Voluptuous heirloom tomatoes. Aromatic alpine strawberries. Raisin-spiked orange scones, still warm… With today’s farm-to-table zeitgeist , the local farmers’ market is a chef’s best pantry. So, it seemed only natural for Taste to launch a new monthly series looking at the best markets around the world through the eyes (and tastebuds) of our Four Seasons chefs. First up: Vancouver, British Columbia.
Because of the mild-for-Canada weather and residents’ nonchalant attitude about rain, markets go all year long. “Vancouverites are pretty interested in where their food comes from, who fishes it and grows it,” says Ned Bell, executive chef at Four Seasons Hotel Vancouver and its YEW seafood restaurant. “Out here, we live in our oceans and on our farmers’ fields — we’re used to being surrounded by it.”
With his sidekick in tow, three-year-old son, Max, Chef Bell rarely misses a Saturday market. It’s where he builds relationships with farmers and fishermen, meets up with friends and shows Max that the norm for good isn’t shrink-wrapped produce under fluorescent lights. Their mainstays are the summertime Trout Lake Farmers Market (Saturdays) and Kitsilano Farmers Market (Sundays). But chef’s favourite is the Vancouver’s Winter Farmers Market at Nat Bailey Stadium. It’s surprisingly large and buzzing with activity — even when it’s wet outside. The aroma of spicy chili wafts from a converted army water station, mingling with the smell of sizzling sausages and cinnamony-apples.
“It’s a bit of a social gathering,” says Bell. “There’s a farmer to chef to customer thing you don’t get anywhere else. I can see my close friends, cooks, some of my customers and some of my farmers. It’s a ‘perfect storm’ of people I spend my life cooking with, cooking for and pleasing. Plus, it’s like an outdoor restaurant with 30 different food trucks.”
But it’s more than shopping for vegetables, he says. It’s about the seasonal things you can’t pick up in grocery stores: cheese from Salt Spring Island and Chilliwack, fresh eggs, homemade pickles and cider, Ocean Wise seafood. His is the first first luxe hotel in Canada to be 100 percent Ocean Wise. Every day Chef Bell puts on a “Day Boat” feature. Today’s fresh catch, for example, is halibut. And he’s just whipped up a lunch of moist, sweet-salty Albacore tuna (he cans his own) on a fluffy Challah bun with lip-tingling zip from chilli-mayo and crunch via sweet pepper, celery hearts and watercress. Coming this month: local spot prawns. All seafood garnishes come from area vendors. Depending on the season, 15 percent of Bell’s total budget is locally sourced; in summer, it’s 30 percent. (The numbers would be higher if farmers could meet the high demand.)
Vancouver farmers’ markets have more than doubled in popularity recently, says Bell. “It’s not realistic to buy all groceries there,” he says. “I get that. But, there’s no reason you can’t take a Sunday morning, buy local ingredients and cook a special meal for your family to look forward to. How about a meal with a story?” Speaking of which, don’t miss Chef Bell’s delicious and healthy Wild Salmon Salad with Pickled Blueberries.
When to go: To get the best goods, show up as early as possible (read: before 10 a.m.). Chef Bell says the busiest times are between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. “I like to get there for Pure Bread from Whistler, but it has the largest line-up for baked goods and sells out early!”
What to bring: “Cash is king. Bring your own bags, if you can, plus a refillable coffee mug, your camera, and a sketchbook if you’re feeling artistically inclined. Wear comfy clothes and expect to stay a while,” advises Chef Bell.
What to look for: “Farmhouse Cheddar . Anything organic from Fiore Farms because it’s the best. Anything from Hannah Brook Farm. Chris Brown’s Rise Artisan Bakery is my favourite — I’m addicted to his bread. David Woods’ goat cheese from Salt Spring Island, decorated with edible flowers. Pork from Jerry and his kids at Gelderman Farms; he grows blueberries and has the happiest pigs around. Also, Yolks is a new food truck with egg sandwiches and dishes.”
What to snack on: “A crepe! La Bohème Crêperie is an old-style food cart run by a French family — easily the busiest. He’s an ex-chef, and his daughter makes crepes with him. The fruit changes with the season. Now it’s rhubarb, apple and ricotta with drizzled honey or maple syrup. Soon it’ll be blueberry, raspberry, apricot… They really are extraordinary.” –Michelle Pentz Glave
Photos Courtesy of Shingo Kido