One thing we needed to do on our California trip (which is ongoing, as we are writing to you from our lovely room at the San Francisco Ritz-Carlton, unofficial sponsor of this blog, don't we wish) was to visit Farmers' Markets.
We had heard so much about them, and, although we do not wish to minimize the love we have for our own Union Square Green market or the wonderful Rhinebeck Farmers' Market, or even for the roadside stands at home in the Hudson Valley, we knew that California was going to offer us something special: produce, especially tomatoes, from a non-blighted region of the world.
See? The 'maters are bright, like stars at night, deep in the heart of Cali. No, no, stop singing; this is serious business.
The fact is that back East we've been having a frightful time with the Blight, and it isn't a laughing matter; home gardeners such as ourself had to pull up and then bury blighted tomato plants, but the commercial farmers have been losing their year's profits, and something like that could put a farm under for good.
Anyway, the tomatoes here, heirloom for choice, are gorgeous. We and La Skolnique had an heirloom tomato salad at almost every meal as we trekked from San Fran to Calistoga and then back down to Santa Cruz; they were available everywhere and, especially when drenched with good cold-pressed California olive oil (Stonehouse for choice) and topped with Burrata cheese (a very good brand is available at Trader Joe's) and then further topped with fleur de sel, they are fancy eating indeed and pose very little health trouble, even for ourself and psychotronic Paul.
The Ferry Building Farmers' Market, Saturday--For San Fran foodies, this tends to be The Big Event, and why not? The setting is wonderful--The Ferry Building, a construction which survived the great earthquake of 1906 and decades of urban blight following, has been brought back to a shining ideal, set about, disconcertingly, with palm trees and trams. It is an actual transportation center, but the Staten Island Ferry never looked this good. Also, it is filled with really good food shops; not just good, considering it's a tourist site, or good, considering it's a scenic point, but as good as any in New York City and, beyond doubt, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Boston, or Miami. (Those are the cities to which we have traveled in adult life, and we stand by our statement.)
On Saturdays the parking lot and surrounding sidewalk become the largest Farmers' Market we have ever seen, and we have seen a bunch of them. In fact, it is a bit crowded, and if you want to get some serious shopping done, you'd better bring a capacious backpack or even a rolling cart. Here are some of our favorites:
Shop under the beneficent gaze of the Mahatma, who, on non-market days, overlooks the parking lot with equal serenity
The stand-out was Dirty Girl Produce, which is grown near Santa Cruz. They use a technique called "dry farming" which somehow induces the roots of the tomato plant to spread themselves deep in the soil and to thirstily trap every drop of moisture. This leads to a tomato of deep flavor and rich juices, the very opposite of watery, and splendid for every type of use, from canning to eating out-of-hand. It is, of course, an economical and planet-friendly way to garden, and we admire the brains of the gardeners every bit as much as we admire the taste of the fruit itself.
Those persons interested in good-looking young women will also tip the fedora to whatever genius hires the beautiful girls who offer a taste (of the tomatoes) to passers-by. It's an old marketing trick, but a good one.
The Santa Cruz Farmers Market, Wednesday--This one was just as crowded, but set in a nondescript parking lot which seemed to typify what Santa Cruz is all about. I's a town of scrubby cheap coffee shops and world-class home decorating boutiques; a town too poor for a branch of Sur la Table, which amply supports the better and independent Chefworks. Santa Cruz is the kind of place where generations-wealthy people keep up the income by renting out rooms in their homes, and gentle people with flowers in their hair can tell you about the last time they went back East, in that old van, man, to see that righteous music festival on Yasgur's farm. (You might be forgiven for thinking they indulged in the brown acid.)
But Santa Cruz's agricultural backbone lies in one of the most fertile parts of the Central Coast, and the farmers who inhabit the Wednesday market have great new ideas and sound old ones for bringing in the sheaves. The aforementioned Dirty Girl Farm sells here, as does the Happy Girl company (oddly, unrelated) which serves preserved goods such as beautiful peaches, "smashed" heirloom tomatoes and the spiciest heirloom tomato juice available. We are going to weigh down our luggage with some of these, but you can order on line at the website.)
The Farmers' Market is like the town, a little rough and tumble but with a clear knowledge of what's good and how much the people need it. Produce abounds; there are few stalls for prepared food or cheeses, but, taken in combination with the good cheeses, condiments and dressings available at Trader Joe's or the local Whole Leaf, the Cruzans can keep their bodies nourished and their wallets full.
We purchased "tree" oyster mushrooms, about fifteen thumb-sized baby artichokes (for Santa Cruz is only about five miles from Castroville, Artichoke Capital of the World), yet more heirloom tomatoes, and a passel of herbs, all of which went into a memorable midnight supper which we fed to Psychotronic Paul from the kitchen on Hinds House, about which we will tell you in another post.
Ferry Building Farmers Market, Thursday: Back in San Fran, we discovered that the Thursday market was a little different: smaller, and more focused on prepared foods, which were far more appropriate to our status as guest-without-kitchen.
Cap'n Mike's Sandwich Board. Iconic sandwiches made with some of the best smoked fish in America.
These sandwiches, made as they were fresh by Cap'n Mike's comely helpers, were more than delicious; as with the best-made sandwiches, we found them to be even yummier the next day, after being kept under mild refrigeration. (It allows the flavors to mix). Cap'n Mike sells a variety of smoked fish and we would recommend every last one of them. He also supplies Russ and Daughters in New York, so you know his product is pretty damn great.
Yes, we drank sauerkraut juice--it was a tradition with our late Dad, although we never understood why, because the sauerkraut juice from our Waldbaum's at home was merely pickling brine, and not in the least tasty. Then we had a long talk with the proprietress of Farmhouse Culture sauerkraut, who let us in on all the secrets of fermentation, probiotics and other great stuff which comes served up in every spicy little jigger of juice. How much happier to eat a pint or so of the crunchy, salty/sweet/hot, delicious kraut itself! We have munched our way through two pints in the past week, and our stomach has never been happier.