What the right hook-up can get you

Shopping for duck eggs, raw-milk cream and summer sausage on the foodie black market

What the right hook-up can get youThe customers arrived one by one on a rainy Saturday morning at the secret meeting spot, a parking lot tucked behind a video store in a suburb of Toronto. There were 30 families in all: the mother of six, wearing a hijab, who made the three-hour round trip in her minivan to collect 30 litres of milk ($60 plus $20 for delivery), the middle-aged man in a red Nissan Versa, a couple of young urbanites who rose at 7:30 to get there in time. They’d made the trek, as they do every other week, for the big glass jars of raw milk—and whatever other illegal treats their supplier might have for them that day.

The farmer selling the contraband, a woman in her 30s wearing purple nail polish and a jean jacket with rhinestones, brings the milk in the bed of her pickup truck, along with small jars of raw-milk cream, unpasteurized cheese curdled in her kitchen and un-graded eggs she sells on a neighbour’s behalf.

The Saturday morning transactions are just one scene from a thriving black market in Canada for borderline illegal, locally produced foods. A desire to buy directly from growers and connect more with what we eat has foodies searching for hard-to-find delectables—even if, or perhaps especially if, they haven’t been inspected by the authorities and are technically illegal. The right social network is indispensable and, for some, may be part of the thrill. Those with friends in the right places can buy unpasteurized milk on Vancouver Island. There is at least one hidden on-farm store in Ontario that people in the know can access. And some vendors at farmers’ markets will sell you more than just fresh carrots and lettuce; an Ontario market manager has seen eggs, sausages and even raw sheep’s milk change hands under the table. Especially prized are eggs straight from the coop—that is, not transported en masse to a provincially-run facility where they are washed, inspected and graded before being trucked to the store.
Not all foods on the black market are illegal. Duck eggs, for instance, are legal for sale in most circumstances—if you can find them. This writer tried to buy some for months, ever since a friend showed off a half-dozen bought on the sly at a farmers’ market. (She insisted they’re richer than hen’s eggs and make a deeply flavoured custard—but wasn’t inclined to share.) The “egg lady” in Toronto’s Kensington Market used to sell turkey eggs—three times the size of chicken eggs, with giant, orange yolks and a deep, mellow flavour—but she passed away last year.

Out in the country it’s permitted to purchase un-graded eggs straight from the farm. Locating their forbidden cousins in the city is the challenge, says food writer Chris Nuttall-Smith, who extols their virtues in an essay in a forthcoming anthology. “You’ve got to hook up with someone who’s got a hook-up. It’s like buying drugs,” he says. But it is worth the effort, he says, because they are so much fresher. “Illegal eggs taste amazing.”

Those who buy illicit cured meats are even more fanatical. To get her hands on a famously succulent (in some circles) homemade summer sausage that just comes wrapped in a white cheesecloth, one woman takes deliveries at home or drives to the farmer who makes it. It’s a beef sausage with an unusual, sweet flavour, and her three-year-old daughter loves it. “He’s very cautious. If he doesn’t know you, you don’t get it,” she says. “We’ve done social visits. We go out and have lunch with him and bring a cooler.” The sausage is verboten because it’s made on the farm, and any kind of meat product must be prepared in a kitchen that adheres to provincial safety regulations, even if it uses meat slaughtered in a government-inspected facility.

The farmers who provide foodies with their fix are taking a risk. Last year, a man in eastern Ontario was fined $3,000 for selling un-graded eggs to restaurants. And the Saturday-morning farmer’s cows aren’t even part of the quota system. In Canada, dairy farmers must sell their milk through provincial marketing boards, not on the free market. If caught, she could face serious penalties.

But customers are happy to keep the transactions secret. The reason they do it, says a Toronto-area chef who dines regularly on forbidden foods with his family, is the pleasure of it. “It’s about getting rid of the people in the middle,” he says. Besides, “when you have it, you can’t go back.”

Postscript: While writing this, the author acquired unpasteurized cream, two litres of raw milk, eight duck eggs and two turkey eggs. (The eggs were a present and so legal.)




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What the right hook-up can get you

  1. "Part of the thrill" ??? What thrill??? I'd LOVE to be able to get high quality food at my corner market, but they don't have any. This is not a thrill. This is people who have seen their children and other loved ones recover from "incurable" chronic illness like allergies, asthma, hormone balances, autism spectrum disorder, ADD, osteoporosis, dementia, and much more, because they started eating real unadulterated unprocessed and fresh food, raised under natural conditions.

    Sure it tastes fabulous. But that's the least of the advantages. Please get the main point here: These foods sustain health, environment, and local economy. This is not just some hedonistic fling, as the language in this article suggests. This is serious.

    • Right on, Maria!

    • That’s right Maria Minno!

  2. So why are we allowing bureaucrats, misinformed "experts", and paid hirelings of the corporate world (along with the military wing of their organizations also known as the "government") to dictate what we can eat and not eat? You can't buy eggs at a farmers' market? You can't buy milk direct from the cow in the farmer's barn? Just wait. It won't be long before our "protectors" make it illegal to buy lettuce and carrots from the farm or garden down the road.

      • Just FYI, this is a Canadian website.

  3. Some people have an awfully small world if this is the high point of their week.
    I have never understood why people eat things like snails (escargot), quail's eggs, haggis, caviar, goose liver pate, raw oysters & other unhealthly things which are gross, & then act as though they are sophisticated for being able to stomach these things.
    I think they want to feel as they are somehow elevated , or at least try to make others think they are somehow more worldly for downing this stuff. They deserve to be pitied for being so deprived of interesting things besides what goes into their mouths, & even more for bragging about it as though they have done something that matters.
    Food should be something to feed the body – not the main topic of conversation.
    Hope some of these conniseurs end up with samonella, worms, or other type of food related illness. Then they might learn why milk is pasturized, why eggs are graded, & the point of meat inspection & proper storage.
    Ho Hum.

    • Sad for Julie. More for us.

    • Julie, my parents and they parents and the generations before have grew up on a farm and they ate raw milk, ungraded eggs ( even drank them raw out of the shell) and so on, and guess how many salmonella, worms and other food related illnesses they suffered from? Zero! Food should feed the body and not make it sick and that's exectly what is happening to people eating pasturized milk etc.

      • Agreed. I find it funny because Julie said it herself…but seemed to miss her own point… "Food should be something to feed the body" and how does food feed? By nourishing, and providing natural and essential materials we need. It is not about bragging rights at all. It is about the real purpose in eating…to sustain the body and mind.

        Find out for yourself, Julie, how that tomato from Superstore holds a candle to one you could grow yourself. Not just in taste, which you would fall in love with guaranteed, but in what really matters – nutritional value.

    • “Some people have an awfully small world if this is the high point of their week.
      I have never understood why people eat things like ….”

      So other people have an awful small world, but you can’t even fathom why they’d want to eat tasty food?

      “Food should be something to feed the body – not the main topic of conversation.”

      Wow, what a big world you have!

      “Hope some of these conniseurs end up with samonella, worms, or other type of food related illness. Then they might learn why milk is pasturized, why eggs are graded, & the point of meat inspection & proper storage.
      Ho Hum.”

      Your milk is pasteurized because factory farmed milk is inherently contaminated and unsafe for human consumption and can only be made safe by overcooking it. That’s also why your eggs are washed – they aren’t fit for you to eat. The same with your meat – it’s not even good enough for a dog.

      I won’t eat your “safe” govt approved food for any sum of money – and no threat of any fine or prison time will keep me from eating the good stuff.

    • Deprived of interesting things besides what goes into their mouths? You really believe that? I have to wonder what your definition of "interesting things". If food is just something that goes into the mouth, is clothing just something that keeps you warm? Is a house just something that keeps the rain off your head?

    • I have had very few cases of food-related illness in my life. The most recent (Summer of '06) was not from eating any "unhealthy, gross" unregulated foods, but from eating at a commercial establishment. (In Chicago, but I can't recall the name of the place.)

  4. Julie,

    When my mother was growing up she NEVER heard of anyone with cancer. As child she also only knew of one person who was diabetic. Now every time you turn around someone has cancer. Also lots of people are diabetic due to the over use of fruitose corn syrup on ALL of the food we eat.

    We are also eating food grown from GMO seeds. Is this why lots of people are getting cancer?

    You desperately need to see the move: "Food Inc"

    Julie H.

  5. if you buy eggs from a farmer you can see what the animals eat. (you are what what you eat eats.) pastured eggs taste so much better because the chickens get to eat grass and bugs. this also provides a balance of omega 3 and 6 fatty acids. no store that I know sells pastured eggs.

    raw milk, if you can find it, is worth its weight in gold

  6. It's not about being elite, it's about nourishing your body and sold with nutrient-dense foods produced locally with care.

  7. It doesn't take a college education to know when something works for you, you feel better, illnesses disappear, and your health is restored and when it all started and why.
    We live in a constant pool of pollutants, and are fed an endless diet of phony, artificially flavored, colored and enhanced garbage that is labeled and packaged as food.
    Why should it be criminal to try to avoid foods that make you ill and buy that which makes you better
    Why do we allow food police to harass farmers that openly let people come to the farm?
    If it were a filthy, vermin infested, foul smelling place, the farmer would have no customers!
    You can't take a tour of a factory farm or cattle ranch, you can't visit a meat packing plant either.
    If they are government inspected, why not?
    What's to hide?
    People who take jobs in these places don't stay long before they quit, you have to wonder why?
    And just how often are these plants inspected and do they pass?
    The peanut plants with the contaminated were inspected and fined several times and kept right on processing bad peanuts.
    So much for inspections.
    The joke is there are never enough inspectors for all the plants and the inspections are once in 3 years!

  8. I keep 20 or so chickens on my hobby farm. Free range in tthe spring to late early winter. The eggs they lay in the laying season are worth their weight in gold to me. During the winter months The egg layers stop laying for 6-7 months. No eggs will compare. So I go without eggs for 7 months.

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