There is a green grocer near my apartment that goes by the name of Bob. Bob and I have a long, if disjointed, history. I first met him twelve years ago, when I was living with my college boyfriend in Mile-End, three streets over from his shop. In that year and a half, most of our groceries were done at Bob’s. Sometimes we’d order a samosa from the display counter on our way out, sharing bites on our walk home until all that was left were the oily remnants of a brown paper bag and grease-slicked fingers. If I did groceries on my own, it meant that I had the whole samosa to myself, which was even better.

When that relationship came to end, I moved to the opposite end of the city, only to return to the neighbourhood two years later, renting out a tiny 2 1/2 sandwiched between a used book store and a Greek restaurant on Parc Avenue, one short block away from Bob’s. He greeted my first visit back with a “Hey you – long time no see! How’ve you been?“, and we picked up where we left off, as though no time had passed.

I’d pop into the shop on my way home from work to pick up bananas, or leafy greens, or some cheese with a container of olives, scooped from a briny vat at the back of the store. The cheese and olives were something I usually reserved for Fridays, when I could crack open a bottle of wine and make myself a little plate to eat cross-legged on the couch while I made plans for the night. It was a civilised touch to an apartment that had barely any natural light and where the living room-slash-kitchen could be crossed with one purposeful leap. The building also housed an Arcade Fire-wannabe band that liked to have late-night jam sessions (trombone included), and a sketchy pot-dealer who lived just below the rickety stairs of the fire escape, which happened to lead to my equally rickety bedroom window.

But it was the night the ceiling of the building’s entrance collapsed, sending chunks of gyprock to shatter (quite spectacularly) onto the marble floor below, that I decided it was finally time to move. Again.

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In what now seems like a strange, cyclical pattern, I came back to the neighbourhood after two years away, renting out the apartment I’m currently in – which, mercifully, has sturdy ceilings, well-groomed interiors, and good neighbours. Perhaps more importantly, it shares a three-block radius with Bob’s shop, whose proximity I now see as my reward for being a creature of habit, boomeranging back to the neighbourhood like a stubborn stray dog.

When Bob saw me come into the store after another prolonged absence, he smiled:

Back again?

“Yep, back again, Bob.”

Nice to see you. How’ve you been?”

And we picked up where we left off, as though no time had passed.

Aside from one expansion into the neighbouring building that opened up a second wing to the store, nothing much has changed; in the mornings you can still find Bob manning the cash, or more likely, at the back in the produce section, trimming herbs and stacking produce into Tetris-style layers and rows. There is no other shop I know that does this as expertly as him. Even after all these years, I still find it to be a beautiful feat of engineering.

Bob the green grocer // © julia chews the fatBob the green grocer // © julia chews the fatBob the green grocer // © julia chews the fat

When I pass through, we exchange hellos; he asks me how I’m doing, and I ask the same. Sometimes we trade ideas for recipes. If he notices a bruised fruit in my groceries, he’ll remove it and swap it for a better one. When I show interest in a new product, he’ll sometimes toss it in for free. And if I happen to be missing some change when he rings up the total, he tells me to pay him the next time.

None of these things are reserved specially for me – Bob is like this with all his clients, especially his regulars. He looks out for us, and makes us feel welcome, making him more than a purveyor of produce; he is a purveyor of community, a vital layer to this tight-knit, melting pot of a neighbourhood, where anglophones, francophones, Hasidic families, and hipsters walk through his door on the daily. His connection to his neighbours and patrons is a big part of the reason I keep coming back to his shop, twelve years after that first bite of samosa. When I get pulled back to the neighbourhood year after year, I’m glad to know Bob is there, at the centre of it all, keeping the pulse of the community beating.

While the store is open seven days a week, and I come by to do my shopping all year-round, springtime is when Bob’s begins to blossom in earnest. Come April, the big green outdoor awning gets unfurled, stretching over stacks of produce – both local and imported. This week I’ve been stocking up on the more ephemeral, seasonal stuff from Quebec and Ontario, like his beautiful fava beans – buttery and toothsome – and his first batches of delicate, purple-tinged asparagus, that need nothing more than a quick steam to become sweet and tender. Next week I might stock up on fiddleheads, which have just started to make an appearance in his outside market space, along with green and yellow string beans that you can grab in fistfuls, right out of the box.

Bob the green grocer // © julia chews the fatBob the green grocer // © julia chews the fatBob the green grocer // © julia chews the fat

Bob’s fresh herbs are nice too, though sometimes I buy too much at once, and they start to wilt in the Mason-jar vases that I keep on the counter (don’t do this; clean your herbs, pat them dry and store in the fridge. They will last much, much longer).

The recipe below is something I like to make with the mix of herbs I usually pick up at his shop, even the ones that end up a bit wilty on the countertop. It’s a simple sheet-pan chicken recipe where you blitz herbs, shallot, garlic, and red wine vinegar until you have a grassy paste that you spread over the chicken after it’s been roasted. There are a few chili flakes in there too, which adds a nice pinch, along with the vinegar that cuts the rich chicken schmaltz really nicely.

Next time I see Bob, I’m going to tell him about this recipe. Maybe he’ll trade it for one of his recipes, or at least tell me where he gets his samosas.

Bob’s shop:
Fruiterie Mile-End
5686 Av Du Parc (corner Bernard)
Montreal, Québec H2V 4H1
514-278-5576

Herbs // © julia chews the fat

Chicken Smothered in Herbs (Serves 4) – adapted from Alexandra’s Kitchen

Ingredients

  • 1 whole chicken (about 4 lbs), quartered and backbone removed, room temperature (keep the chicken pieces bone-in, skin-on)
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup packed parsley
  • 1/4 cup dill
  • 1/4 cup mint*
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 shallot, peeled
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (or to taste)

Note: there’s no need to use these measurements as a steadfast rule. Any nice mixture of herbs will do (e.g. basil in the summertime).  I usually go easy on mint and dill as they tend to overpower, but the idea is to use any fresh herbs you have on hand, adjusting to taste.

Chicken Smothered in Herbs // © julia chews the fatChicken Smothered in Herbs // © julia chews the fat

Directions

1) An hour before baking, remove the chicken pieces from the fridge and let it rest on the rimmed sheet pan you will use to roast it on.

2) Preheat oven to 450°F. Pat chicken dry really well with paper towels, then rub with 1 Tbsp of the olive oil. Season liberally with salt and pepper, making sure to season the undersides too. Arrange chicken pieces skin-side up, and roast until golden, about 30 minutes.

3) Meanwhile, make the sauce: in a food processor, pulse the herbs with the garlic, shallot, red pepper flakes, and red wine vinegar until you get a sort of chunky paste. Season with salt.

4) When the chicken is almost finished roasting, and crispy on the outside, remove from oven and onto a plate. Scrape the pan juices and crispy bits into the food processor with the herb mixture. Whizz it up to combine, then return the chicken pieces to the roasting pan, spooning over some herb mixture on each piece. Put the chicken back in the oven for another 2-3 minutes to let the flavours meld. Remove the chicken from the oven and let rest on the pan for about 10 minutes before serving.

Chicken Smothered in Herbs // © julia chews the fat