Farmer's Markets in Toronto can be overwhelming and confusing. What's the best way to shop? Is it bad form to question the vendors? How do I know what's in season? Is this apple bruised? We're sharing our favourite tips to ensure a successful market shop every time... just don't forget your bags.
There’s nothing we love more than waking up early on a Saturday morning and heading straight to the market. Did you believe that? While we love visiting the market, waking up early on weekends isn't our activity of choice, but worth it when it comes to the bounty of fresh produce from the farmer's markets in Toronto. Filled with local Ontario vendors and artisans, shopping at farmers markets can help inspire new dishes, introduce you to new ingredients and allow you to indulge in delicious eats.
In a perfect world, we'd be able to step out of our home on any day of the week and take a short stroll to the market. Unfortunately, Toronto is not Paris, and we don't have the luxury of having butchers, cheese mongers, produce farmers and bakers on every corner. In Toronto, we do, however, have one fantastic central market.
Enter St. Lawrence Market, recently named the best market in the world by National Geographic. The market consists of the main market (the South market) where you'll find great eats, and a curated selection of the best cheese, butchers, and specialty shops. Here’s what you need to know to have the best experience at farmer's markets in Toronto.
Arrive Early or Arrive Late
There's a beauty in knowing when to shop a farmers’ market, and the time that works best for you relies on what's on your list and how you prefer to shop. For first pick of the ripest, freshest and most beautiful produce, arrive early, but if If you're looking for a deal, shop later in the day closer to when the market closes. Most of the market vendors don't want to have to pack up and re-transport their produce home, so they're more willing to discount their current supply closer to closing.
BYO Bag and Cash
A rule for any shopping day whether it's at the grocery store or farmers markets in Toronto is shopping with reusable bags. Having your own bags allows for easier produce packing as the bags are thicker, and most times vendors don't always have bags. Plus, it's environmentally friendly. While this may sound silly, we're actually a little embarrassed when we forget our bags and are left to carry plastic bags around the market. It's silly we know, but always like to make sure we're doing our part to reduce waste. Also, bring cash – this isn't the mall.
Go with a Plan but Don't Follow the Plan
One of our favourite things about shopping in general is making a list and checking it twice. There's something so satisfying about getting every single item on your list, staying within budget and not straying from what you've listed. While we definitely suggest having a list before entering the magical world of farmers markets in Toronto, we also believe in not sticking to your list. Let the vendors ignite your inner chef, pick up ingredients you wouldn't otherwise cook with and let the produce inspire your next meal.
A few of our favourite farmer's markets in Toronto have really great food vendors that cook prepared dishes and sell them on site. Whether it's grabbing a pretzel, a pea meal bacon sandwich or a cup of soup from a vendor, going hungry allows you to experience a different layer of the market, trying new foods with new ingredients you wouldn't otherwise think to combine. Plus, it's always nice to sit and people watch, with something to nibble on, of course.
Know What's in Season
When you are using the freshest ingredients you're guaranteed to make a beautiful and delicious meal. The key to finding the freshest ingredients is knowing what is in season and focusing your meals around that. A simple Spring Ramp Pizza uses just a few ingredients but is far superior than anything you will get from the big name pizza joints. Want the ultimate dessert? Drizzle a teaspoon of maple syrup on fresh strawberries, in season from early June. You can easily find what is in season by searching online, or through the Ontario Food Availability Guide here.
Stroll Before Spending
The best way to navigate farmer's markets in Toronto is to start by walking through the entire market, keeping note of which produce looks the best and at what prices. For us, waking around not only provides cooking inspiration but allows us to see the different growths of produce. For example, vendors that sell asparagus either sell small, tall and thin bunches for a buck, while others are a couple bucks for shorter thicker stems – it all depends on what your vision is for the finished dish.
Talk to the Vendors
Don't be afraid to ask the farmers questions; how was the food grown, where it was grown, if pesticides were used, how to store/prepare certain ingredients, their favourite ways to use the produce or something as basic as what is this? Most vendors are more than happy to answer any and all questions as their produce is a part of their pride. It's one of our favourite interactions that grocery stores could never replace, and knowing the person who grows your food is extremely special.
Don't be Afraid to Ask for a Sample
How are you supposed to know who has the ripest peach, the crispiest apples or the sweetest strawberries if you don't taste them? Most vendors already have a plate of cut of produce ready to be sampled, but if they don't, simply ask them for it. Not only does it allow them to show off their grown produce, it's also a huge complement that you're taking such an interest in ensuring it's the right produce for you. Also, eating is research, after all.
Go Beyond the Produce
While 90% of the things you purchase from a farmer's market are produce, the other 10% includes related items like flowers, baked goods, jars of honey, teas and coffee beans, locally sourced and handled with care just like the rest of the produce. Some of the best peonies we've bought have come from St. Lawrence Market, and the same goes for jarred goods. There's an art to these items, a skill set not found on the shelves of grocery stores and again, even more magic knowing they've literally tended to these goods and hand delivered them to for you to purchase.
Know the Farmer's Schedules
Farmers feed our cities, but they aren't able to set up shop and spend 7 days a week selling their produce, meat, dairy, and baked goods in Toronto. While spread through different parks and squares throughout Toronto on different days, we're lucky that somewhere in the city on any given day between May-October, you can find a market but you do need to do your research.
Our go to is BlogTO's guide, based on days of the week. Some of our favourites are the Saturday Market at St. Lawrence, Trinity Bellwoods on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the Sunday Morning Lion's Market near Square One Mall, just outside the city. What are your favourite city markets?