Over 150 years ago, Toronto had a reputation for producing the best pork in the world. That’s right – Toronto isn’t nicknamed “Hogtown” for nothing. Back in the 1800s, Brits salivated over Canadian bacon and ate it by the millions of pounds. Where Starbucks and condos now dominate, pigs once roamed in their pens and were slaughtered at an abattoir on Front Street East. Such a boar-ish scene today would have yuppies dialing 311 and their real estate agents.
But most locals and visitors are pig ignorant of Toronto’s contribution to the pork industry. It’s only been recently that “Hogtown history” has started to be celebrated. Last May, Toronto Urban Adventures launched a bacon-themed guided tour called “When Pigs Fry” – a food tour that offers more than eating. On this guided three-hour walk along “the bacon trail,” you can learn about the history of the pork industry in Toronto while tasting some of the best bacon dishes in the city. Afterall, peameal bacon was born at the St. Lawrence Market.
The tour starts outside the Gooderham Flatiron Building (above), right in the heart of Old Toronto. Believe it or not, the pig farming industry once thrived in this neighbourhood – hard to imagine today surrounded by city traffic and towering condo buildings.
The original building of the William Davies Company (above) still stands at the corner of Frederick & Front Streets - once the largest pork packer in the British Empire. In the 1850s, Mr. Davies sold cured hams and bacon at a stall in the St. Lawrence Market. But when he started exporting products to England, the man hit the jackpot. The Brits gobbled up the cured Canadian meat by the millions of pounds, eventually leading Toronto to be dubbed “Hogtown.”
At Paddington’s Pump, we took a moment to smell the bacon and to sample the Market’s signature snack – an “Oink on a Kaiser” (above). I’m usually not a fan of peameal bacon, but I reconsidered after biting into the briny meat on toasted buttery bread. As I learned from our guide, we can thank William Davies for peameal bacon – the practice of rolling cured bacon in dried and ground yellow peas originates from his company. Today, the bacon is actually rolled in ground yellow cornmeal.
After a quick streetcar ride and some pig trivia, we arrived at our next destination: Lou Dawg’s Southern Barbeque. As I settled onto a barstool, the waitress handed me a fork, a napkin, and a steaming basket of Canadian poutine with a Southern spin. I dug into the fresh-cut Yukon fries topped with homemade chicken stock gravy, cheese curds, and pulled pork. The meat was so tender that it nearly dissolved on my tongue with the gravy’s sweet and smoky flavour. This dish may look sloppy in the photo, but I assure you, it tasted gourmet in my mouth. For Saturday night poutine emergencies, Lou Dawg’s is open until 4am for a post-bar night snack.
We took a bacon break and made a detour into a busy alley that’s used by Rick Mercer for his infamous video rants and by graffiti artists painting the town red… and all the colours of the rainbow. I was amazed to watch these artists expertly craft their masterpieces onto walls with spray paint. For those interested in learning more about this underground art scene, Toronto Urban Adventures will be launching a graffiti walking tour in the near future.
A good friend of mine once said, “bacon is a vegetable.” Well, it’s almost true at The Healthy Butcher – a Queen West shop that sells fresh, organic meat supplied by local farmers who “actually care about their animals.” Here, the meat beams lobster red and originates from sustainably-practicing farms that raise livestock outdoors and in humane conditions.
Of course, there’s is a price tag attached to organic farming – it’s $15 for 1lbs of organic bacon vs. Metro’s $5 per pack. If you can afford the extra money, it’s a worthwhile cost to sink your teeth into what’s arguably the best bacon in the city.
A few steps down the street, and we’re transported to another time and place at WVRST – a modern German beer hall with communal tables and a 1940’s flare. With the blood red wall tiles, dark interior, and hanging industrial bulbs, it feels like a subway station with a liquor license and a whole lot of sausage.
Our guide brought over trays of currywurst – sliced sausage in tomato curry sauce served with a side of country bread. This dish originates from Germany and is incredibly popular as a street food. In fact, Volkswagen hired its own sausage-maker for its employees and sells over 3 million orders of currywurst per year at the factory! The spicy ketchup stung my lips, so make sure to order a craft beer to wash it down.
This was one of the best guided food tours that I’ve experienced – it was three hours of oinkin’ fun. I appreciated learning about Toronto’s rich history, organic farming, and the fusion of Canadian cuisine with diverse cultures. After taking this tour, I am proud to call myself a “Hogtowner.”