[Organic] market research


How do fresh produce markets on opposite sides of the globe – and two seasons apart – compare? For our Parallel Worlds writing project, two writers – one in Montreal and one in Melbourne – grabbed their shopping bags and headed downtown.  

Montréal’s Le Marché Jean Talon, Canada 

[words and photograph © Patricia Gajo]

Le Marché Jean Talon is a short drive from Montreal’s downtown core. It’s a popular farmer’s market inside La Petite Italie and, conveniently, not too far from my apartment. Today is Monday, just past 4pm, and I’m here at this time on this day of the week to avoid the crowds, or, more accurately, to get a good parking spot (impossible on weekends). The afternoon air is fresh and crisp. It’s spring, although Mr Weatherman says it’s still winter: at daybreak the grass is wet not from morning dew, but because the night’s frost has melted. That’s okay. Despite the bolts of wind that whip my hair into wild frenzy as I dash from the car to the market, a sunny optimism fills the sky.

Come summer, there will be elbow-to-elbow stalls bustling outside. In colder weather, like now, the market is edited down to devoted suppliers who remain indoors and do business-as-usual in a library-like hush. The space that Le Marché Jean Talon inhibits was actually, I think, a library once upon a time. Before I was born, it was a bus station, which makes sense of the sheltered wings that branch out from the main structure. Before my parents were born, it was a lacrosse field. These days the metal-framed structure is devoted to the sport of produce, selling, buying and eating.

I open the door, pulling against a current of air. It is the cheery fragrance of citrus that first says hello. Stacks of lemons, grapefruits, and oranges. It’s not quite the Amalfi Coast, but the scent takes me there. I walk a few steps along the concrete floor, which is wet from a dripping hose. It’s just the regulars and me; add one backpacker filling up on fruit samples, and a toddler who has found bliss on his mini-bike with training wheels while mum assesses the quality of a single avocado.

I’m here on a mission. After a long winter hibernation – my excuse for hedonistic eating and drinking – I’ve put myself on a cleanse. On my checklist are two things: fruits and vegetables. Seeing that it’s almost April, I’m not surprised that most of the produce is from elsewhere: A pile of pale yellow Bartlett pears from Argentina. Mini-cantaloupes “très sucré” (“very sweet”) from Costa Rica. Perfectly hued red peppers from Mexico.

“Anything from Québec?” I ask in French to a woman who is seated behind a tower of wooden cases.

She puts her newspaper down, smiles, and responds, “Comment?” (Pardon me?)

“Is there anything from local farmers here?” I inquire. She points to a checkerboard of plump tomatoes and offers me a plate of bite-size wedges.

“I put just a little bit of salt,” she says, “to bring out the flavour.” I take off one glove and pop the juicy taster in my mouth. Delicious.

“I’ll take half a dozen.”

Just across the aisle is a veritable rainbow of colour. String asparagus bound in thick bunches. Plastic sacs of beets. Blueberries. Strawberries. Pineapples: sliced, cubed or whole. Overhead a corner kiosk, a large sign reads: “Marcel les Pommes from St-Joseph-du-lac”. For sale is apple juice sold by the container, I buy a tiny one, 375ml for $1. There is also a wall of baskets filled with different kinds of apples: red or yellow delicious and honey crisp.

At “Le Capitaine”, it’s all about eggs. On display are chicken eggs, goose eggs, turkey eggs and tiny spotted quail eggs. There is also one kind of egg whose name I don’t recognize. Behind the makeshift counter, there is a tired-faced man dressed in a perky-green knit turtleneck. He is, I presume, the “captain” of these wondrous elliptical shells. “What are ‘cane’ eggs?” I ask again in French.

Cane,” he explains while straightening his posture, “is the female counterpart to canard, the male duck. Have you never tried a duck egg?” Le Capitiane’s eyes light up with delight as he waits for my answer.

“I don’t think so.”

“Duck and goose eggs,” he recites, “have significantly more protein and better cholesterol than chicken eggs.”

“Really? What about the taste?”

“The same – but more creamy.”

Once more, I buy a half dozen.

It’s time to take a little break and I mosey on over to the central space of the market, which is tall like a warehouse with skylights stretched across overhead. On one side the words M-A-R-C-H-É  J-E-A-N  T-A-L-O-N are plastered to the glass (two letters per pane), printed on a background of translucent yellow. With the daylight piercing in through one side, the effect is like that of stain-glassed windows – shafts of golden sunshine slice into the otherwise shadowy space. If I were a cat, I’d take a nap right there.

I grab a macchiato at Brûlerie Aux Quatre Vents, a casual café whose tiny square- and round-topped tables offer perfect people watching views. Across from me, about one heavenly whiff away, is Pâtisserie Le Ryad where, I have purchased many a sweet baklava – but not today. Cleanse, remember?

Right behind it is La Fournée des sucreries de l’érable (please don’t ask me to translate this, it will only make me hungry). I’ve been here before when they were in the midst of baking their pies – pecan and cranberry, apple and walnut, and, the local classic, the sugar pie. Thank goodness the ovens are taking a break right now. That would be just too hard to resist.

To convince my nose to think about other scents, I head to the cheese shop called “Qui lait cru!?!” A strong blue from the Eastern Townships put me back on track.

Before I go home, I pass by Fleuriste Chez Daniel, a charming floral nook that is literally overflowing with flowers. Cut stems of daffodils and tulips are wrapped in plastic and waiting to be taken home. I settle on a potted Easter lily plant, which the florist promises me will bloom just in time for the holiday weekend: “When the blossoms open, their perfume is fresh and happy. Even if it’s still winter outside, it will be spring in your home.” This image makes me smile inside and out.

Perfect, I think. “I’ll take it.”

Melbourne’s Mellow Market, Australia

[words and photograph © Jo Stewart]

Australia has embraced the rapidly-growing farmer’s market movement with a big bear hug – organic food markets can be found on school grounds, in car parks and old warehouses all over Australia. In Sydney, even the site of the 2000 Olympics hosts a regular food market.

In Melbourne, there are many fine markets to choose from – but the organic food market at CERES Community Environment Park in the inner suburb of East Brunswick is considered among the best. Open every Wednesday and Saturday, this popular market offers quality, fresh produce, sourced from the CERES garden plots as well as local and backyard growers.

With all the produce laid out in the one spot, buyers fill up their baskets and pay at one central location. Instead of buying individually off stallholders, all the produce is sourced by CERES and sold not unlike the way supermarkets sell goods. But that is where the comparisons to supermarkets end! This outdoor market allows people to shop in serenity. Fresh air, sunshine, bird calls and sometimes a local acoustic band blend to create the ultimate environment for a relaxed grocery shopping trip.

The permanent organic shop opposite the fresh produce section is a great accompaniment as it stocks honey, nuts, grains, cooking oil, environmentally-friendly household surface cleaners and more. This means you don’t really need to visit a supermarket after all as it’s feasible to do a whole week’s worth of grocery shopping here. Good riddance unruly shopping trolleys, crowded car parks and long queues!

With a focus on reducing “food miles” (the distance a food item has travelled to get to your plate), the produce available is typically seasonal and not flown in from overseas. So you may have to go without fresh blueberries and mangos during the winter and miss out on oranges and other winter fruits during the summer – but absence makes the heart grow fonder (even with food), and once the seasons change, the fruit and vegetables you’ve missed seem to taste even better than you remember.

Essentially, this market has made ethically sourced, organically-grown food more accessible to city dwellers. On any given day, you’ll notice parents with kids in tow, young professionals, singles, retired couples and share-house crews. A sustainable, simple alternative to big supermarkets, the CERES organic market isn’t some trend limited to the fringes of society – it’s a legitimate addition to the local economy and community. Oh, and they do a killer coffee too!

See more of our Parallel Worlds writing project here.

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