I often tell people that living near and shopping regularly for food at Granville Island has ‘changed my life’. It’s true, and I thought I’d spend a little time trying to explain how and why.
First of all, it’s changed the food that I buy. I rarely get food that comes in a box or is pre-processed, and get mostly fresh meat and vegetables. The things I do buy that are cooked or prepared include sausages and other meats and patÃ© from Oyama Sausage company, soup from the Stock Market soup kitchen, the occasional pie (dessert or entree) from Ã€ la Mode, and bread from any of the 3 bakeries (French — La Baguette & L’Echalote, Artisanal — Terra Breads, or English/North American — Stewarts). I try to buy what’s in season (although that can be hard in January or February), and look forward to certain months when I know something will be appearing and gradually (or swiftly) going down in price. We are about to hit the summer fruit season, and I love seeing the arrival of peaches, apricots, plums and blueberries. Because of this, I’ve learned which vendors have the best of each variety of fruit, vegetable or meat. While I do get some organic vegetables (onions and potatoes), I also try to buy things that are grown locally. Again, this makes the winter months a time when I have to compromise a bit, but most of the year it’s quite possible.
We are very lucky in that we live a short walk from the market, and I quite frankly can’t imagine living farther away from it. The fact that we walk there and carry our groceries back adds just a little bit of exercise (or at least the excuse to go outside and get some air, even if the weather is rainy or simply dreary.) For the vast majority of visitors to Granville Island, the market is a curiosity, a kind of living museum of the way people used to shop for food (and still do in many other countries outside of North America). I’m always amused to see someone taking a photograph of a stack of cherries or strawberries (although they are pretty); They’re getting a snapshot of my grocery store, and in a few cases where they flood the aisle and are oblivious to the rest of us, I wish they’d just get out of the way and let me get on my shopping. That doesn’t happen too often, but some days, when a tourist bus lets off, the market has to walk the thin line between attraction and grocery store.
I shop at the market often, and nearly always bring a sack. Since I’m there so much, I’m recognized by nearly all of the merchants, and am on a first name basis with several of them. I’ve also learned about their families, heard some stories, found out their likes and dislikes, and think of them as people, not just someone at a cash register. I’m impressed with the close-knit families who work in the Market, and am often been cheered up (or calmed down) by simply entering the market, especially when it’s not crowded with tourists, which unlike a Supermarket, is not lit solely by fluorescents. (I should add that on Foursquare, the social media ‘game’, I’m the mayor of Granville Island Market, and have yet to be replaced by someone who checks-in there more.)
Speaking of Supermarkets, I do go to Costco about once every 2 months or so for a few items (olive oil, paper goods, maple syrup), and also go to an organic grocer on Broadway (who used to be the Dan-De-Pak home office, or so it seemed) for rice, the odd box of breakfast cereal or crackers, etc.) I always feel kind of disappointed and maybe even a little depressed when I walk into a cavernous Safeway, IGA or Save-On Foods, all lit by those fluorescent lights, and very cold from the frozen aisles.
Back to the Granville Market: In addition to the people, the food and the light, there are the smells. I can nearly navigate the market by my nose. In the fish market, I can smell the brine of today’s catch. There’s frequently the aroma of freshly baked bread by the bakeries (and La Baguette has that marvelous yeasty smell of pain de mie nearly all of the time). The food court (which I must confess, I sometimes go to first, in order to eat before I shop, which helps stop larger purchases made when hungry), there are areas where you smell pizza, curry, or falafel. In several spots in the building, the smell of coffee and tea wafts out into the aisle, and you can understand why there’s such a line at J J Bean.
In the summer, there is the extra treat of Thursdays, particularly in the morning, when local farmers truck in their produce, and sell some of it outside, next to the Market. In recent years, some farmers have specialized in Heirloom Tomatoes, and I’ve actually tasted celery (yes, celery!) that is actually mind-blowingly sweet and tasty. Some of the farmers stay all day, but most of them are there mainly in the morning, so Thursdays are particularly good to get early and get the best produce.
I’ve discovered new fruits and vegetables at the market. We’ve tried Stinging Nettles as a side dish, and boiled down elderberries into syrup. I’ve cooked sour cherry soup, and after our trip to Southeast Asia, have made Ataulfo Mangoes (Manila Honey Mangoes), Dragonfruit, Rambutans, Longans, Lychees, Pomleos and Passionfruits a treat for breakfast or dessert. Nearly all are available (although not cheaply most of the time) at the market. I’ve frequented the Asian Food specialty shop in the market, The South China Seas Trading Company, where I’ve finally learned to appreciate the finer points of coconut milk, fresh tamarind, little red chiles, lemongrass, galangal, and even fish sauce. I’m thrilled to have found great fish that is cheap (Rockfish — big, red, and ugly, but they’ll filet it for you for free, so you have a lovely, firm white flesh for curry or soup), and am surprised at how good the turkey is. I’ve cheated a little, and gotten pre-marinated Maui Ribs, as well as Cornish Game Hens, and one of these days this summer we’ll make a Caribbean Goat stew with the fresh goat meat we sometimes see them cart in. The spot prawns are in this week, and every year I look for fiddlehead ferns (in the Spring) and Okanagan pears (in the Autumn).
All in all, Granville Market has expanded my diet, made me more in tune with the passage of the seasons, lowered my blood pressure (at least when I’m visiting, I think), and provided me with a sense of connection to my food with the people who grow it and sell it. It’s helped me learn to cook new and more complicated dishes, and also let me off the hook when I’m stumped and just get a homemade turkey pie or soup. I feel as if I’m richer and my life is healthier and fuller with the market in it, which is about the most one can say about any activity, especially one as mundane as food shopping.