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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

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.

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.

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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."

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


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.

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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.

He named his business because one of his mills is powered by a bike he pedals himself. He has degrees in anthropology and sociology, and sells flour for $6 a kilogram.

"I think food has always been connected to community," he says, making change on a bag of rolled oats. "And this is people scratching and searching for community through their food interactions. I think people are realizing that good food comes from your neighbours, from your friends. It costs more, but it's better value.

"When you sit down at the table and you know where every single piece of that meal comes from; and you even know the farmer, may have shaken his hand; and you may have cooked it, with friends? I'll pay for that."

At the end of their row of stalls, Bruno Dehier is cooking crepes out of a converted 1950s camper-trailer called Crêperie La Bohème. Born in southwest France and trained as a chef in Paris, Mr. Dehier lives quietly and happily in the B.C. interior. But for the past four years he has been making crepes on the weekends at the Trout Lake market.

I order a Lebanese buckwheat savoury crepe of hummus, ricotta, red cabbage, pesto, onions and tzatziki that makes me want to shake his hand; I augment it with a massive sweet-crepe packet of giant blueberries, lemon juice and lemon-honey ricotta cheese that makes me want to dance a spinning jig.

I inhale them both without moving, next to the tiny pink trailer. One of the best meals of my cross-country tour, (sticky) hands down.

People sometimes ask Mr. Dehier if he wants to franchise his crepe operation, his wife, Paola, tells me, but he always declines.

"Because inevitably you lose control and the quality declines. It becomes more of a managerial job." That was never the point for any of these people.


There are other kinds of markets in Vancouver, and they have different values. Twelve hours earlier, to the suburban south of Vancouver in Richmond, where 60 per cent of the population is Asian, the night market is well under way - two long rows of tiny steaming stalls selling cooked food to 25,000 young, wandering, ravenous patrons every Friday and Saturday night from May to December.

And that's just the section of the 10-acre market that sells food. Next to the serenity of Trout Lake, the night market is the food equivalent of crack. Everything's for sale, most of it on skewers, and if it's organic, I'm the tooth fairy.

You can buy Chinese videos and a Bluetooth headset ($9.99) to the shouts of touts pitching halal meat and Hong Kong egg-puff waffles and barbecued pork and beef and chicken (and chicken gizzards and marinated pig intestines.) The vendors pay $130 a night for a booth. A good operator can pull in $1,500.

The "king" of the night market at the moment, as manager David Lo calls him, is the Hurricane Potato guy. The Hurricane Potato man has devised a way to spiral-slice a potato, thread it on a skewer, dust it with sour cream and barbecue flavours (don't ask), and deep-fry it. At $3 apiece, or two for $5, he makes $3,500 a night.

Ian Brown eats Canada

Mr. Lo is cut like a weightlifter, but he's had to hire security guards to maintain peace in the Hurricane line.

The skewer is the secret. "It's an Asian market," says Mollie Small, another vendor. "It has to be on a stick. They do not like to handle things with their fingers."

Ms. Small tried to sell mini-doughnuts, unsuccessfully, until she started serving them on skewers. She now unloads 300 bags of the little heart-stoppers at $4 per, plus 70 orders of deep-fried Oreos. (Elvis lives, but as an Asian.)

You can buy Japanese pizza and Chinese roasted dry squid and Vietnamese jellied water chestnuts and Korean bulgogi, but you can also taste sumo burgers (mushroom burgers with sushi rice as buns, for the gluten intolerant) and rollies (rice wrappers filled with jam and deep fried) and roasted corn (15 flavours, including cinnamon sugar, a Jamaican favourite). About one in five of the customers seem to be Caucasian.

"A lot of it is how you present," David Lo says. "You have to put the food out front, so people can put their money down and put it in their mouths. It's vital. If you have to wait, it doesn't work as well. It's a visual thing." Marketing is the real king.

His phone rings. He answers it, listens as he eyes a passing beauty, makes another call to his on-site electrician. "Can you go to the Mini Melt?" he says into the receiver, processing the moment as he walks. "Power's down."


Jory Simkin and Jason Apple choose to park their new, $150,000 Roaming Dragon food truck at the Trout Lake market for the first time today. Unlike with all the other sellers, strangers can tell which operation they are with by the brand-new, bright-red Roaming Dragon jackets they're wearing. Mr. Simkin and Mr. Apple, both in their early 30s, are the principals of Gourmet Syndicate, a company that teams with chefs to disseminate their dishes beyond their restaurants.

The Roaming Dragon truck is their first venture, with Don Letendre, former executive chef of Elixir at the Opus Hotel, as their consultant. "Basically the idea was to bring gourmet quality foods to the people in community places," Mr. Apple explains. They first spotted the idea in Los Angeles, which boasts a gourmet Grilled Cheese Truck and a Buttermilk Truck (red velvet pancakes).

The Roaming Dragon roller is to a standard Asian food truck as a Rolex is to a watch. Drinking Roaming Dragon's lychee lemonade is like getting a new, fresher head. Their Asian duck confit sports watercress, mint, cilantro, bok choy and a lemon-soy dressing topped with winter melon, pickled pineapple and toasted cashews. And their bestselling pork sliders are good - not in the league of Chef Dehier's crepes or Hannah Farm's greens, but they'll still sell like $2 back rubs.

Mr. Simkin and Mr. Apple are a new breed at Trout Lake because they're marketers, not producers or growers. Mr. Simkin's family once owned every Tony Roma franchise in Canada; he's a financial planner and human-resources consultant. Mr. Apple has been selling street food (popcorn) since he was 14 and recently devised computer sampling programs for pollster Angus Reid.

Thanks to city council's desire to improve Vancouver street food, Roaming Dragon now leases half a licensed vending location on Kitsilano Beach from a guy who does chocolate-dipped bananas. "That's daytime," Mr. Apple says. "We said, 'Well, we're nighttime.'" It's a good fit.

If the Dragon venture works, the pair plans to partner with other well-known chefs as well as up-and-comers who want to test their new food concepts in different neighbourhoods. A high-end food truck is a roving focus group.

"Plus it's a 25-foot billboard," Mr. Simkin points out, looking up at his new creation. "And if a chef's idea doesn't work, then you can change the skin on the truck, and have a new company."

Will the foodie purists at the Trout Lake market take to the super-branded truck? It's a credit to Mr. Healey and Mr. Wilkes that they have no problem with the new venture, slick as it is.

"We like to call that value-added, rather than capitalistic," Mr. Hergesheimer says. He says it hopefully.

Where should Ian eat next?

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