AT THE HEART OF JEAN-TALON MARKET FOR MORE THAN 50 YEARS!
Birri et frères, market gardeners and nursery owners.
Fresh local produce harvested daily; plants and seeds.
You can’t miss them. The Birri brothers take up a huge space in the heart of the Jean-Talon Market. They they both have intense blue eyes, and like every member of their team, they wear forest green overalls or pants. These market gardeners and nursery owners also sell seeds and, especially in winter, greenhouse-grown products.
They arrived in Montreal as young children. Their father, a farmer named Giuseppe Birri, had left Northern Italy a few years before, leaving wife and children behind, to settle in the “New World.” Lino was five years old when his mother Nerina brought him, his sister and two brothers to Canada to join Giuseppe, who had found a job as a terrazzo installer. It was the early 1960s, and terrazzo was all the rage! A few years later, Giuseppe was injured and could not work for two years. Bruno and Lino had no choice but to put their shoulders to the wheel and help the family. Living in the heart of Little Italy (on Dante Street, then on Drolet, where they had a view of the market), the opportunity was a no-brainer. They landed jobs filling sacks of potatoes for a certain Mr. Desgroseillers. This did not last long…
After finishing their studies, they started working outside the market during the week and on weekends, selling products they had bought from local producers. These farmers, being too busy working the land, were delighted that they could count on the brothers. In those days, to have a stand at the market, you had to be a farmer, until some of these farmers/retailers abused their privilege by subletting their spaces to others, who in turn sub-sublet these spaces, and so on. In the late 1970s, the City of Montreal put an end to this racket and granted permits to the people who occupied the stands, regardless of their status. This is how the Birri brothers ended up with two stands in a prime location at the heart of the market. They have been there for more than 40 years.
In the mid-1980s, Lino and Bruno decided to become producers, and they bought land to farm. “We acquired our knowledge gradually, as the market opened up to the world,” says Lino. “Our customers were no longer exclusively French, English or Italian. They came from Asia, the Middle East, South America, etc. We then began developing our restaurant clientele. This explosion in new needs was very rewarding for us. We started producing new vegetables, and rediscovering vegetables that had been long forgotten.”
Bruno Birri is the produce expert, while Lino is the champion with customers. Together, they have contributed to the rise in popularity of arugula, heirloom tomatoes and bitter gourds, to name a few.
Today, training is crucial for the Birris. Hang around their stand for a few minutes on a weekend morning, and you will see it in action. Lino and Bruno are masters at welcoming customers (in French, English or Italian), or entrusting them to other members of their team with helpful advice, such as “Watch out for the leaves. They should be full and pale green… Don’t cut the flowers too soon… These are not shallots, but stalks of garlic, and you can eat the roots…” All with a warm smile and a friendly voice.
Lino remembers as if it were yesterday when he and Bruno decided to become market gardeners themselves. “It was as if we were reconnecting with our roots, those of our Northern Italian ancestors. Today, we sell our own products, but we also work closely with around ten local producers, who grow some of Quebec’s best produce for us.”
For the Birri brothers, finding employees who can serve customers with as much attention as they do is a major challenge. They manage, but it’s not easy. “We choose our employees carefully,” Lino explains.
As if this were possible, Lino’s eyes become even bluer when he starts talking about the precious links that he and his brother have built with the greatest chefs of more than a hundred restaurants in the Montreal region. “Our work is so complementary; it’s exciting to discuss with them, to share our discoveries and theirs.” The chefs at Les Enfants Terribles are among those fortunate enough to work with these two passionate enthusiasts of local products.
“La famiglia! My ancestors, for sure. My parents, who worked so hard. Our family at the Jean-Talon Market is big; it includes not only a large number of Birris, but we must also count everyone who works with us: employees, producers, neighbouring vendors, customers, etc. They are all part of the family!”
“Continue our momentum, discover new ways to grow vegetables, discover new vegetables. That’s our real driving force.”
AWARDS or HIGHLIGHTS
When asked about awards or distinctions he may have received, Lino turns to the people who are browsing the aisles of his stands or waiting for this interview to end, so that they can ask him what to plant in their garden. “This is my award! My customers who come back every year.”
La polenta, certo !!
ENFANT TERRIBLE SINCE 2010
Photos Credit: Hélène Laurendeau
Each month, we feature one of our suppliers, a local producer with whom we are proud and happy to work with.
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