Life works in really strange and wonderful ways. At the beginning of this week I talked to my brother in Austria on the phone, and he said he’d been reading this German travel magazine and there was a big write-up about a Toronto-based tour guide who provides culinary tours of the St. Lawrence Market, one of my brother’s favourite places that he discovered on his recent trip to Toronto.
I asked my brother what this fellow’s name was and he looked it up and said “Bruce Bell”. I did an internet search and within a few seconds I had located Bruce Bell Tours ; and I knew I had to meet this person. Bruce Bell, the popular history columnist for the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood Community Bulletin, is also an award winning playwright, actor, standup comedian and the honourary curator of the most photographed building in the city of Toronto, the historic Gooderham Building better known as the Flatiron. Bruce just recently published a book on Toronto called “Toronto – A Pictorial Celebration”.
Immediately after I hung up with my brother I was on the phone with Bruce, we briefly introduced ourselves and he said, come down, join me on Thursday for my culinary tour of the St. Lawrence Market. Sure enough, this morning, punctually at 10 am I arrived at the souvenir shop at the main entrance of the market and I met Bruce and the other participant in our tour, a young architecture student.
As the official historian of the St. Lawrence Market Bruce has special access to all sorts of areas of the building that other people never get to see. Right away he took us up some stairs, pulled out a special key and led us into the former mayor’s office, since the market building used to be the original city hall of Toronto. The building has undergone several transitions, and the two side wings were removed to make way for a steel-girdered shed built in 1904 that was modeled after the Victoria Train Station in London.
From the former mayor’s office we had a perfect view of the market and we also had a beautiful vista of the downtown skyscrapers and the famous Flatiron Building to the west, and St. Lawrence Hall to the north. Bruce took us down the stairs in the market hall itself and shared various tidbits of history with us. The shoreline of Lake Ontario used to be right at Front Street, and after landfill was added, the Esplanade became the waterfront, and today several hundred meters of additional landfill have expanded the city’s territory to a new waterfront.
Under Bruce’s guidance we started our tour of the shops which include bakeries, butcher shops, fish mongers, fruit stands, delis, dessert places and specialty vendors of all kinds. The first place he took us to was a bakery that also serves lunches, and we got a delicious taste treat of smoked salmon and backbacon, each on a small piece of bread. I am not usually a big fish eater, but this savoury morcel was delicious. At another store we got to sample “Indian candy” – smoked salmon cured in maple syrop. What a treat!
We walked by some of the butcher shops, many of which have been in the same family for generations. I admired the creatively presented cuts of pork loin stuffed with spinach, cheese and bacon, a perfect solution for a non-chef like me – just stick it in the oven and pull out a delicious gourmet meal.
After a brief tour outside the building where Bruce explained the building’s history and early Toronto society to us, we went into the lower level, where all the dessert shops, fruit stalls and specialty vendors are located. We got several more samples: a huge variety of delicious honeys from New Zealand, a sampling of speciality jellies and jams, tender white chocolate truffles that just melt in your mouth, and for dessert – after all these sweat treats – Nutella-filled crepes. All the samples we received were utterly delicious.
Bruce took us into the bowels of the building, today mostly used for storage and refrigeration, but in previous times these areas were the men’s and women’s jails. Bruce explained that in the 1850s women had no rights and many men simply stuck their wives in prison, especially after child-birth or during menopause, when they got a little cranky. The iron hooks that prisoners were chained to are still visible on the walls.
The basement is also decorated with a number of murals that explain Toronto’s history. As the official historian of the St. Lawrence Market and a well-known columnist of the St. Lawrence Community Bulletin, Bruce is actually depicted on the mural. About 15 historic plaques throughout a variety of buildings in the downtown area provide insight into noteworthy past events and are titled “A Bruce Bell History Project”. So there is no doubt that this is a real expert, even a local celebrity.
Just outside the St. Lawrence Market used to be the terminus of the Underground Railroad, the pier where thousands of the former American slaves arrived after having made their secret passage from the American south to Rochester and on to freedom in Toronto. It’s amazing how much history there is, even in a comparably young city such as Toronto, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Bruce’s unique stories.
From the St. Lawrence Market building we walked north through a courtyard to another former City Hall of Toronto by the name of St. Lawrence Hall. It was the former city hall of the City of York, that was officially renamed the city of Toronto (an Indian word for “meeting place”) in 1856. St. Lawrence Hall is a beautiful classical building, and Bruce took us inside to show us the ballroom, the most well-preserved original ballroom in Canada. The chandelier is original, was originally lit with coal gas and today is illuminated with natural gas.
This was the heart of Toronto’s elite WASP (white / Anglo-Saxon / Protestant) society during the 1800s and Bruce shed more light on the many behavioural norms of the time. Women were not considered persons and could not walk on the street by themselves or accompanied by any man other than their husband. Men had to defend their wives’ honour in duels and sometimes ended up having to shoot their best friend as a result of a harmless (by today’s standards) misunderstanding. The city and country were run by English noblemen, and Catholic immigrants from Ireland, arriving in masses after the potato famine of 1849, were despised by the local ruling class.
As a result, the Catholics were segregated, but they did receive a spot inside St. Lawrence Hall, a big room called St. Patrick’s Hall, where they were allowed to congregate since they were barred from entering the ballroom which was reserved for the WASP elite. Irish Catholics had to enter St. Patrick’s Hall through a back staircase since they weren’t allowed to mix with the English aristocracy. The portion on the northeast side of St. Lawrence Hall housing St. Patrick’s Hall incidentally collapsed in 1967 and was completely rebuilt.
After St. Lawrence Hall we walked through a beautiful Victorian Garden outside of St. James Cathedral, Toronto’s largest house of worship, and the 5th church in the present location. Bruce took us inside and shared more historical information with us, about the original British settlers of Toronto and ruling elite of the times, which included the famous Bishop Strachan, the creator of St. James Cathedral. Bruce showed us the various stained glass windows that adorn the church, all of which were crafted at different times. Especially stunning are the Tiffany stained glass windows on the east side which have a particularly intense coloration.
St. James Cathedral marked the end of our culinary and historic tour of the St. Lawrence Market area. We had received a great introduction to Toronto’s history and enjoyed the diverse culinary delicacies of Toronto’s greatest market. Bruce’s entertaining and informative lessons on a time in Toronto’s history when women and men were segregated, when society was strictly regimented by expectations of etiquette and social status, and when Irish and English weren’t allowed to mix made me realize how incredibly far Toronto has come in the last 150 years.
Bruce Bell offers other interesting tours about Toronto’s Distillery District, its Art Deco skyscrapers and a tour called “Comfort and Steam” that takes you through the Fairmount Royal York Hotel, Union Station, the Skydome and the Air Canada Centre, among other places. Considering everything that I learned in the St. Lawrence Market tour, I hope to have a chance to catch another one of Bruce’s tours and broaden my local knowledge of this city in the near future.