Saturday, March 31, 2012

Community Anchor

Perhaps no city can be considered truly great without a vibrant, permanent farmers market. Here in Toronto, fortunately, we have two. Kensington market and St. Lawrence market. To say that these are "Permanent farmers markets" is a bit misleading. What they are is in fact two distinct market neighbourhoods.

To talk about St. Lawrence Market as A market is also somewhat misleading. It's actually 2 markets. As far as farmers markets go anyway. The north, a Saturday only farmers bazaar and the south, a 5 days a week playground nirvana for the food lover.

In November, 1803 the Province of Upper Canada's lieutenant governor Peter Hunter set aside a small parcel of land in what was then known as the Town of York (to be renamed the City of Toronto in 1834) and decreed it would henceforth be set aside as a "Market Block." A wooden building to house the market was subsequently erected and then replaced in 1831 by a larger brick building that would occupy virtually the entire Market Block property. Incorporated into this building was the York Town Hall. In 1849 the first "Great fire" of Toronto resulted in the 1831 brick market building and the original Town Hall that had become de facto the new City Hall being destroyed.
By 1850 the present St. Lawrence Hall began to take shape on the northernmost portion of the ruins of the old brick market building. This magnificent building would quickly become the social center of the young city and home to numerous and varied civic and cultural events. St. Lawrence Hall now sits fully restored and has been designated a National Historic Site. 
In time, a smaller non-descript structure took shape south of the Hall. This latter building has been renovated several times and now there are plans to replaced it with a modern new structure.
A decade after the Town of York was given city status in 1834 the city fathers' who had been meeting in the original Town Hall moved across Front St. into a new City Hall in the "South" Market. A portion of this historic building still stands with the Market Gallery occupying what had been the municipal Council Chambers. 
Over the next 50 years Toronto's first purpose-built City Hall underwent a couple of facelifts. However, by the 1890s a population boom saw the old city offices out grown.  
A move to a new "New" city hall at Queen and Bay in September of 1899 would be the last the St. Lawrence Market would see of city council. Oddly enough that city hall at Bay and Queen streets is now known as "Old" City Hall while it's replacement to the west now bears the title of "New" City Hall.
Back at the historic "South" Market a major renovation in 1904 resulted in only a portion of that original brick building surviving. It can be seen incorporated in the north facade of the "South" Market. A few years later an overhead canopy would be built to connect the north and south markets. It would be removed 50 years later.
One last major renovation took place in 1977 that added two levels of vendors at the south end of the market building plus the addition of meeting rooms, a kitchen and the popular Market Gallery where art work and artifacts related to Toronto's fascinating history are presented.

The south building's busy food court is quite simply a food lovers dream. Seafood, meat, vegetable and cheese vendors (among others) all competing against each other for your food dollar. Below is a sampling of some of my favourite vendors and their wares.

Two things are absolute musts for me, whether or not I'm planning on having a meal, to snack on as I'm wandering. First of all the pepperettes from Upper Cut Meats. These fiery beauties are just the thing to open up the taste buds for the coming onslaught.
Quite often I'll pick up lamb steaks here and do them up on the grill. The marrow from the bone is fantastic.

The other must is a stop at Scheffler's for some anti pasta. Perhaps nothing better from this beautiful bar is the smoked speck and goat cheese. The sharp, rich cheese is a perfect match for the smokey, oily goodness of the speck.
Scheffler's is a grazers paradise too. Sausage, cheese and pates are all available to sample before purchase.

As great as Upper Cut is, Witteveen's is my favourite. The roasted side bacon and pork tenderloins are fabulous. I often grab a hunk and eat it on site. They have a terrific selection which includes one of my favourite pieces of cow. The Tri  Tip. This hunk off the sirloin primal is perfect for fajitas. The super friendly staff are great to just stop and talk meat with as well.
For those spaghetti lovers St. Lawrence Pizza and Pasta makes fresh pasta and sauce. Either from their “To go” case or prepared for you at their counter. They also make their own pizza dough and sauce. Both of which can be order at the counter. Their pepperoni pizza is far ahead of what you’d get at a regular food court. While the pepperoni lacked the pizzaz I’d normally like it had a very nice complementary taste to the cheese. The dough is flavourful and chewy but where this slice really gets its personalitly is the sauce. A good tomato flavour is punctuated with a big garlic hit. Enough to scare off the vampires.
St Lawrence Pasta on Urbanspoon

Sausage King has a beautiful array of sausage. Both fresh and cured. While you’re there picking up some goodies for home try one of their porchetta sandwiches. Served on a kaiser roll with herbed aioli and optional cracklin’s it’s great. Some people find the strong rosemary flavour to be a bit much. Others find the 17 napkin juiciness of it too much. Not me, I love rosemary and find juice running down my arm as I’m eating to be a good thing.

One of the stars of the show at the market is the peameal bacon on a bun at Carousel Bakery. A debate rages wether it’s the best or the offering at Paddington’s Pub. Well, I’ve had both and will take Carousel every time (as did everyone in a group of 10 I visted with as well). On occasion I’ll hit up one of the other vendors for a couple slices of cheddar. Usually I just eat it plain though. Not even any mustard.
Carousel Bakery on Urbanspoon

Speaking of mustard, perhaps THE best mustard on the planet can be found at Kozlik's Mustards. Anton Kozlik has a wide array of the yellow/brown goodness for just about any palate. For me, one stands head and shoulders above all. The Triple Crunch is 3 different seeds blended with some whiskey and vinegar. It's pungent with a great texture. It makes a great substitute in recipes that call for mustard seed.

For my money some of the best pastéis de natas (Custard tarts) can be found at Churasco's. The rich custard is nicely nestled in the flaky phylo pastry. They also make a phenomenal bifana sandwich. Sliced pork tenderloin on a bun with everything (Roasted peppers, onions and the best piri piri sauce I've had). It's cooked to order so takes a little longer but well worth the wait. Every bit as tasty as you can imagine and it's not even their specialty. 
Churrasco of the St Lawrence on Urbanspoon

So there you have it food lovers. A look at one of the great market and food adventures this planet has to offer. An absolute must for any hungry visitor.

You can find St. Lawrence Market (south) at the corner of Front and Lower Jarvis Streets.
View Larger Map

You can also find them on the web, facebook and Twitter.

I would like to thanks Toronto's leading historian, Mike Filey for his help with the historical aspect of this article. Piecing together a time line for the market proved challenging and without Mike I probably wouldn't have got the facts straight.

Well that's all for now. See ya next time in the food court.



  1. The market visit was the higlight of my recent trip to Toronto! What a great place. It was so nice to taste peameal bacon again. Glad I got some of the crunchy mustard, too -- should have gotten more than one jar. Thanks, Dave!