What the right hook-up can get you

Shopping for duck eggs, raw-milk cream and summer sausage on the foodie black market
Sarah Elton

What the right hook-up can get youThe customers arrived one by one on a rainy Saturday morning at the secret meeting spot, a parking lot tucked behind a video store in a suburb of Toronto. There were 30 families in all: the mother of six, wearing a hijab, who made the three-hour round trip in her minivan to collect 30 litres of milk ($60 plus $20 for delivery), the middle-aged man in a red Nissan Versa, a couple of young urbanites who rose at 7:30 to get there in time. They’d made the trek, as they do every other week, for the big glass jars of raw milk—and whatever other illegal treats their supplier might have for them that day.

The farmer selling the contraband, a woman in her 30s wearing purple nail polish and a jean jacket with rhinestones, brings the milk in the bed of her pickup truck, along with small jars of raw-milk cream, unpasteurized cheese curdled in her kitchen and un-graded eggs she sells on a neighbour’s behalf.

The Saturday morning transactions are just one scene from a thriving black market in Canada for borderline illegal, locally produced foods. A desire to buy directly from growers and connect more with what we eat has foodies searching for hard-to-find delectables—even if, or perhaps especially if, they haven’t been inspected by the authorities and are technically illegal. The right social network is indispensable and, for some, may be part of the thrill. Those with friends in the right places can buy unpasteurized milk on Vancouver Island. There is at least one hidden on-farm store in Ontario that people in the know can access. And some vendors at farmers’ markets will sell you more than just fresh carrots and lettuce; an Ontario market manager has seen eggs, sausages and even raw sheep’s milk change hands under the table. Especially prized are eggs straight from the coop—that is, not transported en masse to a provincially-run facility where they are washed, inspected and graded before being trucked to the store.
Not all foods on the black market are illegal. Duck eggs, for instance, are legal for sale in most circumstances—if you can find them. This writer tried to buy some for months, ever since a friend showed off a half-dozen bought on the sly at a farmers’ market. (She insisted they’re richer than hen’s eggs and make a deeply flavoured custard—but wasn’t inclined to share.) The “egg lady” in Toronto’s Kensington Market used to sell turkey eggs—three times the size of chicken eggs, with giant, orange yolks and a deep, mellow flavour—but she passed away last year.

Out in the country it’s permitted to purchase un-graded eggs straight from the farm. Locating their forbidden cousins in the city is the challenge, says food writer Chris Nuttall-Smith, who extols their virtues in an essay in a forthcoming anthology. “You’ve got to hook up with someone who’s got a hook-up. It’s like buying drugs,” he says. But it is worth the effort, he says, because they are so much fresher. “Illegal eggs taste amazing.”

Those who buy illicit cured meats are even more fanatical. To get her hands on a famously succulent (in some circles) homemade summer sausage that just comes wrapped in a white cheesecloth, one woman takes deliveries at home or drives to the farmer who makes it. It’s a beef sausage with an unusual, sweet flavour, and her three-year-old daughter loves it. “He’s very cautious. If he doesn’t know you, you don’t get it,” she says. “We’ve done social visits. We go out and have lunch with him and bring a cooler.” The sausage is verboten because it’s made on the farm, and any kind of meat product must be prepared in a kitchen that adheres to provincial safety regulations, even if it uses meat slaughtered in a government-inspected facility.

The farmers who provide foodies with their fix are taking a risk. Last year, a man in eastern Ontario was fined $3,000 for selling un-graded eggs to restaurants. And the Saturday-morning farmer’s cows aren’t even part of the quota system. In Canada, dairy farmers must sell their milk through provincial marketing boards, not on the free market. If caught, she could face serious penalties.

But customers are happy to keep the transactions secret. The reason they do it, says a Toronto-area chef who dines regularly on forbidden foods with his family, is the pleasure of it. “It’s about getting rid of the people in the middle,” he says. Besides, “when you have it, you can’t go back.”

Postscript: While writing this, the author acquired unpasteurized cream, two litres of raw milk, eight duck eggs and two turkey eggs. (The eggs were a present and so legal.)