George Tsioros—proprietor of the Olympic Food and Cheese Mart in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market—can tell you the story of his life in a sentence, which is a small miracle of brevity when you consider that he was born in Greece, that he is now 64 years old, that he has run his own business since age 18 and that he has more than 600 different cheeses packed into his 75-square-metre (800-square-foot) shop, some of which sell for $100 a kilogram. “I came to Canada when I was 16,” he says. “I got off the boat in Montreal, caught a train to Toronto, went to the home of my sister and brother-in-law, and the next day I was in the market.”
That was on Nov. 22, 1960, and he’s been there ever since. His sister and her husband owned a meat store, and the teenaged Tsioros worked part time for them, took English as a second language at night school and saved his money. In 1962, he opened his cheese shop, which, by his reckoning, makes him the longest-standing merchant in the market. “I like the product,” Tsioros says. “It’s clean, healthy food. I enjoy serving people. I love my job.”
During his 48 years at the market, Tsioros has seen many merchants come and go. He has seen consumer tastes change and he has witnessed a remarkable transformation in the market itself, which has operated in one form or another at the same location since 1803.
The St. Lawrence Market was in a period of decline when Tsioros arrived. Toronto consumers, flush with the first wave of postwar prosperity, were abandoning the aged venue with its live chickens, geese and ducks, its noise and odours. Instead, they were flocking to the immaculate, new suburban supermarkets with air-conditioned interiors, wide aisles, slickly packaged goods and plenty of free parking out front.
In the late 1960s, when whole blocks of historic buildings were being razed to make way for the sleek glass and steel office towers that now dominate the Toronto skyline, the market was nearly demolished under a redevelopment scheme. The city-owned South Market property—located in the heart of downtown on Front Street, three blocks east of Yonge—was prime real estate.
But a pro-preservation faction of councillors, backed by conservation-minded citizens, objected vociferously. They convinced council to approve a facelift. Among other things, the old lead roof was replaced with aluminum, wooden floors were lifted and concrete poured, and the retail spaces were rearranged and updated. By the end of the 1970s, a rejuvenated St. Lawrence Market had emerged and, coincidentally, a new neighbourhood was rising around it.
The warehouses and industrial buildings that had surrounded the market for generations were being torn down and replaced by low-rise housing units, while hip, young merchants were refurbishing the frayed and faded retail spaces on Front Street. The market had a clientele at its doorstep. But it also enjoyed much broader support. It was a fit with the new Toronto that had emerged by the end of the 1970s—a city that had shed its old WASPish, British ways to become a colourful, multicultural tapestry woven from the peoples of many lands. “The market has seeped into the consciousness of the last two generations of Torontonians,” says David Crombie, the former Progressive Conservative federal cabinet minister who was mayor of the city from 1972 to 1978. “The rediscovery of its past has given it strength for the future.”
Crombie is a regular patron and so is another ex-mayor, John Sewell, who played a pivotal role in the preservation of the market. Sewell tries to go once a week, usually on Saturday mornings. The doors open at 5 a.m. and by the time they close 12 hours later, crowds of 15,000 to 20,000 have usually made their way through the 10,200-square-metre (110,000-square-foot) building, or visited the 930-square-metre (10,000-square-foot), Saturday-only farmers’ market located across the street. “I go for the fresh, local food,” says Sewell. “You can always get good meat. There’s a great apple seller. Another couple sells very good fresh eggs. The choice is extraordinary.”
The market is closed Sunday and Monday and, during the week opens at 8 a.m. On a recent June morning, the day begins quietly. A few people stroll in, mostly to buy coffee and muffins on their way to work. Merchants in white frock coats, hair nets and ball caps exchange banter with each other as they stock their display spaces. The big building has an air of calm about it, and walking its nearly deserted aisles is a pleasant, though at times almost overwhelming, sensory experience.
There are only 70 stores in the market, located on the ground floor and in the basement, but they stock enough food to feed an army, or perhaps a small city. A shopper can find meats of every sort—beef, pork, lamb, goat—and every cut. There’s fresh seafood on ice—whole fish, sides and filets, as well as shrimps, scallops and crab—and live lobsters in tanks. There are fruits and vegetables and a remarkable variety of specialty retailers.
A Bisket A Basket sells sweet and savoury condiments, including jellies, relishes, chutneys, pestos, marmalades and 36 different types of jam. Kozlik’s offers more than 30 varieties of mustard—Amazing Maple, Lime and Honey, and Old Smokey, to name a few—and they’re all made in Canada. Uncle George’s Place is known as Home of the Living Food and boasts the largest selection of certified organic sprouts in Toronto. George’s chilled, well-lit display spaces are crammed with greens that are, in fact, growing—recently germinated broccoli, red cabbage, sunflower, wheatgrass and some 25 other types of plants.
Some of the merchants are as colourful as the foods they sell. Rubin Marcus bills himself as the Rice Man and he occupies a small space—Rube’s Rice—in the back corner of the basement. Slender and gaunt, Marcus is 87 years old and arrives at 6 a.m. daily, though he keeps a cot and a sleeping bag in a storeroom in case he needs a nap. He was an electrician most of his life, but liked to sell things on the side. The native Torontonian sold peanuts outside a racetrack on Dufferin Street, in the west end, as a kid. Looking for something to do when he retired, he pleaded with city officials to lease him space in the South Market, and they finally relented.
Marcus began with beans, flour, whole grains and a small selection of rice, but the latter soon became the principal product line. He stocks close to 50 varieties, with names like calrose sticky, organic sweet and aged basmati. Rube’s wild rice, which grows some 600 to 800 kilometres north of Regina, is black, swells to four times its size when cooked and retails for $29.79 a kilo. By comparison, jade pearl—a green rice from China with the aroma of a bamboo forest when cooked and a light vanilla taste—retails for $19.80 a kilo.
There is something for almost every part of the palate at the St. Lawrence Market, including sweets. Eve’s Temptation is a 23-square-metre (245-square-foot) store just around the corner from Marcus’s shop. Owner Peter Panutsu specializes in cakes, pies and pastries, which he purchases from high-end bakeries in and around the city. The 36-year-old Panutsu, a Greek immigrant and former hospital manager, acquired a love of desserts from his family. Four years ago, he tired of working in a corporate environment and decided to pursue something he knew and cared about. “I’ve always had a craving for desserts,” he says. “I have a passion for them. I was sampling on a daily basis. That’s where my money was going.”
Bruce Bell’s day at the market begins at 10 a.m. He’s the official historian and earns his living, in part, by leading tours of the facility. On this particular occasion he has one visitor, Alison McGregor, a pharmaceutical executive from Nottingham, England, who is in the city on business. She finished up early and chose to spend her day off at the market because a friend from home had recommended it. Bell is energetic and enthusiastic, and as passionate about the history of the place as some of the vendors are about their food.
He explains that, for the first three decades, it was known simply as the Public Marketplace and operated only on Saturdays. It became the St. Lawrence Market in 1834, the year that the colonial village of York was renamed Toronto. Ten years later, Toronto’s second city hall was built across the street from the public market place and remained in use until 1899, when council decided the rapidly growing municipality needed a bigger, better civic headquarters and a more appropriate market.
The council hired an architect named John Siddall, who came up with a striking plan for the new market building. He had the wings of the city hall demolished and the cupola removed from the centre block, then incorporated the stripped-down core into his own design. Using Victoria Station in London, England, as his model, Siddall created a brick-and-metal structure with a soaring, arched roof supported by buttresses built into the walls. The footprint of this edifice occupied nearly nine acres and the interior was one vast, open space, completely free of pillars or posts. Not only that, he designed an identical building across the street—the North Market—and the two were linked by a canopy that spanned the thoroughfare. “This was a real ooh and ahhh place,” says Bell. “It was three city blocks long and as modern as you could get. It was the Eaton Centre of its day.”
The canopy was torn down in 1954 and the old North Market went in 1966 (it was later replaced by the current North Market building which opened in 1967). The 19th-century South Market, which still stands today, was slated to be demolished and replaced with a new CBC broadcast centre, Bell says, until Crombie’s council designated it an historic building.
Bell spins the story of the market while rambling up and down the aisles, occasionally interrupting his narrative to stop at various stores so his guests can sample the goods. One such break occurs at Honey World, whose owner, Oleg Konashenkov, a 44-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, is only too happy to oblige. Konashenkov, a mechanical engineer and amateur beekeeper in his homeland, stocks dozens of varieties of honey, all flavoured by the types of flowers the bees feed on.
He imports some of his products from Provence, Spain and Tasmania, but most arrive from New Zealand. As Konashenkov explains, New Zealand is reputed to produce the purest honey in the world. Its temperate climate and isolated location mean its apiaries are free of typical pests and do not require spraying. “I love honey,” he says as he hands out one sample after another on short, straw-like tubes. “I always sample with my customers. It’s my main food. I go through a jar a day, especially on Saturdays.”
It is late morning by the time Bell’s tour is finished, and the market is much busier than it was when the doors opened. There are school kids on class trips, shoppers in from the surrounding neighbourhood and elderly women who have come from other parts of the city. The luncheon crowd from nearby office towers is also beginning to arrive and lineups are starting to form at the quick-serve counters.
One of the longest is at the Carousel Bakery, which is renowned for its peameal bacon sandwich. Robert Biancolin, 52, and his 61-year-old brother Maurice, co-owners of the Carousel, are second-generation St. Lawrence merchants. Their father Elso, a butcher, began working at the market in 1953. He eventually became a partner in one of the meat shops and the two boys spent a lot of time there as youngsters. “I started coming down here to help my father when I was 10 years old,” recalls Robert.
His father’s partnership eventually ended and Robert stuck around to help him run the business on his own. After the refurbishing of the market in the late 1970s, the Carousel came up for sale, Robert acquired it and his older brother later joined him. During the week, lunch accounts for most of their sales. On Saturdays, sales of bread and rolls go up—on weekends, the brothers stock 300 different types, which they buy from Jewish, Italian, Portuguese and other bakers throughout the city.
Over the years, they’ve seen a lot of famous faces at the market and they count many prominent Torontonians among their customers. Robert remembers the late Robert Stanfield campaigning in the building in the early 1970s when he was national leader of the Progressive Conservatives. He sees the former mayors, Crombie and Sewell, on a regular basis, and defence lawyer Eddie Greenspan comes by occasionally. “We get a lot of tourists,” Robert adds. And there’s a good reason for that: “A market is one of the best places to go to find out what makes a city tick.”
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