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Napa Sonoma Magazine
Summer / Fall 2006

At The Market

A wine country agricultural expert explores the benefits of farmers markets—beyond their fresh produce

By Jeff Dawson

If you’ve ever tasted a freshly picked tomato, you’ve likely noticed the difference between this sweet, delicious, farm-fresh variety and its lackluster supermarket cousin. Thankfully, in wine country, you can get tomatoes and all manner of other produce directly from local growers at a number of farmers markets. Each farmer has picked his or her crops the day before, or even that morning (supermarket produce takes three to seven days to reach the shelf), and is generally more than happy to impart tips ranging from how to discern optimal ripeness to cooking techniques to recipes.

A farmers market is much like a town square, where friends and acquaintances can gather and chat. If you visit the markets regularly, you’ll get in tune with the seasonality of produce, which is completely obscured in modern supermarkets (melons are in season from July through September, for example, not year-round). Shopping at the farmers market is also a great experience for kids, who can see that food is grown by farmers and doesn’t always come packed in plastic.

The idea behind farmers markets was developed by the Department of Food and Agriculture in 1977. It was an effort to help family farms compete with California’s big industrial farms by marketing local products directly to consumers. The designation California Certified guarantees that the consumer is buying produce directly from the farmer who produced it. At the farmers market, sellers are only too happy to talk to you about their wares. They can clue you in about which produce is at its peak ripeness and which crops they’ll be harvesting in the upcoming weeks. What’s more, they usually have great recipe suggestions for the produce they sell.

The markets offer an unrivaled variety of flavorful treats. In spring, you’ll find salad greens, bulb fennel, asparagus, artichokes, and green garlic. At the height of summer, you can find lettuce, tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, squash, sweet peppers, chilies, herbs, and more. In fall, apples, pears, winter squash, and pumpkins come into season. Winter is the time of kales and chards, beets and carrots, and a multitude of head lettuces. You’ll often find heirloom varieties that are new to the marketplace. And the latest trends in fruits and vegetables that you read about in cooking magazines will usually appear at the farmers market long before you see them in the supermarket. Farmers markets are also a great source for organic produce. Many growers are certified organic, while others use organic farming methods. Talk to the growers to find out what types of farming practices they use.

In addition to tree-ripened fruits and fresh-picked vegetables, most farmers markets also sell fish, poultry, and organic beef and pork. Bakeries offer fresh breads and pastries, and other farms produce cheese, eggs, and honey. You can even find olive oil and vinegars to dress the fresh salad mix you just bought, as well as fresh flowers for your table. No matter what you’re cooking, the freshness and quality of a farmers market can’t be beat. So grab your shopping sack and head to your local market. Once you get accustomed to the delicious, brightly colored bounty, you may never look back!

Tips for Making the Most of Your Market Experience

1. Bring small bills and change to pay for your purchases. This will make for an easy transaction with each vendor.

2. Bring a large cloth or net shopping bag. Remember that ripe fruit will bruise easily; handle your purchases with care and make multiple trips to your car if necessary.

3. Get to the market early; the selection will be best in the opening hours of the market. (If you arrive late, though, don’t despair. Sellers prefer not to be left with inventory, so you can often get some great deals just before closing time.)

4. Take a walk through the market before you begin to buy. This way you can compare prices and taste samples.

5. Be flexible, as what you’re looking for may not be at the market that week. This is a great opportunity to try
something new. The farmers can suggest what tastes best that week.

6. Don’t overbuy. All of the beautiful produce will tempt you into buying more than you should. Remember, there will be another market next week.

7. Talk to the farmers; develop a relationship with the person who grew what you’ll be eating. They can tell you how it was grown, when it’s ripe, and how long it will last in your fridge.

Napa and Sonoma Farmers Markets

Year-Round Markets
Saturday and Wednesday—Santa Rosa
May Through October Markets
Tuesday—Napa, Healdsburg, Sonoma
Wednesday—Santa Rosa downtown, Yountville
Thursday—Cotati and Windsor
Friday—Napa chef’s market
Saturday—Calistoga, Healdsburg, Napa

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