At 8 weeks and counting, you’d think we’d have the basics figured out. After all, for most of us, if we don’t have a dog, grocery shopping is the only reason to leave the house. And maybe because purchasing essentials is the only reason we’re leaving the house, interacting with others has become kind of terrifying.
Headlines such as “Why shopping for groceries is no longer fun” or “We’ll never shop for groceries the same way again” make it clear that a meandering stroll through the aisles is now a thing of the past. There is no lingering, no reading labels, no picking out the non-bruised apples. You need to get in there (after standing for 45 minutes in line), get your stuff, and get out as fast as possible.
My family is not religious. Most of us have been baptized in the Anglican church, but aside from weddings, baptisms and funerals, as a child growing up, I can’t ever remember getting up to go to church. In fact, when questioned about religion, I’ve often joked that our religion was the flea market, because that’s where you could find us on any given Sunday morning in the late 70s or early 80s.
As far back as I can remember Halifax had a Sunday flea market at The Forum, an aging sports arena in the north end of town. But especially in the summer, the flea market motherload was just outside of town, in Sackville.
Originally held during the summer months at the Sackville drive-in, vendors would pull in, park their cars and open their trunks to willing shoppers. There was a parking hierarchy, with regular vendors of new goods (yay, tube sox!) taking the best spots by the entrance, followed by farmers, antique dealers and then the non-regular vendors who were looking to unload crap from their attic or basement. The ground got worse the further back you went, transitioning from pavement to crushed gravel to something akin to boulders near the back, but in the summer, there would be vendors crammed in, sometimes two to a space, selling everything under the sun. Literally – few people used tents back in those days.
Never let it be said that Toronto does not have its fair share of cooking classes. Any night of the week, the culinarily curious can bake, sauté, flambé or roast at courses that range from “watch and eat” style to professional certifications. But for anyone with an interest in local, sustainable cuisine, they should stop looking at options once they hit Culinarium’s Lovin’ Livin’ Local Cooking School.
For those not in the know, Culinarium (705 Mount Pleasant Road) is a delightful little food shop where all the products are from Ontario. They carry everything from produce and meat to artisanal cheese, Ontario-grown peanuts, jams and preserves, herbal teas and more. Owner Kathleen Mackintosh has curated a wonderfully comprehensive selection of Ontario grown and produced goods and the shop even offers CSAs and meat share programs.
The space itself is designed to look like a country kitchen with shelves full of goodies and a food prep area in the back where small groups can get hands-on experience cooking up local food under the guidance of chefs and experts. With a little bit of rearranging, the shop transforms into space for a class of 8 to 12 people, or a tasting event for up to 16. Culinarium can also accommodate a private tasting – taking over the whole shop – for up to 24 people.
Some people say Disney is the happiest place on earth. I’d say those people are wrong. I have proof that the happiest place on earth is on Queen Street East, just past the Don River, where Mary Macleod and her small team of bakers make the very best shortbread ever.
Don’t believe me? Take James’ Beard’s word for it – on a visit to Toronto in the early 80s, the acclaimed chef declared Macleod’s shortbread the best he’s ever tasted.
Mcleod emigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1955 when she got married. She shares a story of meeting her mother-in-law for the first time; her reputation for being a great cook had preceded her, and her mother-in-law had asked that she bake an apple pie. Not used to the differences in North American flour compared to the softer, more delicate products used in Europe, Macleod’s pastry was a disaster, and she set about researching the different flours and how she could add other natural ingredients to manipulate the dough to work more like the European products she was used to.
Greg tells many great stories of the time he lived at Queen and Broadview in the late 80s, upstairs from one of the guys from Skinny Puppy. Those stories almost always come back to the fact that there was a dearth of restaurants in the area back then, and save for but a few greasy spoons, you pretty much had to leave the neighbourhood to find a decent place to eat.
What a difference a couple of decades makes, with the recently-named Riverside District having become a magnet for young families, boutiques and galleries as well as hip restaurants, cafes and food shops. A stroll along Queen Street East from the Don River over to Carlaw offers up any number of great places to eat and shop for food. And let’s not forget the coffee.
Here’s a few new things we came across this month that are definitely worth sharing.
Margaret’s Artisan Bakery Crisps
We came across these at the Ontario Cheese Society tasting in late April. Better known for their Margaret’s Artisan Flatbreads, these organic flour crisps from MJ Fine Foods are made in Vaughn and come in a variety of flavours that pair wonderfully with cheese, pate or dips. I’ve been treating them like the British version of “crisps” and have been eating them like chips. Favourite flavours include rosemary pistachio, mango curry and cashew, caramel apricot almond and cranberry pumpkin seed. They retail for around $5 a box and are available at gourmet food shops.
As someone with a love of food, I’m always poking around in shops looking for new things to taste and try. And to share. On the Shelf is a new (-ish – we did one back in December) monthly feature in which we share our great food finds for the month.
If you’ve never eaten an Alphanso mango, you don’t know what you’re missing. Not to be confused with the Mexican Atulfo mango which can be found in grocery stores from late February onwards, Alphanso mangoes come from southern India and are available only from early April to mid May. In Toronto, they can usually only be found is various shops in Little India, so head on over to Gerrard Street East and stop by Toronto Cash and Carry(1405 Gerrard Street East) or Koohinoor Foods (1438 Gerrard Street East) to try some. Alphansos are generally available by the box only (either a half or whole dozen) and 12 of them will run somewhere around $24. At $2 a piece – and smaller than the Atulfo, this might seem like an exorbitant price until you taste them, and then all other mangoes will be dead to you. A combination of floral and spice, Alphanso mangoes are juicy, heady and fragrant. (I’ve recently found canned Alphanso mangoes at my local supermarket – will report on those next month.)
I got an email from some friends recently looking for locally-made jam. They were specifically looking for wee little jars to give out as favours at their upcoming wedding, but as I thought and thought and thought about it, I was having a hard time coming up with anything more than Greaves in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is where they got the idea for wee little jars in the first place.
When most of us think of jam we either head for our favourite supermarket brands or else to the pantry for a jar of homemade. After all, nothing compares to Grandma’s. But the area in between is a grey one. Jams, jellies and preserves that don’t fit into the homemade or supermarket versions often get lumped in with luxury consumables; the kind of thing you’d enjoy if someone gave you a gift basket of the stuff, but not something that you’d necessarily seek out for yourself.
Which is a shame, especially when we’re talking about products made from local fruit, since the abundance of berries and stone fruit available in Southern Ontario each summer is some of the best in the world.
Despite the fact that we here at TasteTO have officially declared the cupcake to be soooo over (enough already, please?), it seems that more and more people are becoming interested in cake decorating. Based on the number of emails we get from places looking for coverage for their cupcake or baking business, it’s an industry that is taking on a life of its own. But with many equipment supply places open to the trade only, finding the necessary equipment and ingredients can be difficult, especially if you’re a home baker.
Sure, tracking down basic baking pans, plain cupcake papers and some simple cookie cutters is easy enough, but once you get into the serious stuff, special molds, pre-made fondants, specialty pans and decorative items might be more of a challenge.
Here’s a list of GTA-based businesses where aspiring pastry chefs and candy-makers can find their gear and supplies.
629 Queen Street West
This rabbit’s warren of restaurant equipment has lots of stuff for pastry making, from piping bags and tips, cake stands, palate knives and cake pans. It’s all professional quality gear, though, so don’t be surprised to blow the dust off that cake stand and discover that it’s $70.
Placewares, St. Lawrence Market
92 Front Street East
Toronto, ON M5E 1C4
This is probably the easiest place to access in the downtown core, and they have everything from a huge wall of cookie cutters to piping bags, tips, cake pans and moulds, fondant sculpting tools, cupcake papers and (usually seasonal) decorations such as non-pareils and dragees. They also stock some colours of Wilton fondant.
Bulk Barn – Loblaws Leslie St. Market (and others)
17 Leslie Street
Cake pans, including novelty shapes; they also offer a pan rental service if you know you’re never going to use that teddy bear cake pan again. They also have cookie cutters, icing paste and gels, cake decorating supplies, candy molds and couverture wafers, plus wedding, birthday and seasonal supplies.
McCall’s School of Cake Decorating
3810 Bloor Street West
This is kind of the motherlode; pans, cutters utensils, gum paste, sprinkles, cake stands, moulds, food colouring, decorative paper products. They offer classes as well. Bonus – there’s online shopping if you can’t make it out there.
1531 O’Connor Drive
Offers courses in everything from basic cake decorating to working with gumpaste and fondant.
89 Main Street South, Georgetown
Technically out of the GTA but if you’re in the area, it’s a good source of baking pans, chocolate and candy-making supplies and cake-decorating equipment.
In recent weeks I’ve bemoaned the lack of authentic Mexican and Latin American foods here in Toronto, but for some reason, alfajores are pretty easy to find.
This traditional cookie of Argentina may have had origins in the Middle East, and now variations of it exist throughout Spain and Latin America. Basically, it’s made from two thin but soft cookies (sort of a cross between cake and shortbread) with a layer of dulce de leche or jam in between. Traditionally they are dusted with powdered sugar, but regional variations have cropped up. In Mexico they roll the outer edge in coconut; some places coat the cookie sandwich in “snow” (a blend of egg whites and sugar); and it’s also not unheard of for alfajores to be coated in either white or dark chocolate, although they should not be confused with the Wagon Wheel desserts school kids used to get in their lunch boxes.
To find them in Toronto, the best place to head is Kensington Market. There’s always big stacks of both the coconut and snow versions on the counter at Jumbo Empanadas (245 Augusta Avenue). Next door at Perola’s Supermarket (247 Augusta Avenue), there’s also alfajores at the counter and these make a great dessert after a couple of of tacos from the ladies at the back (weekends only).
My personal favourites show up only twice a year, at Christmas and Easter. The Community Folk Art Council of Toronto hosts events at City Hall featuring either Christmas or Easter traditions from various countries around the world. Each country has a display of food and decorations and also offers some food items for sale; the lady at the booth from Chile makes the best alfajores I’ve ever had.
Finally, in cruising Google, I’ve come across a couple of queries where people are looking for a particular brand of alfajores from Argentina called Havana. I’ve never seen these available anywhere in Toronto, but Perola’s would be the first place I’d look.