Iam a farm animal. I’ve been hooked on farmers markets since I strolled through my very first one. It was the Union Square farmers market in New York City, in the summer of 1981. I recall seeing foods I’d never even before heard of, much less tasted. There were trays of strange-sounding produce like arugula and radicchio and elephant garlic and cilantro—all sold straight from the backs of trucks by the farmers who grew them. In some cases, the fruits, herbs and vegetables they hawked had been in the ground that very morning!
I remember buying a colossal bag of just-picked basil and a head of fresh garlic at the Union Square market, excited at the prospect of making my very first batch of homemade pesto. The basil and garlic together cost me about a buck, and I spent another couple of dollars on the way home at Todaro Bros. on pine nuts and imported pasta. I’ve not eaten store-bought pesto since.
Maybe it’s true that you can’t go home again. But it’s also true that you can find ways to relive small moments from the past. This is exactly what I did on a recent Saturday, when I got up early in the morning and drove down to Pioneer Park from my home in Park City, to stroll through the Downtown Farmers Market. Separated by nearly two-and-a-half decades from my first farmers market experience, I was on another pesto mission.
A farmers market might look like a free-for-all—people seem to pinball haphazardly from vendor to vendor, nibbling at this and purchasing that—but most of the dedicated market-goers I know have a method to their marketing madness. There are rules to be followed; schedules to meet. Always feeling a bit peckish when surrounded by so many food options, I like to begin my morning at the Downtown Farmers Market with a Belgian waffle, made by real Belgians at the Kinkajou cart, over near the arts and crafts section of the market. And I’m not a coffee drinker, but if I were, my next stop would be at John Winder’s Coffee Stop, where the line for iced coffee can get lengthy. Winder’s Coffee Stop at the Downtown Farmers Market is nearly as popular with market patrons as his Spotted Dog Creamery stand, where folks try to wait until noon to indulge in his handmade ice cream but often give in to sweet temptation earlier.
Having temporarily sated my hunger, it was time to get serious about “doing” the farmers market. I rarely go to any farmers market with an agenda, but I do adhere to a strict schedule. After my waffle, I headed to the north side of the Downtown Farmers Market to check out the fresh produce. This is where most experienced marketers spend the early part of their morning; it’s an early-bird-catches-the-worm thing. By noon, and often even earlier, the best produce is sold out. So save the arts and crafts for later; it’s smart to buy your produce early.
Generally, I don’t arrive thinking, “I’m going to find peaches and make a peach pie,” or “I’m going to hunt down some beets for a salad.” Instead, I allow what’s freshest to beckon to me. Happening upon beautiful bags of arugula from Ranui Gardens, I decided on the spot to buy some for garnishing tuna carpaccio. That is, if the Aquarius Fish Co. folks at the market are stocked with fresh sushi-grade tuna, which they are. I’m also tempted by the grouper and bluenose they’ve brought in from New Zealand. Will they still have them next week?
In this case, however, I did come to the market with that itty bitty agenda item: pesto. So I stop by to visit George Clovis. He’s the farmer in the funny-looking straw hat—the one that looks like any other straw hat, except that his has rabbit ears. I mention one word, “pesto,” and he begins filling up a large zip-lock bag with some of the most beautiful basil I’ve ever seen. He also gives me a cooking tip. “I’m a bacon and eggs kind of guy, so I don’t care what my food looks like,” says Clovis. “But they say people eat with their eyes, so put a little of this on top of your pesto as a garnish.” He tosses in a handful of exotic, dark burgundy-colored basil I’d never seen before called Red Rubin. He’s right—it’ll make a lovely garnish and a nice contrast against and bright green pesto.
I’m tempted to buy some freshly roasted garlic from Domey’s Choice Organic Garden for my pesto, but settle instead on a straight-from-the-ground garlic bulb from Borski Organic Farm. John Borski’s been coming to this farmers market since 1994, when only six other vendors were in attendance. Now the Downtown Farmers Market has grown to more than 100.
All this early morning shopping for fresh produce gave me an appetite, so I cruised by Junior’s for a carne asada and al pastor taco, one of each. This gave me the sustenance I would need for bread shopping, which is fraught with all sorts of difficult decisions. Should I buy old-style rye from the Crumb Bros. or that yummy looking baguette, coated with fennel seeds? The organic ginger cookies look tempting, as well. But then Great Harvest Bread Co., Pierre’s and Volker’s all beckon to me, too. One thing is certain: I won’t leave today’s market without a couple of the heavenly chocolate-dipped coconut macaroons from New Dough Rising Bakery.
As I headed toward Tony Caputo’s to buy pine nuts and pasta for my pesto, I purchased a bouquet of fresh flowers from Happy Trowels Farm, happy indeed knowing that I can do this all over again next Saturday—just as I did today, and as I did on a sunny Saturday 23 years ago.
DOWNTOWN FARMERS MARKET, Pioneer Park 300 South 300 West, Saturdays 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Through Oct. 16