A Toronto Food Tour
In the Dark Horse in Leslieville, Toronto, locals are devouring butter tarts the size of their fists. If Canada has a national food, it is this, a hybrid creation that is part French tarte au sucre and part British treacle tart. The Dark Horse is the first stop of a popular food tour with Culinary Adventures (www.culinaryadventureco.com) in which ‘Chef Scott’ takes visitors to an interesting mix of food and drink locations, peppering the walk with quirky facts and local anecdotes.
He dashes into the St. John’s Bakery for a fresh baguette. Part of the profits of the tour goes to this not-for-profit organic bakery set up by Father Robert Ubertini and a homeless baker 15 years ago. ‘I know we won’t stop hunger but maybe our support will mean someone is less hungry’, says Chef Scott, philosophically. This social enterprise gives work to people with mental illnesses and addictions as a form of culinary philanthropy. That is not to say that the hand-crafted organic bread which graces the tables of some of the city’s best restaurants is not reason to visit in itself.
Everything that Scott does on his tour has an educational component. He clearly loves showing visitors this up and coming neighbourhood on the east side of the city, insisting that cupcake shops will never make one of his itineraries. He invites me into Olive and Olives for a fascinating little food seminar. Tucking into their tasting cart, I learn about the health benefits of olive oil, how to tell if my bottle of oil has gone off, and about their innovative baking courses using olive oil instead of butter.
Scott delights in telling visitors stories about the different characters associated with the local food scene, including Coyote Willie who dishes up ‘awesome Tex Mex’ and Dangerous Dan’s, across the road from a strip club, whose burgers are so loaded with cheese they are advertised as ‘colossal colon cloggers’. Another favourite stop is Paulette’s, named after a grandmother who cooked two things very well – fried chicken and doughnuts. When she died, her grandchildren opened this shop so people could enjoy the treats she would always cook for them.
A pit stop on the tour is local neighbourhood hangout Table 17 for a Bloody Caesar, the classic Canadian cocktail of tomato and clam juice, vodka and spices. Scott claims that Ed’s Real Scoop serves the best ice cream in Toronto, all freshly made on site with local ingredients. The maple bacon crunch, with candied local bacon, regularly sells out and is tipped by some to become a Canadian classic.
Another favourite is Hooked, Toronto’s only 100% sustainable fish shop. The owners work with smaller boats and cannot only tell you where the fish was caught, but how it was caught and who caught it. Fish you buy at Hooked was swimming yesterday rather than 7 to 14 days ago and everyone who works there has a culinary background.
If Leslieville, which some are calling Toronto’s Brooklyn, is the city’s newest foodie area, St Lawrence Market (www.stlawrencemarket.com) in the centre of town, is its oldest. The market, which began over two centuries ago in 1803 and is still an important centre of diverse culinary interest, was named by National Geographic as the best food market in the world in 2012. Supporting local farmers, artisans and artists but also showcasing food from all over the world, locals, tourists and chefs flock here to purchase Canadian ice wine, maple syrup mustard and live Canadian lobsters, along with flavoursome Serrano ham, whole Dutch cheeses and the finest Spanish olive oil.
Chef Scott has seen interest in his food trips increase by a staggering 700% in the last year. Like Scott, the organisers of St Lawrence Market have seen a phenomenal increase in food in Toronto in the last few years. Gabriela Bright’s themed courses that take place in a dedicated kitchen area above the market regularly sell out.
At St Lawrence Market, everyone has his favourite stall but there is always a queue for a peameal bacon (Canadian back bacon coated in fine cornmeal) sandwich from the Carousel Bakery, which Robert Biancoli has run with his brother Maurice for 35 years. Firemen and policemen dutifully call in first thing in the morning, with businessmen following suit at lunchtime. David Chang, the famed New York chef likes his with horseradish mustard, and, according to Robert, it was only her aide that stopped Princess Margaret tucking into a juicy Canadian bacon sandwich with maple and mustard sauce.