The delicious resurgence of life-giving, soul-nourishing, culinary mashups, plus an ode to a tomato man, and a chef who cooks from the heart.
In my life, food is the thing that connects me, perhaps above all else, to my family and to the people I care about; people whose creativity, passion, authenticity and eccentricities punctuate my life in so many beautiful ways. Together we exist along a centuries-old culinary continuum that runs straight through the centre of my days, flavouring milestones and memories with countless delicious, sweet, savoury, and bittersweet moments.
Farmers, growers, fishers, foragers, small-batch processors, producers, and stewards of land, feed the continuum and the planet, providing life-giving sunlight and soil-borne sustenance in the form of all-natural, un-processed food and drink. We have sadly, in most cities and towns, and in most North American households, lost touch with these remarkable humans and their tenuous, fragile existence. When we are able and inclined to step off of the supermarket convenience treadmill long enough to visit a farmers’ market, market garden, or a really good green grocer, we meet some of the truly remarkable people who care more about the quality of food they purvey than about the bottom line.
During this second week of pride month, as we celebrate the beautiful and courageous souls who enrich our lives, it is my privilege also, to honour those who nourish, and the vibrant and colourful markets that bring us all together. To go up and grow up against the highly-commercialized, highly-profitable industrialized food culture that fosters a cost and convenience based race to the bottom for the masses, takes courage, commitment and humility. To do it every damn day through blazing heat, pelting rain and sleet, drought, recession, repression, rejection and a global pandemic, is heroic. These people are rock stars. They have held on to the traditional ways and means of growing food by hand just long enough, to allow us to see the error of our industrialized foodways and nurture the grassroots connections to fields and forests that exist in our DNA.
In a perfect world we could and should be flocking to farmer’s markets, queuing up to pay fairly for home-grown, hand-made goodness. Some of us simply can’t, but most of us just don’t. We pay in other ways; with declining health and the slow death of the planet. A crazy arrangement, when you step back far enough to see the big picture. But we can change the story. We can heal ourselves and the planet by growing nutritious food at home, and by celebrating and supporting the magnificents who grow, raise, and produce it for us. If you have visited a farmers’ market or a farm stand, you likely know what I mean. If you haven’t, I hope to entice you with words and pictures, and an introduction to a few of my friends.
Back to my kitchen then, and its enduring and perpetual connection to my farmers’ market.
As I unwrap an exquisite whole smoked chicken, I recount the paradox of pride and sadness expressed by the first-generation organic farmers who raised and processed the bird — exchanging its life and sustenance for a seemingly inadequate sum of money. They did so while bouncing their new baby between them, under a tent, in the rain.
As I spread unctuous fig, apple and Earl Grey jam on my toast in the morning, I think about the sunny yellow kitchen and matching disposition of the woman who makes it, in small batches, in beautiful old copper kettles.
As I stand outside in the cold of autumn, canning tomatoes, I am warmed by gratitude to the tomato man for making good on his promise of more than my share of San Marzano tomatoes — the taste and quality of which are priceless.
Home-canned tomatoes are central to my family’s existence, and really good tomatoes make our lives beautiful. I grow copious amounts of tomatoes for eating fresh and for oven-drying, but I can’t grow as many as I need to peel and hot-water process 100 quarts over the course of a single weekend.
Nor would I want to. I could never match the quality attained by an artisanal grower like Milan Djordjevich, known simply as the 'Tomato Man' by the legions who line up dutifully in front of booth ‘P0’ at the Trout Lake Farmers’ Market, every Saturday from early August through late September. They begin queuing at 8:00 a.m. for the 9:00 a.m. opening; for a brown lunch-size paper bag full of the best tomatoes they have ever eaten.
According to Milan’s TOMATO MANifesto, his produce is rationed, no exceptions. Commercial relations he writes, are rooted in the social nexus, that is, membership has its privileges and responsibilities. He says too that while he cares sincerely about what goes into our mouths, he may not be so careful about what comes out of his. The lesson? Be kind and respectful of the process, your linemates, and above all else the tomatoes.
If you are a favoured chef you can order quantities for delivery earlier in the week, but at the Trout Lake Farmers’ Market you cannot be greedy. If you are, you will leave disappointed. You may leave disappointed anyway because Milan’s half-acre under tomato cultivation doesn’t always produce enough of what people want, to satisfy the sheer number of people wanting it.
But still they line up; through blazing heat, pelting rain and sleet, drought, recession, rejection and a global pandemic.
Milan makes the nine-hour, 500-mile return trip to Vancouver from his Stoney Paradise Farm in Kelowna, twice each week during the season. On Wednesdays, the interior of his Sprinter van is packed with large flats and small boxes of San Marzano, SM Redorta, New Girl, Sungold, Bolseno, Valencia, Moskvich, Pink Beauty, Green Zebra, and assorted other specialty tomatoes, all destined for favoured chefs. And I do mean favoured. It is no secret among chefs and restaurateurs that Milan’s tomatoes are extraordinary among tomatoes, and that a certain reverence for product and purveyor is required for consideration. As it should be. Such wasn’t always the case for Milan and others like him who, as newcomers to the business of restaurant supply braved the ego-centric custom of celebrity chefs, so consumed with their fleeting stardom that they broke the cardinal rule of farmer-direct relations … “Disrespect small potatoes at your peril, as they inevitably grow into big cheese”
Milan doesn’t hold back in sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly stories of growing pains, but he does so with a fierce sense of justice, and without criticism or malice. “Why should I take food out of the mouths of loyal market-goers who line up early every Saturday morning like clockwork, rain or shine, just to gain the favour of an unappreciative chef?” says Milan. I couldn’t agree more. Stoney Paradise tomatoes are started from seed. Some 2400 plants produced 10,000 lbs of fruit (botanically speaking tomatoes are fruits not vegetables) last year; each one hand-reared, hand-picked, and hand-packed. Their extraordinary flavour is testament to a combination of the arid and rocky, wine grape terroir in which they are raised, and the deliberate stresses they endure to concentrate their flavour and pigment. Milan’s tomatoes are worthy of respect.
Ironically, more than three decades and tens of thousands of miles after Milan peddled his first pint of tomatoes at Granville Island’s pop-up farm stand (now one of the largest and most visited indoor public markets in North America), Milan has earned a reputation as a chef’s farmer. He’s followed his chef clients loyally over the years from restaurant kitchen to restaurant kitchen. Award-winning, critically-acclaimed Stoney Paradise tomatoes are featured by name and by vintage, on dozens of seasonal menus within a 300-mile radius of the farm.
And still and in spite of the fame and the glory, his tomatoes remain humble and affordably priced. I was reminded of this just this morning when I visited my local grocery store to shop for produce. I was offered the choice of hermetically-sealed greenhouse-grown campari, grape, or sweet cherry tomatoes from Mexico for $6 per plastic container. I am grateful to live close to multiple food choices, but there are so many food-security-based concerns wrong with that particular scenario. It was through a chef friend that I first met Milan. During set-up for a large fundraising event, I ventured back of house to say hello to the culinary team. Robert Bartley, Executive Chef for Canucks Sports and Entertainment and Rogers Arena, was plating Stoney Paradise Sungold tomatoes, while waxing poetic about their culinary virtues. I was gifted a Sungold to taste. “Like candy, right?” I’m pretty sure that was all he said by way of explanation. That and, “You have to meet this amazing tomato guy Milan.” Chef Bartley had moved recently to Vancouver after six years in Toronto as Director of Culinary and Executive Chef for Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment. He brought huge purchasing clout with him, but by his own admission, wasn’t prepared for Milan. And Milan, to be honest, wasn’t prepared for Chef Bartley. I recall the angst that Milan experienced on receiving an order so large from this new chef in town, that it would command the cumulative whole of his weekly supply.
In the end, in the way of chef transplants from big city to small, the farmer-chef relationship worked itself out and Robert’s kind and respectful demeanour won him a coveted stop along Milan’s Wednesday route. But the story doesn’t end there. Years later, after dozens of tomato-centric adventures and conversations, we remain smitten and surrounded by Milan’s tomatoes — the Sungolds and San Marzanos in particular. “If you want a tomato that tastes like this, you pay for it,” said Robert recently. And to that I add, that I personally will go to extraordinary lengths to get it. As an NHL chef, Robert wields serious clout with suppliers. I of course, wield none. I have discovered however that, if I am willing (which I am) to meet Milan in the alley behind Tavola’s Restaurant at the end of his restaurant delivery route on Wednesday, I too ‘might’ share in the spoils.
In fairness, Milan’s prices aren’t that much higher than other farmers’ market vegetable sellers tomatoes, and I am having fun with the drama of it all. In all honesty, it is the uncertainty surrounding the availability and purchase of Tomato Man tomatoes that elevates the value of their cost. I plan tomato capers such as ‘canning’, months in advance, and the prospect of a smaller than expected harvest, and not having Stoney Paradise tomatoes haunts me until I have the 20lb boxes stashed safely away in the boot of my car. And even then, they are so perfectly ripe that I must get down to the doing of whatever I am doing, before they turn. And under no circumstances can I place my San Marzanos in the fridge for safekeeping. If I was to do that, the tomatoes would arrest their development, and Milan would arrest any favour I may have earned. He would know intuitively of my breach of protocol; he is a tomato empath. Sometimes, the tomatoes don’t arrive at all. So it was last autumn after the San Marzano tomato canning weekend had drawn to a close, and I had been back and forthing with Milan, hoping for another case or two so that I might can a dozen quarts for a friend. The weather was unseasonal, and the San Marzano tomatoes were just not market-ready. The season, and my hopes were dashed. There were no tomatoes for me, none for Robert, none for market-goers, none for anyone. Nobody was more disappointed but less surprised by nature’s dictate, than Milan. Ironically, last autumn, Million Gardens Movement (MGM) co-founder Frank Giustra was looped into my Stoney Paradise story after he tasted one of my home-grown Sungold tomatoes during filming of our Urban Permaculture Series of short videos.
He was reminded of when just weeks earlier, his good friend Chef Pino Posteraro, owner of Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill & Enoteca, had gifted him a box of assorted Stoney Paradise tomatoes. “The best tomatoes I’ve eaten outside of Italy,” he told me. I was not offended that my Sungolds were not as good as Milan’s. How could they be, when I live by the sea?
One thing led to another, and shortly thereafter, Frank and Robert and I were canning cases of Milan’s San Marzano tomatoes in my outdoor kitchen, oven-drying Sungolds, New Girls and Valencias, and, in the waste-nothing spirit of urban permaculture, dehydrating cast-off tomato skins to enjoy as a sort of vegetable chip drizzled with olive oil and sea salt. We made an attempt to film the undertaking for sharing with MGM readers, and I (assisted by some really nice red wine) take full responsibility for that not working out as planned.
Fast forward to this spring, when financier-philanthropist turned modern farmer Giustra commissioned design of his own urban permaculture gardens, in which he is now growing Sungold tomatoes and an impressive assortment of vegetables. Such is the power and influence of food. Speaking of influence, consider that wielded by the culinary overlord of an NHL franchise and 19,000 seat sports arena. During non-COVID times, arena-managed food and beverage programs reflect Chef Bartley’s commitment to local and fresh, while meeting the demands of a hungry, recreational food loving clientele. I have been lucky enough to dine in the members only Private Suites and Captain’s Room Restaurant, as well as in the Sports Bars of Rogers Arena. Chef Bartley’s passion for food and service is apparent and prevalent throughout the operation as it is at his table at home. His passion for food and for the people who grow and produce it is evidenced in his work and in the way he lives his life. “Visiting farmers’ markets and forming relationships with farmers and artisanal producer, brings me back to visiting the Saturday Market with my mum, “ says Bartley.
“This was during my childhood in Southwestern Ontario, when I would spend the morning at the market visiting farmers, cheesemakers, artisans, and butchers who knew us by name. We would go from one vendor to the next and talk about their lives and our lives. It was so enriching, not like the siloed grocery store experience of today when you are alone, and shopping for food is a chore.” Bartley believes that farmers’ markets are emotionally nurturing places where we can rediscover the connection to food that is embedded in our DNA, but also perhaps forgotten. For him, the connection is sensory, sensual even. “Think about farm-fresh, un-processed food and what exactly it means to subscribe to it. We are ingesting the unadulterated fruits of someone’s labours, allowing that food to enter our bodies,” says Bartley. “Doing so involves a level of trust that is very intimate, very personal. When I see 50-80 people lined up for Milan’s tomatoes, while other farm stands are selling organic tomatoes too, I know that they trust him and his produce to nourish their bodies and their souls.”
Chef honours the process of growing and nurturing food, and the emotional energy it takes to help it bloom and manifest into something beautiful and life giving. “We are connected to the process through our own inner gardens, we nurture and water and feed our souls, and eventually that energy blossoms and flows in creative ways that make our lives richer.” Milan, Robert and Frank live along my culinary continuum. I am grateful for their friendship and for their contribution to my city and to the planet. They enrich my life with their extraordinary gifts, as they enrich the lives of millions who don’t know them and will never meet them. There are thousands more Milans, Roberts and Franks in centres of influence, farms, fields, restaurant kitchens, and farmers’ markets across the country — thousands of beautiful stories of passion and commitment to growing food and nourishing souls. Now more than ever, we need nourishment and the will to create change for the better. Your local farmers’ markets is a good place to start.
Chef Robert Bartley’s Melted Sungold Tomatoes
One pint Sungold cherry tomatoes, cut in half
Good quality, extra virgin olive oil
Several sprigs summer savoury (or thyme, if savoury unavailable)
Few sprigs parsley, chopped
One sheet pan or large baking tray with sides
One cooling rack to set into or overtop of the sheet pan or tray
Preheat oven to 180F (85C)
Place cut tomatoes and prepared herbs in a bowl.
Drizzle generously with olive oil and add the herbs, tossing to coat.
Sprinkle with just a touch of sea salt
Pour bowl contents onto the rack, set over the tray, letting liquids pool below.
Let tomatoes melt slowly in the oven for two to four hours, until the tomatoes have released their juices into the tray, and condensed to your liking.
Remove from the oven and cool, adding more olive oil as desired.
Once cool, the tomatoes can be consumed or stored in the fridge for several days, or you can do as Chef does and vacuum pack them for freezing, gifting, or storing in the fridge for up to two months. Serving Suggestions
Chef recommended: warm and serve as-is over pasta (the vacuum pack can be dropped into the pasta water to re-heat)
As shown: serve alongside garlic-scented toasted slices of baguette
Spoon a generous dollop over soft scrambled eggs
Freeze a vacuum pack full to take along on a picnic, camping or boating — serve as above or with artisanal cheese and crackers
Gift to someone you love
Chef Robert Bartley’s San Marzano Tomato Skin Chips
Chef developed this method of preserving tomato skins while working at Lotus with the legendary Chef Susur Lee. Lee was committed to canning all of the restaurants tomatoes in-house every season, which meant a long-haul, post-service shift for the chefs that lasted from 11:00 p.m. long into the early hours. With respect to Lee’s waste-nothing ethos, Bartley suggested drying or frying the by-product mountains of tomato skins to create elegant and transparent vegetable chips, and to use as garnish. Susur loved the idea, and the rest is restaurant history. Ingredients
Any quantity San Marzano or other tomato skins (typically a by-product of canning or blanching/peeling for use in specific recipes)
Good quality, extra virgin olive oil
A basic food dehydrator or
Two sheet pans or cookie trays, with or without sides
Oven-proof parchment paper
One cooling rack
Method - Food Dehydrator
Set food dehydrator to its lowest setting
Place tomato skins in single layers on trays, not touching (without silicone liners)
Rotate trays if able, and process for two+ hours, until completely dry
Remove trays and allow skins to cool
Method - Oven
Preheat oven to 225F (85C)
Place tomato skins on a parchment lined sheet pan or cookie sheet, not touching.
Cover with a second piece of parchment and then a second sheet pan or cookie sheet
Dry in the oven for two to four hours, until dry, turning the pan back to front occasionally. Processing time will vary according to the size and depth of the pans and the thickness of parchment. Check occasionally by lifting the top sheet pan and parchment
Remove trays from oven, remove top pan and parchment, and place lower parchment on a wire rack to cool
As shown: drizzle lightly with excellent quality olive oil and sea salt, and serve as a snack or appetizer.
Serve topped with thick crème fraîche and caviar
Use as a garnish for cold soups, whole or crumbled
Include on a charcuterie board or cheese tray
Gift to someone you love
So ends my farmers’ market musings. I hope I have provided food for thought about the food that sustains us, and our indebtedness to the people who grow, raise and produce it.
Until next week, happy gardening! To learn about urban permaculture and permaculture principles, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics. If you haven't subscribed to Modern Farmer's Million Gardens Movement newsletter, please do.