Three weeks ago I found myself shopping at the sprawling Metro Plus supermarket in the lakeside town of Magog, Que. As at so many other supermarkets these days, banners fluttered overhead affirming the store’s commitment to local producers. What was odd was that the shelves and racks below made good on the promise.
The produce section was flooded with local seasonal finest, from beefsteak tomatoes to sweet corn, shallots and ground cherries. An entire wall at the centre of the store flaunted Quebec products from mustard and honey to vinegar and chocolate. Breakfast alone involved a choice of no fewer than three local artisanal bacons, and for eggs, a selection that ran to an intriguing new variety called les matinaux (early birds), which according to the box have been hatched not by the usual tired old hens, but by fresh, barely legal ones, on the job for not a day over five months—guaranteed.
Quebec roasting chickens are by consensus the finest in the country and here, along with the basic types, there were three different brands of artisanal poultry. They shared fridge space with fresh Pekin ducks sourced 30 minutes up the road at Lac Brome, along with fresh guinea and Cornish hens—and even those fantastic royal quails from La Ferme Kégo in Cap-Saint-Ignace. There was Quebec lamb, obviously—and locally grown and packaged herbes salés, the perfect seasoning for it. The huge fish counter featured my favourite salad shrimp from Matane. There were 20-odd varieties—minimum—of Quebec-made terrines, and crusty baguettes from Montreal’s Première Moisson (made with Quebec-grown wheat) on which to smear them.
At the cash, appetite raging, I ripped open a package of a preferred snack: thin-sliced cold-smoked venison loin (from Les Fumets Sylvestre, 170 km northeast in Ste-Marguerite). Consumed in one sitting it proved salty, so in the car park, as I watched the grocery jockey transfer my haul from cart to car, I cracked open a St-Ambroise, a pale ale from my preferred Montreal microbrewery. It all sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
Flash forward two weeks, to another rural town, with a rich cottager-driven summer economy: Fenelon Falls in Ontario’s Kawartha Lakes region. Outside the local Sobeys a sandwich board reads: “Featured this week—grown in Ontario Fields: Cauliflower, Broccoli, Sweet corn, Feild [sic] tomatoes.” Indeed, nothing else of local provenance was in evidence within, save for a few tired fillets of Ontario pickerel languishing in an open fridge along with the rest of the sad cellophane-wrapped fish selection.
Back home in Toronto the following week, my evening news was interrupted by an advertisement featuring the Loblaw executive chairman, Galen Weston Jr., as usual channelling the spirit of the late Mr. Rogers—this time as he ambled, nattering blandly, through a farmer’s field somewhere in Quebec. This latest instalment of the three-year-old Loblaw campaign under the banner “Grown Close to Home” piqued my interest.
So the next day I dropped in on a Toronto Loblaw’s. To me it looked the same as it always did. Hardly surprising: their main game is to sell their items of highest profit, which are never fresh produce but prepared foods under their own label. En route home I stopped at a Metro a few blocks away to check their local offerings. Equally abysmal, possibly worse.
Anyone who has shopped there may doubt my description of the Magog branch. But the fact is, the homegrown-food-at-your-local-supermarket pitch that Loblaw and other English Canadian chains began so feebly and so recently in the wake of the local food movement is a pale shadow of the initiative Metro launched nearly two decades ago in Quebec to serve a regional clientele unusually keen about and proud of its own excellent agricultural products. Metro stores are largely independent, and each owner is empowered to complement a certain (undisclosed) percentage of mandatory stock with individually negotiated contracts to customize their offerings. When it works, it makes a far better model for what we should be doing than the over-hyped and largely irrelevant local farmers’ market.