Apples are among Ontario’s culinary treasures. Their fragrance on the autumn air reminds us that they’re seasonal: the ones we eat from January to August have been stored all winter.
We also forget (or perhaps never realized) that the apples we see most commonly at the supermarket — like Empire, Gala, and McIntosh — are just a few of the many varieties grown in this province. But these three, prized for their long shelf lives and attractive exteriors, have thrived in the commercial space, while less-showy varieties, like the excellent Russet, have become rarer.
It’s at farmers markets that you can get to know Ontario’s older and less-famous varieties, like Paula Red, Sunrise, and Jersey Mac — three cooking apples that have helped turn the fritters at the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market into a must-eat treat.
Back in 1987, sisters Joanne Guenther and Marianne Witzel launched The Fritter Co. to sell a simple indulgence: deep-fried apple fritters. Since then, their modest kiosk has become a tourist attraction unto itself. It can’t have hurt that the sisters chose Ontario’s largest farmers’ market as their base of operations: hundreds of indoor and outdoor vendors attract thousands of visitors looking to buy local produce, ready-made foods, crafts, and collectibles.
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On a fair fall day, shoppers flock to nosh on homemade perogies, sample local preserves, or stock up on Mennonite summer sausage — but the lineup for fritters often extends out the door. The wait may be long, but the ritual is obligatory for many, who take the time to decide what combination of toppings — ice cream, maple syrup, or caramel sauce — they’ll add to their pastry.
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Andrew Schaefer, an artist who also happens to work as a baker at a Toronto café, has a deep affection for the fritters of his youth — and he returns home for them whenever he gets the chance. “I remember as a kid going to St. Jacobs Market; we would wander around and shop and do all the regular market things — which as a kid is pretty boring,” he says.
“But the promise of getting apple fritters at the end kept me going. I remember walking into the building, and you could smell it. As you stood in line, you would get to watch them do it. And just getting to see the whole process done right in front of you was really fascinating, because you don’t get to see food prep very often, especially as a kid.”
One of his favourite parts of the experience was watching the industrial apple peeler: “It would spin, and the peel would shoot all over the place.
“And of course, getting them was delicious. We would typically go and sit outside on one of the picnic tables. They often had a busker of some kind, usually a living statue,” he recalls. “It was just so good, the combination of textures: these nice thick rings of really flavourful apple coated in this perfect crisp deep-fried batter. It was this bowl of deliciousness that was just the apex of market-ness.”
On Labour Day weekend 2013, The Fritter Co. and other market vendors suffered a heartbreaking setback when the St. Jacobs Market building, a fixture in the community for almost 40 years, burned down overnight. It wasn’t until June 2015 that the market had its triumphant reopening. But these days, the lineups are as long as ever. Some things are worth the wait.
Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and the author of We Sure Can!: How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.