City Bites

OPENING: The Parkdale Field House, a farmer-driven local food boutique

While I live in close proximity to the Parkdale Market, I confess, I rarely do any significant food shopping there. In past years, I have been disappointed with the quality of the produce sold there and disillusioned to discover that only a tiny fraction of what’s available is locally grown. In other words, overwhelmingly, it has been the same sad fruits and veggies I find at the supermarket.

Beyond the food, my interest in shopping at farmers’ markets has to do with the intangible character or vibe of the place. I’ve visited dozens of different markets in different countries and I am always swept up in the energy that markets seem to create. Whenever I travel, I make sure a visit to the local farmers’ market is one of the first stops on my itinerary. It’s the fastest and easiest way to get to the heart and soul of a place. And it’s often a good bet when seeking something good to eat.

Lately I’ve been thinking about what Ottawa’s farmers markets say about us. And that’s why I was so delighted to learn that some serious investment has been made to improve both of these critical aspects — food and vibe — at the Parkdale Market for 2011. This market is the geographic hub for Hintonburg and West Wellington neighbourhoods and it seems to cry out to become a truly great public space in which these communities can gather, linger and shop.

The first step in this direction has been the impressive $1.2 million makeover of the area, which includes the children’s park and the so-called Field House, which has gone from eyesore to an impressive and playful piece of architecture. Then there’s the addition of (gasp!) public washrooms. Apparently these are the first major renovations the Parkdale Market has seen since it opened in 1924.

So what’s going into the Field House besides a trail of potty-trained toddlers from the adjacent playground and wading pool?

Neighbourhood foodies will be falling over themselves when they discover the new tenants who have set up shop at the back of the newly-reno’d building: an innovative co-op of local farmers and food producers who have come together to create a one-of-a-kind indoor/outdoor all-local food market. It’s a pilot project with the potential to function year-round, supported by the City in connection with the buy-local organization, Savour Ottawa.

According to Stuart Collins, of Bryson Farms, who is positively thrilled to be part of the group of 10 food producers involved so far, they see this as a project that could serve as a model for the whole province, and possibly the country. “It’s a very unique arrangement,” he says. “The farmers run the retail operation together and have to commit to spending time here as sellers on a rotating basis.”

The shop is tiny, perhaps 400 square feet, but there are large refrigerators and freezers, and plenty of room to spill out onto the sidewalk with fresh goodies. It is also equipped with the necessary sinks and handwashing stations required to bring chefs in on weekends to prepare dishes featuring the fresh ingredients and offer tastings and samplings on-site.

It’s all part of the plan to entice customers to see this as a new way to shop for groceries — the locavore way. “People can come in to plan their dinner and everything’s here,” says participating producer Fred Bruinsma of Dusty Lanes Farm.

The producers involved in the project so far are: Bryson Farms (vegetables), Le Coprin (mushrooms), Halsall (honey), Fromagerie les Folies Bergères (sheep, cow, and goat’s milk cheeses), Hall’s Apple Market (apples and cider), Stanley’s Olde Maple Lane (maple syrup), Trillium Meadows (red deer and wild boar), Beking’s (eggs), Acer Farms (hormone- and antibiotic-free Red Angus beef), and Dusty Lane Farms (hormone-free lamb).

The Parkdale Field House will be open Thursdays through Sundays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.