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A mess of squid at the night market in Richmond, B.C. (Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail/Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail)
A mess of squid at the night market in Richmond, B.C. (Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail/Ian Brown/The Globe and Mail)

Ian Brown Eats Canada

Green all day, fried all night Add to ...

Purslane, fava tips, lovage, arugula the size of tongues, peppercress, tatsoi, pea tips, amaranth, wild watercress - all that and more is in the bag of salad Paul Healey pushes into my hands at the Saturday-morning Trout Lake farmers' market in Vancouver.

The bag bears the name of Mr. Healey's organically certified operation, Hannah Brook Farm. The farm is fed by artesian springs in Ruskin, BC (a town settled by acolytes of the Victorian art critic and utopian John Ruskin, but that's another story). Now, it's a purveyor of fancy greens and tomatoes, often to Vancouver's finest restaurants. The greens were a meal. I reached into the bag and ate them by the handful all day long.

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The Trout Lake farmers' market is ground zero of sustainable food in Canada. Home growing, locavorism, the conscious food movement, call it what you will, this parking lot on the edge of a city park is arguably the place the movement began 15 years ago, and the place it's still practised at its purest - the quintessential farmers' market in the quintessential foodie burg.

The market isn't big - maybe 70 metres long, stalls on two sides of a patch of pavement packed with people. It's quietly but intensely competitive. This is where what's about to happen next, food-wise, shows up first.

I know a man who grew up poor on Cape Breton and burst into tears the first time he saw the colours of a Vancouver farmers' market. There are yellow squash the size of human heads, tomatoes of every heirloom stripe, organic pork chops, exploding bouquets. There are lemon cucumbers, baby fennel and five-pound boxes of musket-ball blueberries for $25.

It's raining, but half the locals don't bother with umbrellas. They're classic Vancouverites: fit, slightly medieval but placid-looking men with facial hair, and women clad in identical mid-calf clam-digger pants, clogs and anoraks.

There are as many recycling bins and rules to govern them as there are visible lifestyles: your brown paper, your mixed paper, your cups without lids, your plastics.

There's an early lineup at Milan Djordjevich's Stoney Paradise organic tomato booth, but there often is: The season is two weeks late, and this is the famous Tomato Man's first day at market. His tomato manifesto (which contains the word gemeinschaft) leans against his stall: "Tomatoes should be ripened on the vine, outside," is one of its points.

An architect by training, Mr. Djordjevich helped instigate the heirloom-tomato phenomenon 15 years ago. (He now thinks "the whole heirloom thing has been perverted" by mass producers.)

Usually he rations his coveted Sungold cherry tomatoes to as many customers as he can serve. "But today, because it was my first day, and I had all this performance anxiety, I panicked. Because they have all these new farmers and they've all got tomatoes."

Still, he absorbs the day's failure with his characteristic good humour.

THE SPIRIT IS MILLING

Farther down one side of stalls, Mark Wilkes and Chris Hergesheimer share another booth. They're in their mid-30s, and are both cutting-edge entrepreneurs in the sustainable-food movement.

Born in New Brunswick, trained as a chef in Prince Edward Island and once employed at Al Fresco's, a zany Toronto tourist joint, Mr. Wilkes, like a growing number of B.C. chefs, has returned to the land.

He now spends his weekends behind a pile of matte-green sea asparagus, which he harvests at low tide from the banks of a Sunshine Coast inlet with scissors and a pillow case (he can collect 10 pounds an hour, when the snipping is easy). He's now selling it - it's delicious steamed or sautéed - for a buck an ounce.

He calls himself a "wildcrafter" and an herbalist, but his latest project is a mushroom-fuelled soil farm: He foresees a killing next summer selling the finest topsoil at $20 per square foot. He and his wife and two kids live in a yurt.

Mr. Hergesheimer wears a choker of round brown beans. He's a small-scale organic miller, a proponent of "the local-grain movement," the latest effort to bring food production closer to home and secure it against the uncertainties of supply and weather.

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