Farmers’ markets are a summer and fall staple of community life. The sights and smells of local foods and products sold by the people who grew, raised, or crafted them are sadly harder to find when temperatures drop and the ground is covered with snow and slush. Fortunately in Ottawa, there is the Winter Market version of the Ottawa Farmers’ Market. It made its 2016 debut Sunday in the historic Aberdeen Pavilion at Lansdowne Park.
There could not be a better location for an indoor farmers’ market than the Aberdeen Pavilion. Named after then Governor-General Lord Aberdeen (the Governor-General in Canada serves as the representative of the Queen/King), it was built in 1898 for use by the Central Canada Exhibition, Ottawa’s now defunct fair.
Nicknamed the Cattle Castle, the building is the last example in Canada of the great exhibition halls of the Victorian era. Its floor was also used as an indoor ice rink in 1904, and served as the location for that year’s Stanley Cup playoffs involving teams that predated the National Hockey League and today’s Ottawa Senators. Infantry regiments of the Canadian Army used it as their base during both world wars. The connection between history and the simple goodness of farm-raised food and artisan goods is an endearing combination.
Just like a stock exchange, the Winter Market day begins and ends with a bell—in this case it’s an old hand bell once used at a long-closed one-room schoolhouse near North Gower, a village south of the city.
The Winter Market is not a tourist attraction, but tourists are of course welcome. It’s a place where local producers sell their products to local people. Steph Kittmer, one of the market managers says 50 regular vendors take part each Sunday. Most are family farms or small businesses from throughout eastern Ontario and western Quebec.
There are orchards from Brockville and Morrisburg selling apples and cider, maple sugar farms, artisan bakers, soap makers, and even a hot sauce manufacturer. There’s beef and pork raised the old fashioned way where the cattle and pigs actually get to forage outdoors, along with more exotic game meats. Everyone is friendly, from the vendors to other customers. Good things bring out the good in people. The mood is set by a couple of musicians playing folk and country tunes.
I quickly discovered the winter market is as much a place for eating as it is for shopping. It was lunchtime, and while scouting out the options ranging from authentic English pasties through baked potatoes to Korean kimchi noodles, I found Rodney Wright, a 16-year-old high school student from Metcalfe, another small village south of Ottawa.
Rodney is building his college fund, one sandwich at a time. He makes gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches with products from Castor River Farm, his family’s all organic, biodynamic farm. Rodney is saving money to hopefully study Industrial Design at Carleton University. The only non-farm product in the sandwiches is the cheese, and it comes from the popular St. Albert Cooperative located east of Ottawa. The bread is made from flour ground from wheat grown on the farm, and the bacon from pigs raised in its pastures. Farm-produced butter, onions, eggs, arugula, and tomatoes are used too.
Rodney chats to customers while sandwiches cook on his portable gas grill. To keep the sandwiches flat, he sets old irons on top of them while they cook. The end result is a grilled cheese sandwich that puts anything using white supermarket bread and processed cheese slices to utter shame.
A trip to the Winter Market is a reminder that nature still brings good food, and good people who take special care and pride in how they grow and make that food, during the season when gardens are dormant. For the customer, there’s great value in establishing a relationship with where the food came from and who made it happen. For former small-town and rural folks transplanted to the city, an indoor farmers’ market on a miserable January day is a way to reconnect with a sense of comfortable community and the bounty of things raised and grown outdoors.
The Winter Market runs from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm each Sunday. For more information on vendors, directions, and parking, go to http://ottawafarmersmarket.ca/lansdowne-park-ottawa/