If there’s one way to get a feeling for a city’s culinary life, it’s to visit their farmers markets. I love wandering down rows of stalls featuring the amazingly fresh bounty that each area has to offer, and somehow it always brightens my day, whether it’s at one of my local markets or in a city I’m visiting. With the farm-to-table idea increasingly taking hold across the country, the markets also can serve as your first point of reference for what ingredients many chefs in a particular area are likely using. More than that, though, there’s just nothing quite like the experience of talking to the farmers, seeing what’s fresh and inseason, and buying locally produced goods. At most farmer’s markets, you can buy prepared foods for a meal at your lodging or the perfect picnic, baked goods and other quick snacks, or products like olive oils, hot sauces, and jams to bring home as souvenirs.
BALLARD FARMERS MARKET
Open for over twenty years, this Sunday market (my favorite of the three weekly markets in the city) is a dream, with over 50 vendors lining up along a cobblestone stretch of Ballard Avenue and snaking up 22nd Avenue. You’ll find a wealth of products produced by Washington State farmers (the market requires that producers be located in-state, and that vendors be the actual producers). It’s a paradise of Northwest bounty, with the abundance of fresh fish you’d expect in Seattle, and stands offer everything from fresh produce to artisanal cheese to fresh eggs to cider (Washington is, after all, apple country). You’ll also find an array of ceramics and photography, as well as such delights as hot sauces (who can resist those from a company named Hot Babe?) and baked goods ranging from Deborah’s Pies to the gluten-free offerings of Shambala and much more. Top it off with fresh-canned tuna or salmon, homemade jams, candles, local honey, and skin care products to take home. Jonboy Caramels or Pete’s Toffee provide a sweet end to your explorations. For more information on the various Seattle markets, www.sfmamarkets.com.
SANTA ROSA, CALIFORNIA SANTA
ROSA ORIGINAL CERTIFIED FARMERS MARKET
The Saturday market in Santa Rosa (www.thesantarosafarmersmarket.com), held in the parking lot at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, is my favorite of the many Sonoma County farmers markets (complete list at www.sonomacounty.com/articles/sonoma-countyfarmers-markets-bloom-spring-and-summer). There’s a seasonal market on Wednesdays in the same location, but the year-round Saturday one is the big one. It’s all grown/harvested in California, and the state’s bounty is aided by its long growing season. There’s something so California about this market, where you can get mushrooms from Bohemian Well Being Farms, organic vegetables from Confluence Farms, and microgreens from Humble Roots. Check out the beautiful fruit at Ponce Farms and Schletewitz Family Farms, fresh produce at Singing Frogs Farm, and more: fresh eggs, seafood, grass-fed beef, and an overwhelming profusion of produce. Grab an artichoke/ olive/feta or tomato/pesto/mozzarella focaccia at Raymond’s Breads for a perfect snack, or get one of their loaves to combine with Valley Ford Creamery’s perfect Estero Gold cheese as you head to the Russian River for a picnic, which needless to say you will finish off with some of the stylish and delicious truffles of Fleur Savage Chocolates. There’s a wide array of artisans offering everything from The Tinkerer’s lovely woodworking creations to Jungle Maiden Organic Jewelry (like I said, it’s California). You can opt instead for edible gifts such as the wonderful vegetable-infused pasta of Beet Generation Farm, luscious Eyrie Olive Oil, or the unique blends of Berkmans Spices, along with some Dutton Estates Fumé Blanc or late harvest Syrah to wash it all down. It’s a joy to see the parking lot taken over by rows and rows of stalls, and the high quality of the goods is matched by the friendliness of the vendors, making a trip to this market a guaranteed mood-lifter.
OLD TOWN SCOTTSDALE FARMERS MARKET
With Arizona’s unique weather, the Saturday Old Town Market (www.arizonacommunityfarmersmarkets.com) carries an opposite schedule from most seasonal markets, being open October to May (but let’s face it, that’s when you’re likely to be visiting anyway). Located right at the heart of Old Town Scottsdale, across from the landmark Old Mission, the market stretches across a city block in the city Parking Corral. Everything is grown in Arizona, so you can get a true taste of the local abundance, from vegetables and meat to local honey made from mesquite and other Arizona wildflowers. There’s a concentration on the healthy here, and the two largest vendors, Blue Sky Organic Farms and McClendon Select, are both certified organic, with a majority of the other market’s farmers adhering to organic protocols as well. With about 85 vendors (that number is likely to increase once the pandemic ends), you can easily find something you love, whether it’s food to prepare or, post-COVID, enjoy in one of their dining areas. You can also pick up something great to take home as an Arizona souvenir: the aforementioned honeys, tortillas, locally roasted coffee beans, even local plants like joboba and Havasupai sunflowers. If your taste runs to the fiery, definitely check out Big Red’s hot sauce, and don’t overlook the great beeswax candles from Flagstaff’s Golden Hive. Of course, not everyone you bring an edible souvenir home for will be human, so stop by the wondrously-named Happy Tails Bakery for some homemade dog treats!
RITTENHOUSE SQUARE FARMERS’ MARKET
Elegant Rittenhouse Square is one of my most beloved spots in Philadelphia, and that’s particularly true on Tuesdays and Saturdays when the Rittenhouse Farmers’ Market (www.farmtocitymarkets.com) takes place. The Saturday market is my favorite, offering a wide variety of vendors, all of whom must grow/bake/produce their own products, and come from within 150 miles of Philadelphia. Here you’ll find everything you’ve come to love from the area, with providers as wide-ranging as several area apple orchards, Davidson Exotic Mushrooms, Buck Wild Bison, and Gail’s Fresh Eggs. Even the great products of The Pasta Lab are made with local grains and other ingredients from the region. For a perfect take-out meal, try soups from Thai sweet potato to chicken/orzo from Good Spoon Soupery, perhaps with a baguette or some rolls from Wildflour Bakery, or the unique creations of Merzbacher’s, famous for their “Philly muffins.” There’s also an interesting assortment of non-food items: flowers, wine, cider, metal art, and even alpaca products offered by Trotter Hill for that fashionista in your circle. I also love potables from Red Brick Craft Distillery and Deer Creek Malthouse (the latter also offers wonderful local ingredients for home bakers). With a perfect setting in this storied square, and a huge variety of goods from the area, the market is a lovely way to get a feel for Philadelphia at its best.
SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA
DOWNTOWN FARMERS MARKET
Interestingly, of the various farmers markets held around Santa Monica (www.farmersmarket.smgov.net), it’s the Wednesday market that has become the most famous. I remember stumbling onto this market, held along Arizona Avenue, and being amazed at the wide variety of beautifully fresh goods. I’m not alone, as the market, around since 1981, has become a favorite of chefs, and has helped propel the Los Angeles area’s farm-to-table movement. In fact, it’s proven to be such a winner for both farmers and shoppers; three vendors have been here since the market began forty years ago. Everything here is produced in California and only the producers are allowed to sell the goods, which stretch over several blocks of goodness, transforming this area of downtown Santa Monica into a farm-fresh nirvana offering a huge range of both familiar and exotic crops. Stroll through stand after stand of goodness from citrus, dates, passionfruit, figs, lemongrass, guavas, and (of course) avocadoes to any vegetable you can imagine, as well as honey, lavender, and a variety of Asian herbs. An almond pastry from Fat Uncle hits the spot (they also sell the nuts as well as heritage flours), while luscious cheeses from Drake Family Farms or Achadinha (which also makes the world’s most spectacular cultured butter) provide the perfect start to a picnic at Santa Monica’s nearby beach. While there are no arts and crafts vendors, there is a plethora of jams, jellies, salsas, pickles, dried fruit, oils (pistachio, avocado, and olive, to name a few), and even beeswax candles, so you’ll find plenty to take home and remember the market by. Just don’t be surprised if that person shopping next to you turns out to be the chef in the restaurant where you have dinner.
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NEW YORK, NEW YORK
UNION SQUARE GREENMARKET
You really can’t write about farmers’ markets without mentioning the Union Square Greenmarket (www.grownyc.org/greenmarket), which, as far as I’m concerned, is the king of farmers markets. Held four times a week, the bustling urban market covers just about this entire huge city square, and the selection of freshly produced wares is pretty astounding. Saturday tends to be the most crowded, and pre-COVID it would attract over 50,000 shoppers! So as a New Yorker, I would visit one of the other days (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). Whenever you happen to be in New York, though, make it a point to get there. Around since the 1970s, on a peak day there can be almost 150 vendors offering seasonal produce of every type imaginable, along with such area favorites as Hudson Valley Duck, Deep Mountain Maple, and Tonjes Farm Diary. If you want it, you’ll find it here, from lavender to moonshine, carrots to kimchee, merino products to goat cheese, ostrich eggs to local honey. Need a quick pick-me-up? Visit Bread Alone organic bakery, Body and Soul vegan bakeshop, She-Wolf Bakery (breads from local grains), and many others for some delicious baked goods. Note: if you’re taking breads home, can you really live without blackcurrant/absinthe jam from Beth’s Farm Kitchen? Speaking of bakers: GrowNYC also runs a grain stand on Wednesdays and Saturdays, where you can find that perfect milled-in-the-Northeast wheat or rye flour, or heirloom cornmeal. There’s something so New York about the plentiful sufficiency at this market that whether you go as a shopper or just to see something amazing, you’re in for a treat.