This little piggy went to market

Karl Wells
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A delicious diversion to one of Toronto's most delightful landmarks

The canvas tops on the stalls outside the market buildings flap in the wind that blows through Front Street. It's early Saturday morning and already the weekend crowds - moms, dads, kiddies, young couples, singles, elderly ladies and elderly gentlemen - are filing inside St. Lawrence Market's landmark brick south building. Traffic whizzes by, adding to the rich soundscape that is unique to Saturday mornings in this neighbourhood.

On my latest trip to Toronto, I stayed at a hotel so near St. Lawrence Market you could practically smell the freshly baked bread from the market's Carousel Bakery. Carousel has had a shop at the market for more than 30 years, where, if you're there early enough in the day, you can see hundreds of loaves of Calabrese, challa and other breads piled high.

Some of the delicious cooked foods on offer. Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

The canvas tops on the stalls outside the market buildings flap in the wind that blows through Front Street. It's early Saturday morning and already the weekend crowds - moms, dads, kiddies, young couples, singles, elderly ladies and elderly gentlemen - are filing inside St. Lawrence Market's landmark brick south building. Traffic whizzes by, adding to the rich soundscape that is unique to Saturday mornings in this neighbourhood.

On my latest trip to Toronto, I stayed at a hotel so near St. Lawrence Market you could practically smell the freshly baked bread from the market's Carousel Bakery. Carousel has had a shop at the market for more than 30 years, where, if you're there early enough in the day, you can see hundreds of loaves of Calabrese, challa and other breads piled high.

It wasn't bread, exactly, that I had on my mind as I manoeuvred my way through sidewalk shoppers and carefully dodged Front Street traffic to get to the 200-year-old market. (The market, by the way, that I fell in love with on my first trip to Toronto almost 30 years ago.) It was bagels, specifically those divine St. Urbain Montreal-style bagels they sell right at the back, in the east corner of the old south market building. My plan was to spend most of the day at St. Lawrence Market. I could think of no better way to begin than by enjoying a hot coffee and a "real" bagel while reading the free papers and flyers I'd no doubt collect on the way in.

Genuine article

St. John's bagels (with the exception of Georgestown Bakery's smallish, hand-shaped ones) are not real bagels. There's a particular process in bagel-making, and when it isn't followed the result is more like bread than bagel. St. Urbain bagels are the genuine article.

Real bagels have their own unique aroma. It registers somewhere between the smell of raw dough and freshly baked bread. The texture is chewy. When you eat a real bagel, you must bite and pull at the same time. They have a smooth, tight skin that bounces back. They taste chewy, slightly of yeast and only a hint sweet. They're perfect as they are, but if you like, they're also good slathered with real butter, cream cheese or peanut butter.

If you're there at the right time, St. Urbain's will pop your bagels into a paper bag while they're still warm. I felt a little like a kid as I reached out to take mine from the lady behind the counter. The anticipation was similar to what I'd felt before taking my first bite of a chocolate-dipped custard cone as a youngster. I pulled the bagel from the bag and had a quick taste. It was everything I'd hoped for.

While waiting at the coffee vendor's for a cup of hot Illy coffee to go with my bagel, I watched as one of the market buskers made animal balloons for a tot and his mother. The balloon artist was wearing a big, floppy black-and-white hat and kaleidoscope-coloured vest. The child watched transfixed. The scene reminded me that "people" make the atmosphere of markets special. Without people, it's really just a big room full of stuff.

Sights and sounds

Contented from having enjoyed the best bagel ever, I strolled around St. Lawrence Market soaking up more sights and sounds. On this particular Saturday, there were a few musicians - a fiddler and an accordionist - playing background music. Their lively notes provided the perfect soundtrack for the rich movie my eyes recorded of fresh seafood, meats, cheeses, baked goods, fruits, dried beans and every other kind of food imaginable.

One of the first items that caught my eye was a display of wooden boxes containing salted cod. There are lots of Italians (as well as Newfoundlanders) in Toronto who love salt cod. This salt fish was the best I'd seen, beautiful flattened whole cod with salted flesh as pure and white as December snow.

Speaking of fish, in the centre of St. Lawrence Market, you'll find some of the finest quality fresh seafood available. For example, I saw fresh salmon, trout, whitefish, halibut, swordfish, tuna and shellfish at Domenic's booth. The pieces were huge and plump. (Isn't it ironic that we rarely see product of comparable quality in St. John's - capital of Canada's great fishing province?)

Not far from the mounds of fresh fish, I found an equally impressive display of meats.

At La Boucherie, dangling on hooks above the heads of butchers and customers alike, were fresh legs of lamb. Staff and customers leaned across glass showcases filled with roasts, cuts of lamb, ribs, chops, sausages and poultry. Still more meats were displayed at Manos Meats, where owner Kostas Lidakis was expertly wrapping product the old-fashioned way, in brown paper.

Good gumbo

It wasn't long before I was feeling hungry again. I made my way over to Buster's Sea Cove, a market fixture of many years, for a seafood lunch. Buster's is famous for its fish and chips, but coming from St. John's - home of the best in the country - I figured I'd try something different. A bowl of chicken and shrimp gumbo sounded good for starters. It was hot and spicy with Creole seasoning, tomatoes, onions, bay and small bits of chicken and shrimp. I liked it. It was a good deal at $4.25 per bowl.

Then I tried one of Buster's hot fish sandwiches - halibut on a bun, a delicious creation. It was made from a thick piece of halibut fillet that had been coated, fried and tucked (along with lettuce, tomato and tartar sauce) between two pieces of grilled foccacia. You don't see much of this type of sandwich in St. John's fast-food shops. Maybe someone should start offering them. They prepared a grilled salmon sandwich that looked fabulous, as well.

Buster's employees are as colourful as the menu. Before eating my sandwich, I decided to change the batteries in my camera. While I was doing this, the guy who'd cooked lunch came over and said, in the tone of a scolding parent, "Eat your halibut. It's getting cold." I quickly put down my camera and ate. No fool me.

More strolling ensued. This time I checked out some of the hundreds of varieties of cheeses sold by Alex Stroutzas and his team at Alex Farm Products. There was blue cheese from the north of Spain, sheep's milk cheese from Italy, large wheels of French cheese and numerous other cheeses. Further along I watched a woman in a ball cap stabbing big roasted bacons to move them from a roasting pan to a display pan beneath an orange heat lamp.

Glimmer

As I took in as much of the remaining activity, images and aromas as possible during my last minutes at St. Lawrence Market, I felt a twinge of regret that we don't have anything remotely like it year-round in St. John's. For awhile, I'd hoped Memorial Stadium might have been turned into a mini St. Lawrence Market. That, as it turned out, was a pipe dream. But wait! There is a glimmer of hope. This summer, St. John's will have its first indoor farmer's market, operating Saturdays from June 7 until Nov. 29. It will be called the St. John's Farmers' Market at Lions Chalet (near the St. John's Curling Club on Mayor Avenue.) It appears a number of vendors have already signed on. Let's hope more do. Let's also hope that it's a huge success.

My final stop at St. Lawrence Market (voted one of the world's finest markets by Food and Wine magazine) was Future Bakery. I hadn't yet had anything sweet and the lure of fresh pastries was just too strong to ignore. Future's baked custard tarts were, as they say, "to die for." I greedily scarfed down two of the yellow beauties with yet another cup of java.

My day at Toronto's St. Lawrence Market had been a memorable one. If you ever have the opportunity to visit, please take my advice. Spend at least two hours there. You won't be sorry.

Organizations: La Boucherie, Alex Farm Products, Lions Chalet Curling Club Wine magazine

Geographic location: Toronto, St. John's, Front Street Canada Spain Italy Memorial Stadium

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  • Ed
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    You went to Toronto for Montreal bagels?!?

  • Ed
    July 01, 2010 - 19:59

    You went to Toronto for Montreal bagels?!?