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St. Lawrence Market, Toronto: from book one Time Will Tell

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

In the Spotlight: St. Lawrence Market Complex:

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This iconic landmark is a culinary hotspot featuring more than 120 merchants and farmers.

St. Lawrence Market was once named the best market in the world by the National Geographic

In the centre of historic Old Town Toronto, close to the hub of today’s downtown sits the St. Lawrence Market Complex (93 Front St. E.)—three buildings that have served as Toronto’s social centre, City Hall and marketplace throughout the city’s history.

Explore the South Market building with its restaurants, artisans and specialty food vendors offering visitors the unique and lively atmosphere of an authentic farmers’ market; the Market Gallery with changing exhibits dedicated to Toronto’s art, culture and history; and the Market Kitchen with cooking classes for all ages and abilities.

In the North Market building, you’ll find the farmers’ market where farmers arrive every Saturday at dawn to sell their meat, cheese and produce—just as they have been doing for more than 200 years. St. Lawrence Hall, which contains the magnificent Great Hall, continues to be Toronto’s favourite site for social and business functions. Complete your visit with a walking tour of the St. Lawrence Market Complex to hear about its 200-year history.

In 2012, National Geographic spotlighted the world’s best food markets in a special article entitled “Food Journeys of a Lifetime.” St. Lawrence Market outranked New York’s Union Square Greenmarket and St. Lucia’s Castries Market to claim the top spot.

A visit to the market makes it easy to understand why. Row upon row of locally grown produce, freshly baked goods, gourmet cured meats, specialty cheeses, preserves, soups, sandwiches and international foods are enough to make anyone’s mouth water. And the friendly vendors will make you feel at home as you take in the sounds, sights and smells of this cosmopolitan marketplace.

St. Lawrence Market may be known primarily for its food, but it’s also a great destination for shopping and activities, especially during the iconic Saturday Farmers’ Market. Each weekend, local farmers and artisans set up shop indoors and outdoors, filling the complex with delicious and beautiful treasures for you to buy.

On Sundays, the market transforms into an antique shop with the finest wares of times past. From unique rugs and furniture to quirky tchotchkes to bring home, perusing the Sunday Antique Market is a uniquely Torontonian experience.

If you’re feeling inspired by the endless selection of gourmet food, why not drop by for one of the market’s cooking classes to learn how to prepare culinary masterpieces of your own? With classes on everything from baking to knife skills to cooking with wine, there’s no better place to hone your skills as a chef.

The history of St. Lawrence Market

  • 1803: Lt. Governor Peter Hunter proclaims that all the land north of Front, west of Jarvis, south of King and east of Church Street, would be officially known as the Market Block

  • 1831: The original wooden market building is replaced by a brick structure

  • 1845: City Council moves into the Council Chambers on the second floor of the market building

  • 1849: The Great Fire of Toronto destroys the brick structure and much of the city. Plans are drawn up to rebuild the Market Block to include a new St. Lawrence Hall

  • 1850: St. Lawrence Hall, designed by William Thomas, is unveiled and quickly becomes the social centre of the city

  • 1851: A new North Market building is constructed at the south end of St. Lawrence Hall

  • 1904: The City Hall building is demolished and a new one is built to accommodate Toronto’s growing population

  • 1967: The third floors of the building are restored as part of the City of Toronto’s Centennial project

  • 1968: The North Market is demolished and replaced with the present-day building

  • 1972: A group of Torontonians propose to the City of Toronto’s Property Department that the historic South Market building be renovated. Originally the planning board had discussed demolishing it

  • 1974: Renovations begin with funding from a Federal-Provincial Winter Capital Projects Fund

  • 1977: The City Property Department obtains approval to restore the original City Hall

  • 1978: Renovations are completed at the South Market. The basement is gutted and made available for retail use

  • 1979: The Market Gallery opens on March 7, 1979

  • 2003: St. Lawrence Market celebrates its 200th anniversary

Opening scene in the market from Time Will Tell, chapter one: The Knights of San Lorenzo

"The loading docks’ steel doors boomed closed, at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, startling the pigeons huddled in the rafters. Wool-capped porters careered down the aisles with their now empty wagons, hurrying towards a hot breakfast. The vendors grumbled and fussed over their bounty’s display. The cavernous space warmed-up as the massive boilers reached full throttle and the Saturday morning crush of parka-clad patrons expanded by the minute, their warm heavy breath, diffuse in the dank morning air.

‘Grrrr’ Nick’s stomach rumbled audibly as a calf-skin glove cuffed his right shoulder, jiggling the steaming coffee raised to his thirsty lips.

“Hey, watch it, Javi!” Nick shouted at his friend.

“Whoa, Nick, you hungry or just swallowed a mad dog?”

“You’re late, and yes I’m hungry, you idiot,” Nick answered, with a frown.

“Well, a ‘top o’the mornin’ to you too, you old misery,” Javi retorted in a cheery ‘stage Irish’.

“Piss-off Javi, I’m not old.”

“That’s enough fighting, boys,” admonished Father Frank as he advanced towards his friends. “Now, it’s down on your knees and give me five Hail Mary’s each.”

“Uh-oh!” exclaimed Paul, popping-up behind the huddled group. “I thought that posture was reserved for your altar boys.”

“Shut-up, Paul,” all three shot back together.

The four ‘boomers’ grew-up together in a Catholic choir school where they learned to intone eerily celestial sounds that soared to the heights of the gilded grandeur of St. Michael's Cathedral, Toronto. Nick, Javier, Frank, and Paul remained close friends since their choir school days. All but Frank had left the church behind.

The freckled, blue-eyed ringer for Robert Redford joined it, finally making his pious, widowed mother, Mrs. Kelley, content as he was her only child, and her last shot at salvation. Her husband, Frank senior, being killed in a motor vehicle accident while on duty as a newly minted Ontario Provincial Police officer, just four years after emigrating from England with their young son.

Nick, or Nero, as his parents christened their only son, was forty-nine, swarthy like most of his father’s Calabrese clan, green-eyed, barrel-chested, and stockily built; in short, he looked more like a middle-weight boxer than a professor of Renaissance Art. A devoted epicurean, his passion for all things culinary, a blessing to his busy wife Lidia, perpetually hungry daughter Jesse, and live-in father-in-law, Aldo.

His closest friend of the group was Javier, his name pronounced in the South American manner as Havier, abbreviated to Havi by his friends. His family was of mysterious Argentine origins, rumored tied to the Peronist regime and that low friends in high places helped them flee the revolution with their fortune intact. The official line though, was that they were simply merchants seeking greener pastures in Canada.

Javier was tall, fair, and patrician in contrast to his easy-going, suave demeanor and enthusiasm for the sybaritic pleasures this mean world has to offer. Being President of Merchandise in his family’s fine food, spice and wine import business, an occupation taking him all over the world, well-suited his restless spirit.

If Javi was the high-flyer of the group, then Paul was certainly the groundling, an earthy, wiry carpenter, owner of a high-end flooring company. A hard-working suburbanite father of three teenage girls, Paul called the three Hecates, the only part of his high-school brush with Shakespeare that rubbed-off; Macbeth’s mixture of sex, murder and witchcraft created a potent potion for his adolescent imagination.

Now, their sweet vocal harmony, having soured over too much tobacco, vinho tinto and time, it is their love of food, the gathering, making, and sharing that forms their enduring bond. The spirited act of creation, whether of a chorale or a robust meal, takes simpatico to lovingly execute.

This was their monthly ritual, to gather at their hometown’s oldest market, to pursue the best, indulging their senses in the repast it will become under Nick’s direction and imbibing Javi’s free-flowing libation, to sustain their spirits.

“Why is everyone so late? Two minutes more and I would’ve had my mitts around a hot ‘three-b’ without you,” replied Nick, referring to their ritual back bacon on a bun for which the market was famous.

“No prizes for guessing which half of that ‘sangwich’ would have the most hog,” taunted Paul, whose own stomach was suddenly feeling deprived.

The smell of the first bacon slices hitting the sizzling grill beckoned them to their feast, “Well, c’mon guys, let’s move it, before the lineup starts,” urged Nick, as he turned toward the kiosk.

All their orders were alike and never varied, always a toasted Kaiser with lettuce, piled high with hot grilled back bacon topped with mustard, and black coffees all round. Toasting the Kaiser bun stopped it from absorbing too much of the warm bacon juices. The iceberg lettuce gave it a fresh crunch and the mustard, hotdog Heinz, never anything fancy like Dijon, formed the perfect complement of sweet, spice and vinegar to the salty bacon; heaven on a bun, so primal, unpretentious and satisfying.

Thus fortified, the men turned to their morning’s quest, predicated on what Nick had devised for the menu. This could vary though, depending upon the quality of the ingredients needed and what else might be improvised with something fresh and interesting that Nick hadn’t counted on seeing.

The highlight of today’s menu consisted of a dish the friends had made many times before, Nick’s own version of the classic Bolognese ragù on homemade pappardelle, which was the primo. The antipasti would be some finocchiona, a Tuscan fennel seed salami, then slices of smoked peppercorn pecorino, Spanish queen olives served in a warm marinade of lemon, rosemary and vermouth, and pickled sweet red cherry peppers stuffed with parsley, capers, and anchovies. Secondo was another favorite, baby eggplant ripieni; small eggplants blanched, scooped out, then stuffed with their sautéed pulp, onions, parmesan, and breadcrumbs, tops brushed with egg white and pan-fried upside down; a golden-crusted delicacy. An endive, walnut and gorgonzola salad would add a touch of bitter green.

It was often the case that they didn’t get around to dessert, but Nick felt that muscat grapes and panna cotta, made with a fruity grappa that Javier discovered would be a nice dénouement. In fact, since Javi was supplying the wines, an Umbrian sagrantino, a new Ferrari spumante, and the subtle but key ingredient for the Bolognese sauce, a packet of sweet fresh coriander seeds, their morning’s quest was simplified.

Their personal shopping was not confined to the list, as they usually purchased treats like farm fresh sweet butter, and specialty cheeses from small artisan producers. Then they would meander across the street to the North Market, where the local organic producers were who came in from the dwindling rural greenbelts of farming communities surrounding the sprawling monster that was the ‘GTA’ or Greater Toronto Area.

They purveyed excellent organic produce, meat, poultry, game and fresh seasonal vegetables like cardoons, radicchio Treviso and Boston Red Jerusalem artichokes. And foraged gems like cicoria, wild asparagus, nettles, ramps, giant puffballs, and fragrant chanterelles. Laden with their culinary treasures they squeezed into Nick’s Honda and headed for his Victorian semi in east Toronto just south of Danforth Avenue, or ‘The Danny’ as it denizens affectionately called it.

The Ponti family lived in the gentrified Playter Estates, on a leafy winding street in a neighborhood transitioning from its post-war Greek and Italian immigration to the arrival in the nineties of the Muslim nations, who built mosques and replaced mom and pop Italian groceries with halal meat markets, and souvlaki joints with take-out curry kitchens.

For the most part, the three main religious communities, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Muslim lived side-by-side peacefully and without incident, their children attending the same schools, playing in the same parks, and making mischief together in the same back alleys and parking lots."


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