The State of Grocery Shopping in Toronto

I moved back to Toronto the beginning of March and decided to brush off the old blog and share my thoughts on food.  After spending seven years out of Canada, I had the opportunity to educate my palate and expand my knowledge on dining, cooking, shopping and growing food. Since returning to Toronto, I am dismayed by the state of grocery shopping in the city.  My post is meant to be educational but it is also a critique aimed at local and national chains as well as the green grocers that dot the city and colour the street.  The system is broken and I sincerely hope that by voicing my observations, it will spark other people to voice their opinions too.  When shopping at grocery stores and green grocers, not only is there a lack of information provided to consumers (on signs/tags) when it comes to produce, fish and meat, but the lack of diversity and support for smaller, independent food brands is both sad and deplorable.

Aisle after aisle, it is easy to find tasteless yet perfect looking, produce. ‘No. 1 Fancy Grade’ produce is found across all grocery store segments (from ethnic food stores, Loblaws and Value Mart to Pusateri’s– {Pusateri’s, McEwan’s and Bruno’s have a ‘great’ business model: charge a higher price for produce that is not organic, from outside of Canada, and may or may not be a higher, ‘extra fancy’ grade- hilarious}) and is typically coming in from the USA, Mexico or a handful of South American countries. Depending on seasonality, local Ontario items are available (its peak in the summer), but most often, food is trucked and shipped from afar to a shop near you.  I once heard a saying that food, like toddlers, does not travel well over long distances.  To reach our city grocery stores, food that is not seasonally grown in Ontario has to travel long distances to our shelves also using much gas in the process. Shortening the radius of travel and accessing locally grown food or alternatively food from neighbouring provinces or states would be a superior option in this case.  In addition to wasted energy brought about by carting food over long distances, the produce in your weekly shopping bag was picked specifically to sustain long distances and is thereby chosen for its hardiness to withstand the challenges of travel. Hardiness, supersedes flavour or an interesting varietal for economic reasons.  Because food also tends to be shipped under-ripe thereby depriving the fruit or vegetable from reaching its full taste potential to ripen on the vine/bush our taste buds miss out on what the true flavour of a peach or cucumber should be.  I can’t tell you how many times I meet someone from Europe and they tell me the produce tastes bland and unexciting in Toronto in comparison to back home. You don’t know what you are missing unless you have a food memory of what better and best taste like.
In addition to the lack of flavour and long shipping distances that is negatively impacting the state of grocery shopping in Toronto, I was also astounded by the lack of organic produce options in mainstream grocery stores (Whole Foods not included). It’s truly maddening. Next time you visit a store, stand at the front of the produce section and observe the amount of shelf space dedicated to organic fruits and veggies versus those that are conventionally farmed.  If you haven’t read Dan Barber’s book “the Third Plate” you must. If you are not going to read it, at least take this point into consideration that he raises: “Organic produce, grown in healthier soil and without chemical pesticides, contains higher levels of antioxidants than conventionally grown food.  The higher levels of antioxidants come from the need of the plant to fight pests itself than be reliant on chemicals to ward off threats. Higher antioxidant levels in plants also contribute to tastier produce as antioxidants impact a fruit or vegetable’s organoleptic qualities, aka, its aroma, taste and mouth feel- Conventionally grown produce is grown in nitrogen rich soil (from synthetic fertilizers).  Plants take the nitrogen from the soil and use it to create sugar and starch instead of flavourful antioxidants.” The fact that a substantial amount of food in our stores comes from the USA, it better be organic because the US farming system is rife with chemicals, subsidies and large agri-businesses calling the shots. The goal is profitability in a way that meets FDA laws of course, but at what expense. Cast your eyes and mind on any number of food documentaries for a refresher on the scary state of the farming practices in the USA (Food, Inc, Fed Up, Hungry for Change, More than Honey, Farmageddon, In Organic We Trust, Dirt the Movie)
The next problem that I observed is the lack of diversity of packaged goods on shelves and in particular lack of shelf space devoted to small, independent, Toronto, Ontario or Canadian food brands.  Walk down the middle section of a store packaged food aisle in a grocery store and you are bombarded by food from large consumer packaged goods brands.  With the exception of perhaps the hot sauce, vinegar, and oil sections, mass brands rule.  The food industry and the entrepreneurs who dream up new and exciting products is a vehicle to creating new jobs in a local and national economy.  Thanks to the Food Network, celebrity chefs, cooking competitions and food porn across social media, you would think the supply and demand for new products is at its peak.  Then why aren’t companies like Loblaw’s, Metro, Sobey’s or Longo’s doing more to make shelf space to support Canadian food entrepreneurs? There is a prohibitive price tag associated with shelf space that large consumer packaged goods companies have no trouble paying to retailers.  Large CPG companies count on volume of sales. Canadian grocery stores that tout their Canadian heritage and do little to support and provide exposure to small brands, needs to change.  For independent food producers, of course there is nothing wrong with starting small and selling through mom-and-pop shops and independent chains (as ramping up supply may be a challenge in some cases). This is the typical route, plus online sales.  But just think as a consumer, how exciting it would be to see product after product marked with a Canadian flag (representing products from Vancouver all the way to Halifax), or one special aisle dedicated to made in Canada products. Wouldn’t you be curious to support local or see what Canadian foodies are producing?  Support for local products seems to have a greater foothold and support in grocery stores abroad.  I have lived in Europe, Asia and in the USA.  Other countries seem to understand that product diversity in your offering to consumers is what makes a great store.  Not the fact that you can get the same pasta brands, same flour brands, same ketchup brands in every single store.  Why doesn’t Canada do this for its consumers? Consumers! Wake up!!  There are interesting products to be tried but unless you demand it from your grocery store, they won’t change the mix. I have already written four chains.
Finally, there is an issue with labeling of produce, baked goods and meat.  Walk the produce section or flip through your weekly grocery store flyer and you see a familiar sign or description that reads “No.1 Grade USA.”  That’s it.  What does this mean outside of the fact that the visual quality of the item will be the highest grade (no sad fruit/veggies)?  It tells you nothing of which state the food came from, which farm it came from; and by assumption that it was conventionally raised.  If you haven’t watched a farming/food documentary in the past five years, I would brush up quickly and then feel angry for the unclear, vague description of “No.1 Grade USA”. Aren’t our mouths and bodies worthy of more information?  The US farming system, with its large industrial, monoculture plots of land, rewarded by subsidies to produce the most food at the cheapest price, is broken. “No. 1 Grade USA” does not mean you are getting apples from a small farm nestled in the idyllic coastline of California or small farm in upstate New York that cares about the apples and parsnips they grow.  You are receiving generic, meaningless information about something you are going to put into your body. At least, if the produce was organic, then you know that the farming practices are carried out in a certain way (not that there are not larger organic farms…) that are not intentionally harmful to the land and the food itself.  Sadly, industrialized bread suffers a similar fate.  There are a handful of chemicals and enzymes that are added to the recipe to make loaves fluffier and last longer that are not listed on nutritional labels because they are not required to.  As recent as 2014, Health Canada gave an additive called ADA, the green light to stay in commercial bread production, when it is mildly carcinogenic and the EU banned it from its breads. Why take the chance right?  The data Health Canada used to make this decision was from the 1950s. Microbakeries faced a steep decline and while artisan bread is fashionable again, how many people have access to a bakery to buy their weekly bread?  The same goes for fish.  I walked into a grocery store last week to buy some fish for dinner. The fish was not labeled beyond the kind of fish and that it was fresh.  I asked the person behind the counter whether it was farmed or wild and where it came from?  I asked if any of the fish had a Marine Stewardship Council certification?  He said he didn’t know the answer to my questions. How is this possible that a grocery store can sell a product with so little information to exchange?  I walked out without any fish that day.
The underlying theme of my observations is information and empowerment.  If you know where your food comes from, if you know how your food is grown and farmed (organic vs. conventionally), and if you know who produced it (so you can email or call an ask questions), you can make better choices for your body and have more diversity in your pantry and refrigerator. The food we consume is directly linked to health, to vitality, to energy. The same goes for empowering smaller, independent food entrepreneurs to create, innovate and have access to a distribution network that is not limited to mom-and-pop shops or online stores. It is no longer necessary to argue that we live in a colder climate country where we are plagued by shorter growing seasons.  We do not have California’s climate.  Guess what? We do not need California’s climate.  In Montreal, there is an agricultural start up called Lufa farms.  The guy who started it built two massive greenhouses on top of two different rooftops in the city where they grown food all year long.  When it is below zero outside, it is still 25C inside the greenhouse.
Why is it in Prague, that every district (there are 24 in the city), has its own mini-farmers’ market from May to October to ensure that neighbourhoods have access to fresh, local food throughout the growing season?  Why is it in Copenhagen, one man, Claus Meyers, a baker/restauranteur, was the instigator and catalyst for overhauling the entire Danish food system, beginning with the farming.  Denmark suffered from poor food quality and an over reliance on importing food from the EU to feed its people.  The country is by no means self sufficient (talk about a shorter growing season), but the quality and quantity of local produce on its shelves and in its restaurants has increased dramatically.  Denmark hosts a food symposium on a yearly basis open to the public to discuss the state of food in the country. Why is it that in Austria grocery chain, mPreis, champions itself on working with local food producers and local architects to design their stores and is so beloved by customers for the shopping experience? Living in an agriculture state such as California was truly a unique food scenario with the plethora of year round farmers’ markets, abundance of community shared agriculture (CSA) boxes to choose from and the varietals of produce you would never come into contact with unless you befriended a farmer. We are talking at least 10 different varieties of grapes to taste and choose from.  Variety is a beautiful thing.  Even in Texas, when you enter a big box store like Target, they promote local food products when you walk into the store.  The front of the store (key for marketing) is not reserved for a big box brand, small timers get exposure. Walk the aisles of Whole Foods or Central Market (a local Texas grocery store) and the quantity of Made in America by smaller brands is overwhelming.  In fact, the sheer quantity of smaller brands on shelves is what got me thinking in the first place about the lack of diversity in Toronto.
I leave off with a story: I walk into Cumbrae’s, the butcher shop, today and take a look around. I read their five chalk boards with information about where the pork, chicken, lamb and cows are raised, how they are raised, and how they got to the counter before me. I look at their prepared food section and I see a cultured butter from a company in Québec as well as some duck fat and cured meats.  The selection was eclectic and it was entirely from Canada. Wonderful.  Now only if this could be replicated on a mass scale instead of a one-off high-end, specialty food shop. We would be having a different conversation. Information should not be relegated to specialty food stores.  Information about the food we purchase should be readily available throughout all segments of stores.

The Ultimate Dining List for Copenhagen

I am leaving Copenhagen this weekend and sad to be leaving Denmark.  A new adventure is underway. I am headed to Silicon Valley in California.  I am looking forward to new dining experiences and design.

This past year living in Copenhagen I’ve tried my hardest to dine around town.  If you are headed this way soon here are a few not to miss…. (in no particular order). I hope this list points you in the right direction…. there are many wonderful things to eat in Copenhagen. It is one of my favourite culinary cities.

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May this list bring you good eats in your travels- see you state side next time we speak.


October Photos In and Around Copenhagen

A few visitors later and you really get around the city.  Here are a few of my favourite shots this month. Ahhh Copenhagen, such a beauty!

01 Lover of the sandwich in all shapes and sizes

Lamb411 Photos Around Copenhagen

02 Inside and outside cultural institutions

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03 A short castle trip outside of the city

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04 Admiring the beauty of a different time period

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05 Multiple cafe visits for cosy (hygge) moments….

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06 Interesting and unusual architecture and urban art

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07 Touring old monuments with old friends

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08 and making sure to start the day off right, Copenhagen style with some grod, muesli or Øllebrød!

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Warning: A Lot of London Food Photos

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting one of my favourite cities in the world to celebrate my sister-in law’s birthday and to visit friends.  I can’t get enough of London. Ever changing architecture, in particular some of the modern buildings in the City, is spectacular to look at and the food could keep me occupied for weeks on end.

I had 48 hours in the city and wanted to maximize my time with family and friends, which is why most of the photos below are of food.  I tend to socialize around food, eating as I converse, browsing markets and eating… I could have easily shot buildings, graffiti, or fashion but my group and I were after flavours!

I did manage one double decker bus ride from Borough Market to Notting Hill which was a blast, especially if you can score the window seats up top. It’s way easier to take the Tube to zip around London but you miss so much of the streetscape underground. If you haven’t been on a bus in London in a while- do it. I felt like I was back in Hong Kong on a double decker bus.

I walked Clerkenwell, Shorditch, Islington, Notting Hill and the City (not in that order….)

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Lamb411 London September 2013

Here is my London map, a growing list of fun spots in the city that I like:

View London, England England in a larger map


If anyone is heading to London soon, I hope this map gives you a few handy tips.

Hope to see you again soon, London!


When in Copenhagen…. Learn how to bake bread

When you want to learn about your surrounding when living in a foreign country, start with the food and build from there.  In an effort to get in touch with our Danish-ness and celebrate my husband’s birthday, I put him (and me) to work on Sunday in a four hour bread baking class with my favourite cooking teacher in the city, Mia from CPH Good Food. I wrote her to organize the class and mentioned that I wanted the focus to be on all the delicious Danish breads and pastries we find around Copenhagen.

I am obsessed with eating Danish rye bread. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t have a slice.  I prefer to eat it with almond butter or a bit of cheese on top.  Danish rye is nothing like the rye bread in North America- you know the white kind with seeds that you find sandwiching deli meat.  Danish rye is dark, and as dense and heavy as a plate- because it was used as a plate to make open face sandwiches way back when.  You bake it in a loaf pan and cover/fill it with lots of nice seeds and nuts.  Scrumptious.

As we got started on our baking morning, I barely got a chance to stir a thing as my husband dove into the art of Danish bread making. He kneaded, stirred, rolled, spread, measured, and used the “magical” electric mixer with a dough hook when he became tired of kneading.

Lamb411 CPH Good Food Bread Baking in Copenhagen

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I managed to get into the action too!  But hey, who am I to hog a birthday present.

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We baked four types of bread and pastries (rye, cinnamon swirls, a wheat bread and a white bread) and Mia baked a sourdough with us that she started from the day before.

Lamb411 CPH Good Food Bread Baking in Copenhagen



Brussels: Architecture and Graffiti Hunting in the Rain

Okay… so Brussels- it’s a government city, it’s a transportation hub and it’s sprawling.  It may not have the design or fashion reputation of Antwerp but that did not deter your trusty Lamb411 tour guides from packing their rain accessories, jumping on a plane and spending a weekend touring the city.  Our goal was to hunt architecture (specifically Art Nouveau) and cartoon graffiti.

Typically when we travel, our exploration revolves around food and design.  Perhaps living in Copenhagen, a city full of both food and design, has spoiled our eyes and stomachs slightly, because if I were to judge Brussels on this criteria, I would not rush back.  It doesn’t have the bakeries of Paris or London.  We both found the food in Brussels rather mediocre- as in fine, but nothing to write home about. The customer service was also veering on the very laissez fair side.  We very much enjoyed spending time around Rue Antoine Dansaert,  and the Sablon, Ixelles and Uccle areas- they seemed to have more action going on and had a nice mix of retail/residential/arts/design, otherwise we found the city to be rather quiet, a typical touristy center and a tad boring- The mobs of tourists clustered around the little peeing statue- I don’t get it!  Haven’t people seen a statue with water coming out of it before? I believe it is called a fountain!

However- with a big BUT– if you like looking at buildings and appreciate street art (and of course antiques), Brussels is a wonderful place with a little from column A and a little from column B- throw in all the antique stores and markets and it can make for an exciting little weekend trip.  At the bottom of this post, I included my extensive Brussels map with lots of restaurant, retail, coffee, bakery and gallery recommendations.  We tried to visit as many as possible but like all good European cities, Sunday most things are CLOSED- which is why we save the museums/galleries for the city’s day of rest.

Lamb411 Brussels Hunting Architecture and Graffiti

Breakfast of champions at one of the few places in Brussels that will make filter coffee: Or Espresso Bar.  The other one, AUB SVP, was closed when we arrived.

Lamb411 Brussels Hunting Architecture and Graffiti

Lunch of champions at God Save the Cream: British inspired cafe

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On to cartoon mural and graffiti hunting in Brussels….  Brussels is the comic book capital of the world and throughout the city you will see the most beautiful cartoon murals on the facades of buildings.  There is an official comic book mural walk which you can follow- We did not do the walk because we wanted the challenge of finding them ourselves. You can see more of the murals on the Mattador website article about comic book murals too.  We were not as successful as the article but made a nice dent in tracking them down!

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There are lovely details on and around the buildings throughout the city including decorative cast iron doors, and random artistic adornments on the exterior of buildings.

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Another thing that stood out to me was the use of symmetry in the design of public spaces and buildings.  Here are a few of my favourites in the photos below.

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I admired how diverse the architecture of residential buildings were in the various neighbourhoods.  You could be looking at the style and architecture of 10 different decades on one street!

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We found beautiful examples of street art in the most random places.  Graffiti that tells a story, in contrast to tagging adds to the feel and community of a neighbourhood.

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There were also several examples of tiles on the street and on the sides of buildings which I thought was neat. I walked into an antique store and the guy had a big box of individual tiles that came off buildings. I was tempted but did not purchase one.

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My favourite was hunting for examples of Art Nouveau around Brussels- a great reason to visit the city if you are into that style/time period.  We visited the residence and museum of the famous Belgian architect who championed the Art Nouveau style, Victor Horta to get a better understanding of the public and private houses and buildings he designed around the city. Four of his buildings are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

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Lamb411 Brussels Hunting Architecture and Graffiti

Brussels is, no doubt a great starting point and base from which to travel to other places around Belgium or western Europe.  Two days is more than enough in my humble opinion to observe, walk, taste and see.  Next time I visit, I would rent a car or buy a train ticket to see the countryside and other smaller cities.   Even in the rain- and there was a consistent mist-like rain, the city is a beauty.  As for the hair- that is another story….

Sunday NOTE:  There is a new cafe called JAT’ that is open on Sunday. We visited twice and it is a wonderful spot (free wifi, good snacks, nice atmosphere/design).

My Map of Everything Wonderful in Brussels

View Brussels 48 Hours in a larger map


Around Copenhagen These Days: Photos

A few photos taken around Copenhagen…

When the sun is shining, the city looks so beautiful. There is always something colourful going on.

Lamb411 Around CPH




















The Nighthawk Diner in Oslo

Did I tell you I like visiting diners when I travel? I like to visit diners in non-traditional diner locations.  It’s my secret mission to find diners in the most unusual countries. My interest in diner food is purely comfort driven.  For me, it is a means to indulge in familiar food and give my brain a brake from analyzing foreign ingredients, dishes and cooking methods that go hand in hand with living abroad.

My diner-visiting ritual started in 2003 while I was living in Hong Kong and attending a semester of philosophy classes at HKU.  It was a time where I frequented The Flying Pan, a diner opened by a woman from New York which was located in the Mid Levels (also Wan Chai). The Flying Pan made a mean stack of pancakes and their kitchen sink omelette was to die for; how could I resist eating pancakes while reading Plato?

In an article I wrote for Honest Cooking, I equated the French cafe to the European equivalent of an American diner maintaining that the ubiquitous nature of a French cafe, its lively atmosphere, and predictable yet location adapted menu was like the diners around the US. I am aware that there are a few American style diners in Europe (Paris, Berlin and Prague have) but I didn’t expect to see a diner in norther Europe.  Surprise! In Phaidon’s ‘Where Chefs Eat‘ book that I like to consult before I hit the road, I read about an American diner located in a hip neighbourhood in Oslo that came with praise from the author.

I decided to give the Norwegian-American diner a try and give new Nordic cuisine a break.

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On the main tram street of Oslo’s Grünerløkka neighbourhood, and located within walking distance from Tim Wendelboe’s scrumptious coffee shop (part of Oslo tourism these days) is the Nighthawk Diner.



Lamb411 Tim Wendelboe Coffee

I kid you not, stepping inside the Nighthawk Diner was like crossing the Atlantic Ocean back into America.  They had the interior spot on!

The tiled floor restaurant, situated in a corner property includes a smaller front section with yellow leather bar seating, a larger dining area in the back with booths and outdoor patio seating.  This place was packed with locals waiting for their milkshakes, burgers, salads, eggs, sandwiches and pie to be served by waiters and waitresses dressed in diner attire.

My tuna salad with whole wheat toast was so good, I returned again the next morning and waited in line for nearly 40 minutes so I could have a plate of blueberry pancakes that went by over my head the night before.  My dining partner opted for the pulled pork and was equally satisfied with the tangy-sweet marinade on the meat.  Aside from the good food, I liked that The Nighthawk Diner made an effort to call attention to their intentions of working towards becoming a 100% organic diner and shared the names of their suppliers. They get their organic beef from Halstenov farm.



Lamb411 The Nighthawk Diner

By diner standards, do not expect this to be a cheap meal.  I repeat: Nothing is cheap in Oslo, not even a meal at a diner.  As long as you can put ‘affordable meal’ out of your mind when eating in this city and block out the temptation to compare the cost of a plate of pancakes in the US with the cost of your blueberry stack  in Oslo, you will more than enjoy your meal here.  It’s the real deal!

Breakfast is served all day.



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