A local market is one of my favourite things to visit when I travel. I’ve sampled brunost, a Norwegian brown cheese, in a tiny market in Oslo, fresh guava fruit in Cuba and dates that melt like honey at a farmer’s market in southern California. It’s the perfect opportunity to try something new and learn from the producers themselves.
Close to home, the Kitchener Market has been my Saturday morning ritual for more than 15 years. For me, it’s the perfect combination of fresh, hyperlocal food with a side dish of community connections to growers and producers.
So, when I asked a young couple from Mexico about their favourite local places in Waterloo Region, I wasn’t at all surprised when they professed their quick love for the Kitchener Market.
Carlos Luis Zatarain and Nancy Garza Lozano arrived in Kitchener on Aug. 29, 2016, just two weeks after their wedding in Monterrey, Mexico. Zatarain came to study at Wilfrid Laurier University.
It was going to be their first time living away from home, and outside of their parents’ home. It would also be the first time they would shop for groceries, by themselves.
Zatarain’s Community Psychology program at Laurier provided them with recommendations for getting to know the community, and on the list was the Kitchener Market.
“I wasn’t really sure what that was about, but we ended up going on the second week. We got there very late. It was 1:30 P.M … because we just didn’t know,” Zatarain said.
The following week, they resolved their arrival time by a few hours, but realized they didn’t know what to ask for at the various vendors.
“The first challenge was the language when it comes to specialty items from home,” Garza said.
Zatarain credits connecting with Mary Jane Bast, who runs Bast Cheese at the Market, for learning more about finding the words for the right order.
“We arrived at her cheese stand and didn’t know what to order. How do I say, ‘Oaxaca cheese’ or ‘Chihuahua cheese’ when none of the cheeses are familiar,” Zatarain said.
Bast and her staff introduced Zatarain and Garza to a variety of cheeses and encouraged them to try different things. “Now, we love havarti cheese,” Zatarain said.
They even consult Bast when they want to replicate a Mexican dish.
“We have so many specific cheeses in Mexico. So, we would say to Mary Jane, ‘we want a cheese that we can put in a soup, so that it will melt, but not lose its consistency.’ Every time, she would recommend a cheese that has the right properties,” Garza said.
On the last Saturday before the market closed due to COVID-19, Zatarain and Garza were stocking up as best they could, not knowing when the market would reopen.
“Mary Jane gave us her card and said, ‘call me, anytime’. We still got our cheese during the pandemic. She would go out of her way to deliver or meet us,” Zatarain said.
Zatarain and Garza soon discovered that all the locally-based vendors were willing to teach them about their produce, meat, fruits and baked goods.
Charles Quality Meats helped them figure out the cuts of meat to use for traditional Mexican dishes. The Gmach family taught them about which vegetables are in season when. They were thrilled to find flour tortillas at Gingrich’s that rival those made in northern Mexico.
Arlene and Jennifer at Norris Bakery introduced Zatarain to a honey flax bread which is now a household favourite.
But, it’s more than just the food it’s the care and the small details.
“Arlene knew we were always travelling by bus, with a shopping cart. She would put the chocolate donuts in a box to set on top of the day’s purchases so they wouldn’t get squished on the journey home,” Zatarain said.
Zatarain and Garza appreciate that everyone is on a first-name basis, and vendors take the time to get to know their customers.
For a young couple far from home and the family who would normally support them, Zatarain and Garza have found relationships at the Kitchener Market which anchor their connection to local food and community which helped them embrace a different way of living.
Four years later, their routine is that of any other local — they arrive early, get the important stuff before it sells out, then find their friends and neighbours to catch up.
Juanita is a freelance travel writer and community engagement professional based in Kitchener. As a traveller, she is partial to slow travel and holds high regard for community bulletin boards and actually talking to people as the richest sources for tapping in to local experiences.
Juanita is a regular contributor to several neighbourhood blogs and websites focused on community development. Find her on Instagram @juanita_metzger