May 23, 2010

Food Tourism for a Saturday Morning

Almost as soon as I joined Groupon, there was a deal on a chef-guided tour of the Granville Island Public Market. Which seemed providential, given my new interest in eating healthy, fresh, local, and organic-where-not-prohibitively-pricey food. I jumped at it, my Beloved proved surprising willing, and this weekend we redeemed those groupons and had our tour.

There's a tour every morning, from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., and range from a minimum of two people to a maximum of eight. Larger groups get more chef guides. We were lucky enough to get a private tour - just us and our chef guide, Rossana. Not that I don't enjoy meeting new people, but it was nice to be able to skip over the history of Granville Island and the Public Market that might have been of interest to tourists but was old news to a local like me who remembers when it opened and used to visit regularly. We also didn't have to accommodate anyone's allergies or aversions, which made Rossana's job easier and our tour very personal. Rossana was a delight; bright, personable, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic, and delighted to discover that we (a) have no allergies and (b) enjoy spice.

Lots more pictures and links after the jump. 

We start out outside the Market itself, at La Baguette et L'Échalote, a traditional French-style bakery that is one of the original businesses on the Island. They bake about 23 hours a day, so the bread is always fresh and, if you time it properly, still warm. Any bread left over at the end of shop hours is given to food banks and other organizations that feed the hungry in our city. There is a basket outside the shop door with a few tall baguettes in it; these are yesterday's bread, and are free for the taking, presumably because there were no takers the night before.

This is a regular stop on the tour, and in a scene that will soon be repeated at nearly every stop, before we've been in the door for two minutes, one of the staff offers us a sample of the product. "Would you like a pain au chocolat?" she asks, and already this tour is worth every penny. Pain au chocolat is my favourite breakfast pastry ever, and I didn't even know you could get them in Vancouver; for me they're a European memory. This one is exactly as it should be: delicately flaky, with multiple visible discrete layers of buttery dough, two thin strips of chocolate inside and a delicate drizzle of chocolate on the top. It tastes like heaven, and only needs an accompanying café au lait and the honk of a Renault's horn to make me hear accordion music.

On two walls of La Baguette's tiny shop stand floor-to-ceiling racks of bread of all kinds and shapes and sizes, and the round cottage loaf seems to be nearly as popular as the iconic French baguette. There are glass cases filled with sweet baked goods, from croissants to tartelettes, and, rather surprisingly, chocolate truffles. All of it is made on the premises, which are not really that big. The shop takes up about one-tenth of the footprint, and all the rest is dedicated to the preparation and manufacture of a dizzying variety of breads, buns, pastries, pies, and things I don't even remember. We'll go back to get some of their par-baked breads, and to try the real Québecois tourtière. And when we finish bake our par-baked baguettes at home, we'll remember Rossana's insider tip for how to make the crust, crusty: steam. Toss a handful of water onto the oven walls when you put the bread in, and that's the trick, apparently. If you bake your own bread, have you tried that? Did it work?

From bread to coffee, at Petit Ami, whose sole location in the world is at the Granville Island Public Market. Had a tasty little cuppa, and was admonished for keeping my whole-bean coffee in the fridge once the air-tight bag has been opened. Room temperature is better for the oils in the beans, and an air-tight container will do for long-term storage. Makes sense, really, since refrigeration isn't really part of the whole coffee-producing industry. Oh, and did you ever consider using ground coffee in your barbecue rub for meat? Rossana mentioned it, and now it's got me thinkin'.

From coffee to more bread, at Terra Breads, across the way. We've been told that the Market is very particular about who they let in to the market, both as permanent vendors and day vendors. So why two bakeries so close together, you ask? Because they have different specialties, different methods, and different products. Where La Baguette is French, Terra's tradition is Italian. They're doing a booming business, too. Rossana gives someone the nod and in a trice we are munching on apple foccacia pastries. They're not too sweet, though; there's an even coat of sesame seeds under the glaze, and the occasional flake of a savoury herb - I think it was rosemary. And the combination was amazing. Rossana paired this with a green salad in an imaginary meal, and I invited her to come cook at my house any time. She has a trained palate and a great imagination; when she's not doing tours, she's running her own catering business.

From savoury breads to spicy sauces, at Oddball Organics, a day-vendor booth manned by the genial giant Randy, who grows garlic and makes it into spicy things. We came away with a variety of his spicy sauces and salts: Nasty Nectar for me, Nuclear Nectar for the Beloved, and a couple of his spicy seasoning salts. Not sure what we'll do with those, but I'm sure I'll find out.

From spices to an all-organic produce stand where, in addition to the recognizable mountains of lettuce and carrots and garlic and beets and artichokes, Rossana introduced us to the slightly less well-known sunchoke, also called Jerusalem artichoke (below, left) and celery root or celeriac (below, right), which smells just like celery but isn't even related, let alone part of the same plant.

Rossana's explanation for the misnomer "Jerusalem artichoke" is that the sunchoke is the root of a plant of the sunflower family. Italian settlers in the Eastern US, where this plant is native, called it girasole, for its resemblance to the garden sunflower, and this may have evolved to "Jerusalem" through linguistic confusion by non-Italian-speakers.

(Aren't these pictures lovely? All taken by my Beloved, and all (c) Polar Digital Media 2010.)

We stopped at, but didn't photograph, Armando's Finest Quality Meats, whose gorgeous arrays of restaurant-quality prime rib roasts, perfectly marbled steaks, and even ox tails excited my inner chef. This is the place, Rossana said, where some of the city's top chefs shop, not for their restaurants but for their homes. I can see why; I have a bit of a fancy for some ox-tail stew now. I haven't had that since I was a kid. Armando's is also one of the few places in Vancouver where you can get real foie gras, if you're of a mind to. At $10 per 100 grams, though, I can't think of many people who would be; that's about $75 a pound.

Another place I'll be back to is The Grainry, where they have the longest-grain wild rice I've ever seen. (Seriously, look at those; they look more like pine needles, don't they? Those things are at least an inch long. And yes, I already knew they weren't really rice, before Rossana asked me; they're a swamp grass native to northern Michigan, Illinois, and parts of Manitoba.) They also have du Puy lentils, which you just don't find in suburban chain grocery stores, in my experience. I'm also quite keen to try Rossana's suggestion of their toasted quinoa flakes in a salad. (Interesting, Rossana, who is originally from Mexico City, pronounces quinoa as kee-NO-ah - which is how I though it should be pronounced - rather than as the KEEN-wah I've always heard. It's not a Spanish word, but probably Quechua.)

One of the busiest and most popular stops in the Market is the Stock Market, with their eye-popping arrays of ready-to-eat soups, stocks, dips, dressings, marinades and sauces. Before 11:30, they make an amazing whole-grain porridge, and after 11:30, there are always a couple of different kinds of soup on offer. It's a popular place for lunch. Rossana was particularly admiring of the dark hue of their vegetable stock, as it clearly shows that they caramelized their vegetables first. There's another tip I took away. :)

Edible BC, the people who offer the tour we were on, have a shop too, and we each got a coupon good for 10% off anything in the store, for a week after our tour. The shop - and the market in general - were very busy by the time we finished the tour, but we'll be going back soon, if only to get our hands on this fantastic birch syrup. It's less sweet than maple syrup, and can be used in its place in pretty much any recipe that calls for maple syrup, and in some that don't - like in mixed cocktails. It's not inexpensive - $30.00 for that bottle on the left, and $7.95 for the tiny one on the right - but then again, I wouldn't pour it on my pancakes.

Next door to Edible BC is the South China Seas Trading Company, where our chef showed us the bright orange of fresh turmeric root - which is used in some countries to sooth teething babies' gums - and guided us through a sample box of spices from all over the world. This place sells lots of ground spices, very fresh, in quantities that won't overwhelm, and so much more. Cast iron teapots, cookbooks aplenty, serving ware, you name it. I could spend ages just poking around the store.

Across the way and down a little lies the Granville Island Tea Company, where we had a lesson in tea along with our cup of chai. There is only one actual plant that is called tea; the difference in the seemingly endless varieties arises from where it's grown, when and how it's harvested, and how it's treated afterward. White tea is the new-picked leaf; after that comes green tea, then oolongs, then black tea. I was pleased to see that this place sells a variety of rooibos; we're planning to go back to try that, and a variety of lapsang souchong, which is the best tea-related word ever. Because she's a chef, Rossana spoke about cooking with tea, when all I've done all my life is drink a narrow variety of the stuff. Oh, the years I've wasted.

Next stop was around the corner at Seafood City, where Rossana got a little giddy at seeing both spot prawns (apparently the best tasting prawn ever, with a short season, and v. expensive as a result) and sockeye salmon in the store. We didn't get a shot of any of those, but here's a picture of fresh smelts, which also got our chef guide pretty excited. I need to go back for spot prawns, because anything that a chef calls "best flavour ever" is worth a try in my books. They're kind of pricey, though, so I'll have to have a fail-safe recipe to use for them.

Our sample at Seafood City was glazed smoked salmon, known colloquially as Indian Candy. And was it ever fantastic. Smoking fish isn't just anyone's game, but these guys (or whomever supplies them) really knows their stuff. Delicately smoky, delicately sweet, and the fish just flaked apart in your mouth. How about that on top of a salad, just as a garnish, said Rossana, and my mouth watered for about the fiftieth time that day.

We made our way past one of the large produce vendors, with peaches in the shape of doughnuts, and strawberries the size of apples, to our next stop, ChocolaTas, which is run by a Belgian couple. We sampled a milk chocolate caramel whose source Rossana challenged us to identify; it was, in fact, the same birch syrup we had sampled at Edible BC. I loved the arrays of decorated chocolates in the cases, and the chocolate novelties that are both possible and actual. Chocolate Louboutins! Build your own inukshuk! And chocolates that tell you what's in them, whether that's "Earl Grey" or "Whisky"? Inspired.


Our final stop on the tour was Oyama Sausage Company, which was pretty much what my sausage-loving Beloved had been waiting for.
We got to sample some of their extraordinary array of out-of-the-common-way charcuterie: jamon serrano,  and a couple of different kinds of salami: one made from bison, and one with a delicate dusting of fennel seeds. Amazing stuff. And just reading the labels on meats in the cooler was enough to excite the imagination and stimulate the taste buds.

Our tour ran a little over the allocated two hours, and the market was chockablock - and our three hours of free parking rapidly running out - so we bought a couple of different kinds of sausage from Tenderland meats. (Yes, two butchers within the same Market; like the bakeries, they have different emphases and specialities.) Tenderland makes their own sausages - the kind you take home and cook, as opposed to Oyama's prepared ones - and we got some chorizo and some lamb sausages. I gave in to the organic chocolate, too. And thus provisioned, we came home to indulge a variety of further food-related fantasies.

I highly recommend this tour. Holy cow was it ever fun and interesting.

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