By rights, the Green Barn farmers' market in the Wychwood area should have been a disaster. It opened in late November, just as Ontario farmers were pulling the last of the carrots and beets out of the ground. Even worse, it opened just as everybody was tightening their belts, buying up Hamburger Helper and getting ready to settle into a long, cold recession.
With people spending much less on their groceries, you would expect them to stop shopping at farmers' markets, which are notoriously hard on the wallet, no matter how good they might be for your carbon footprint.
And yet. That first Saturday at the Green Barns was packed with vendors, who offered a surprising number of foods, from artisanal breads and pastured meats, to root vegetables and some of the nicest mushrooms. There were so many shoppers you could barely see the floor. People had to go wherever the mob carried them - more luck to you if you landed in front of Dawn Woodward's cracker table to sample her handmade baked goods.
While most crackers are simply a vehicle for salt or cheese, Ms. Woodward's crackers taste of the sweet, nutty grains themselves. Partly that's a testament to her craftsmanship, and partly it's a testament to the quality of Ontario's artisanal flours, which offer far more flavour and texture (and nutrition) than a sack of all-purpose from the grocery store.
Ms. Woodward, an award-winning American breadmaker, first came to Toronto as a consultant for Ace Bakery in the late 1990s. Ten years later, she decided to move here with her husband, Edmund Rek, and their young daughter, Evelyn. "We wanted to be part of a thriving local food scene," she explains. She chooses to work with organic, non-genetically modified grains for environmental and political reasons as much as for the taste.
Hers is a true family business: Ms. Woodward does the baking; her husband does packaging and sales (the crackers are sold at many gourmet shops around the city) and their two-year-old gave her name to the enterprise: Evelyn's Crackers.
As you nibble on samples of sweet pecan crackers - or maybe a spiced barley crisp or a hot-sweet dal-and-coconut stick inspired by Ms. Woodward's many years of travelling - you might find yourself asking about the sacks of Red Fife flour for sale at the edge of the table, just one of the many local artisanal flours she uses in her cracker recipes.
"It's my favourite flour," Ms. Woodward says. Milled into whole-wheat flour, Red Fife is sweet and doesn't have the aftertaste of many whole wheats. One of the original wheats that fed Canada (and an ancestor to many hybrids planted today), Red Fife is an heirloom variety that nearly disappeared from commercial production in the 1980s. Jamie Kennedy, who bakes many of his café breads with the flour, had to travel all the way to Italy to discover it at a slow-food symposium, even though its birthplace was less than 160 kilometres from his farm in Prince Edward County.
Ms. Woodward's enthusiasm might inspire you to start making your own bread. Even my five-year-old daughter notices the difference that Red Fife flour makes in our baking, and asks if we can use "the special flour" when we're making one of her favourite foods, focaccia. And although it costs more than the sacks at No Frills, I'm saving money by actually making my own bread.
I would like to think that's one reason the farmers' markets continue to be popular as we head into a recession. Instead of reaching for cheaper processed foods (no-name crackers, airy "accordion" bread), it's a chance for us to try making our own foods from scratch.
Baking bread was one of the ways my mother used to help make ends meet in the 1970s. I used to think she was crazy to do it, but now I'm not so sure: When it costs $8 or even more for a truly artisanal loaf, making your own bread no longer seems quite so Pollyanna-ish. It's just good sense, if you want to save money. And there's a reason people bake bread when they are trying to sell houses (or groceries): Fresh homemade bread is irresistibly good.
Insatiable appears every other Saturday in Globe T.O.