We really can’t believe our eyes. It’s this surreal world of Toronto’s first rooftop aviary. Planes swoop down to land at the Toronto Islands airport. Sailing ships, big and small, shimmer along a very placid Lake Ontario. We are completely surrounded by the biggest of the best skyscrapers in downtown Toronto. The gargoyles of the Royal York Hotel stare down at us.
Yet, our sense of smell betrays our location—as we’re atop the rooftop garden and beehives of one of Toronto’s oldest and most prestigious hotels. The sweet scent of flowers, vegetables, fine herbs, and honey fills the air.
We’d already spent a good part of the morning with Chef Tim Palmer of the Royal York Hotel, a destination known for its timeless reputation of quality, but certainly not for its garden and beehives!
We started with an espresso at his favorite coffee shop at the nearby St. Lawrence Market, a market that National Geographic Traveler readers picked as the world’s best in 2012. It’s just one of the many cool events to be experienced in Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolis.
However, our guide Chef Palmer, is genuinely excited (no, it’s not the espresso talking) to tell us in detail about all that his team grows on the roof. Not one to waste time as he explains his favorite uses of his babies, (the home-grown fruits, herbs, and vegetables), he is his busy pruning, while watering and gathering fresh produce for the hotel’s restaurant.
And although Canadians are tired about Torontonians always mentioning they are world-class this and world-class that, the city seems to be making strides in supporting the locavore movement and in paying more than lip service to sustainability.
Pineapple sage, lemon balm, and lovage are first up to bat, as we pass our hands through the leaves and savor the lingering odor. Meanwhile, the chef deftly picks tiny Alpine strawberries and makes a mini sandwich for us with a wasabi-arugula leaf. We are overwhelmed by the supreme freshness of the Soshi Herb (Japanese mint) and mojito mint used in the restaurant for salads and drinks respectively. We admire the freshest lavender we’ve ever come across and photograph it along with the bees, which are active pollinating and gathering nectar.
And then, the chef presents a tiny sandwich with one half of a, oh-so-sweet, light pink Thai tomato and a sizable fresh leaf of basil.
Oh, yes, the bees, the raison d’être of our visit.
Bees in the middle of the city? You guessed it, and lots of them—over 360,000 housed in six hives serving six Queens. Perfect symbolism for the Queen’s favorite hotel in Toronto where she and her family are served on their personal, gold-encrusted dishes and pure gold cutlery whenever they blow into town.
The bees that are as busy as, er, bees, visit the flowers and plants on the hotel roof top as well as gardens and flower pots within a five mile radius in downtown Toronto, Canada’s most populous city. They produce almost 1,000 pounds of pure, unpasteurized honey exclusively for the hotel’s use.
In fact, because it’s unpasteurized, it cannot be sold—it can only be given away. Tim makes sure the bees have fresh water, and the highlight of the tour occurs later in the elevator room of the hotel when he let us taste fresh honey and beeswax right off the honeycomb tray. True, ever-so-sweet honey that we sample off our own fingers, discreetly spitting the wax onto the floor.
Earlier that morning, at 8:30 a.m. sharp, we met up and started off on a brisk walk to Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market—named in 2012 by National Geographic as the world’s best market! Tim takes us, naturally, to the best of the best, starting at Pasta Mia for a shot of caffeine. Then, it’s off to see his old friend, Murray Graziano who’s been selling fruits and vegetables for 30 years at the market. His Golden Orchard Fine Foods was a pioneer in organic produce in Toronto and currently sells 2,000 pounds of corn, he admits, “on a quiet day!”
The place is packed as food is sold at its freshest. Murray lamented that we had missed a crop of Japanese-inspired, colorfully-named, ‘Chocolate sunrise’ corn by just a week. But we lucked out on the fresher than fresh Red Haven peaches.
Tim reminded us that stands with lots of employees are the most successful kiosks and that lineups aren’t for nothing. Following this logic, we stopped for a peameal bacon sandwich at the Carousel Bakery, a Toronto institution, teaming with clients and a huge, busy staff.
Yet Tim had another great idea—why not sample the Kozlik mustards along with the sandwich? This led to a chance encounter with Kozlik owner, Jeremy Kessler who modestly describes himself as chief bottle washer of the joint. Like so many of the venues at the St. Lawrence market, materials are made, baked, and cured, on-site.
As we sampled mustards inspired from maple syrup to Canadian Club to Bordeaux to horseradish, Mr. Kessler, without batting an eye, declared mustard “as better than caviar.”
Much to our surprise he mentioned that the oldest mustard mill in the world was down the road in Hamilton, Ontario, and 93 percent of the world’s mustard is grown in Canada. Who would have “thunk” it?
Toronto has an outstanding, or should we say upstanding, tribute to recycling. I’m referring to what I’ve dubbed the “We Are Boots (recycling) Inc.” or what is normally known as the Bata Shoe Museum.
I cannot think of any other museum where boots, shoes, sandals, moccasins, and even basketball running shoes and sneakers are featured.
The late Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, is often given credit for the push towards a multicultural Canada. So it is fitting that the sandals he wore when he backpacked around in the 1940s have ended up on display at the museum. Next to his sandals are Queen Victoria’s white, silk satin shoes. A reminder of the seriousness that once symbolized the city? The monstrous running shoes (size 20 EEE Reeboks) once on Shaquille O’Neal’s feet are found nearby, as are Anasazi sandals and Robert Redford’s cowboy boots.
The Dalai Lama’s rubber flip flops, Madonna’s pink platform sandals, Elvis Presley’s blue and white loafers, and silver Elton John platform boots have been brought together, with hundreds and hundreds of other pairs of footwear creating a perfect metaphor for Toronto’s cosmopolitan background.
Curious to know what color Justin Bieber’s Supra sneakers are? Come to the museum and you’ll find out. In fact, an entirely new sneaker exhibition entitled “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture” just opened.
Bruce Sach is a freelance writer now living in Ottawa.
Other not-to-miss festivals in Toronto include:
• NXNE: North by Northeast Music and Film Festival, June 10–16.
• Luminato, June 14–23
• Redpath Waterfront Festival Toronto, June 20–23.
• Toronto Jazz Festival, June 20–29.
• Digital Dreams Festival June 29–30.
• Caribbean Carnival, July 9–August 4.
• Toronto International Film Festival, September 5–15