Saturday, January 10, 2015

Some of my favourite downtown things...Part One

Regular readers of this space know I often veer off the arts beat with great regularity to cover topics that strike me one way or another, and this week will be no exception.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the importance of shopping local, and especially shopping in downtown St. Catharines, where I have made my home for many years.  While a lot of favourite merchants and dining establishments downtown have come and gone over the years - Coy Brothers, The New Deli; Downtown Fine Music and Diana Sweets among them - new businesses come along and we start a new love affair all over again.

This thought struck me while I spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon Christmas shopping downtown last month, and I resolved to highlight some of my favourite downtown merchants and dining establishments in this space about once a month over the course of this year.  I'm calling the series "Some of my favourite downtown things" and we'll begin this week with one of my all-time favourite downtown things that predates just about every other business in our city core.

The St. Catharines Farmer's Market began in the 19th-century when roads were nothing more than muddy paths and sidewalks - if there were any at all - were wood planks lined up in the mud.  Over time it has grown to become one of the oldest and largest markets in the Region, if not the province, and is easily one of the friendliest places in all of St. Catharines.

Much has changed over the years, including sharing space with St. Catharines Transit as part of a rudimentary downtown bus terminal many years ago to an open-air affair with little protection from the elements from a canopy back in the 80s to the modern-day, enclosed and heated market area we enjoy today.  Through it all, the location hasn't changed much, nor has the mix of vendors from all over the Region who would converge three days a week to sell their wares to an appreciative public.

While most of the products are locally gown or made, you should be careful as is the case at most markets, to be sure the produce you are buying is indeed locally sourced.  The best way to do this is to get to know your vendor and ask questions.  All the vendors I have known over the years are very approachable and proud of what they do, and are more than happy to talk about what they are selling.

A common argument from those who rarely or perhaps never visit our downtown market is that prices are higher there than at the supermarket, so why spend the extra money?  It's a mindset really, and I am of the opinion I would rather support our local farmers and producers rather than those located in another country or even another continent even if it means I pay a little more to do so.

Think of it this way:  by supporting our local producers you help support the local economy and that means we all win.  Why buy strawberries from South America in June for example, when Niagara produces an abundance of fabulous berries right here that are simply far superior in taste to what is trucked in from afar?

There will always be those who don't understand the importance of shopping local, and I get that.  But if we can change some minds and alter the perception that not buying local doesn't really matter, I'm happy with that.  You have to start somewhere, after all.

So, when you visit the St. Catharines Farmer's Market, what will you find?  Depending on the season the produce changes of course, but the vendors are usually there week in and week out with something interesting to sell no matter what the season.

In addition, you'll find baked goods, honey, flowers, prepared foods you can either eat there or take away with you, and of course, locally-produced arts and crafts.  New this past season has been the addition of many of our local wineries selling bottles of wine at the market, and I think this is a natural progression for a region such as Niagara, where both produce and wine are produced and consumed.

At the risk of offending some, I'll list a few of my favourite market vendors I have come to rely on week in and week out, especially on Saturdays when the market is always busier.  This is by no means a definitive list even for me, and you will of course have your favourite vendors as well.  That's the joy of visiting our downtown market:  visit as many or as few as you want, and go as often as you want.  If your favourite vendor is not there one week for some reason, there is always another great discovery around the next aisle.

My current faves at the St. Catharines Market include the following:

Andrzejewsi Perogies of Welland - you have not tasted perogies until you've tasted these!
Theresa's baked goods, specializing in gluten-free - the best corn bread around!
DeVries Fruit Farm - go for the hot apple cider, and lots of other produce in season.
Sam's Delights - I'm nuts about the trail mix and candied pecans.
Niagara Honey - the creamed is my honey of choice, but every variety is great.
Sweet Street - really nice vegan baked goods to please my far better half.
Eh Jose - great Mexican dishes you can eat there or take with you.

If you have a favourite vendor not listed here, by all means send me a message and let me know why you like them so much.  As I say, my list is by no means definitive.

There have been attempts to broaden the appeal of the market over the years, most notably with the addition of the Tuesday evening market featuring a number of food vendors throughout the summer months.  While the weather this past year hindered the popularity of the Tuesday evening market, I am hopeful it will return again next season and continue to grow in the years to come.  It is a great concept more people should embrace in the nicer weather.

There are few pleasures greater than meeting your friends at the downtown market, and making new friends with the vendors while you're there.  That's why the St. Catharines Farmer's Market leads off my parade of some of my favourite downtown things for 2015.

Have a great weekend!

January 10th, 2015.

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