place for public gatherings, concerts and exhibitions. Restored to its original grandeur in 1967, the hall is mostly used for weddings and other functions.
Many merchants have peddled their wares in the buildings for years.
Robert Biancolin, co-owner of Carousel Bakery & Sandwich Bar with his brother Maurice, has been in the market for at least 35 years. Their father originally operated a butcher business, but when Carousel became available, the Biancolin family took it over.
He said many locals make visiting the market and enjoying its various draws a weekly pastime.
“It’s part and parcel of a tradition that has developed among generations of family members who visit the St. Lawrence Market each week.”
One of Carousel’s specialties is “the peameal bacon sandwich, which is probably the most authentic Torontonian food,” Biancolin said. “(Peameal) is one type of back bacon and its claim to fame is that it’s something that was originally formulated here and no one else can claim it.”
William Davies, who immigrated from England in 1854 and set up shop in the St. Lawrence Market, came up with the way to cure peameal bacon in 1875 and went on to form the William Davies Co. The forerunner of Canada Packers merged with several other meat packers to form the huge food processing company now known as Maple Leaf Foods.
“And that’s the reason, also, why Toronto was nicknamed ‘Hogtown,’ because the William Davies Company was the largest pork producer in the British Commonwealth,” Biancolin said, adding his father also used to cure peameal bacon in the old-fashioned way.
Another Carousel specialty is butter tarts, also a quintessential Canadian treat.
On Saturdays, Carousel also carries about 300 different types of breads and rolls, bagels, danishes and other goodies. This includes baked goods from different ethnic communities.
“One thing about Toronto, with its diversity, you get a lot of breads still that are done in the old-fashioned way as much as possible. We’re lucky in that respect, that we have that collection of different baked goods from different backgrounds.”
Gounalakis, who owns Scheffler’s with his wife Sandra, has about 400 types of cheese on hand from Canada and around the world, which swells to as many as 650 types during the Christmas season.
His olive oil collection numbers about 100 and includes what he terms “Old World” olive oil from Spain, Greece, Italy, Morocco and France, and “New World” varieties from California, Australia and New Zealand.
“I specialize in pretty much everything that you need. If I don’t have it, you probably don’t want it. From cheese to prosciuttos to truffles, to oils, to vinegars to spices, anything that is hard to find you can get it here,” he said.
Visitors can soak up history along with the atmosphere.
From the mezzanine Market Kitchen, a warm space with exposed brick walls that can be rented for small gatherings, you can see the roof line of the old mayor’s office to the east.
For respite from the clamour, go to the upper-level Market Gallery, once the original civic council chamber, the only remaining section of Toronto’s original city hall from 1845 to 1899.
On display is the first chair of the mayor along with exhibits about Toronto. You can look out through the soaring windows onto the market below.
Dotted throughout the market are tables where you can do some people watching while you munch on your shopping.
Carts on the market’s lower level sell artisanal wares, such as clothing and jewelry.
A corn roast is planned for Aug. 4 and the neighbourhood will be taken over for the annual Buskerfest