Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Heaven Is a Farmers Market

You can tell a lot about a town from its farmers market. Who the vendors are and what they’re selling—and who the consumers are and what they’re buying—are both accurate indicators, I’ve found in my casual, ongoing research, of the health and vitality of a community.

When I visit a town, one of the first attractions I look for is the local farmers market. From the sprawling assortment that takes over downtown Aix-en-Provence every Saturday, to the organized rows of Montreal’s Marché Jean-Talon; from the breezy, upscale tables at Martha’s Vineyard’s West Tisbury market to the kaleidoscope of Marseille’s North African bazaar—all offer a window into the everyday life of a place.

On a recent overnight to Vermont’s capital city, Montpelier, Chris and I strolled the Saturday morning market for an extended breakfast. Tucked between State Street and the Winooski River, the Capital City Farmers Market was voted one of the twelve best markets in the country by the Daily Green, so we had high expectations.

Our plan was to make the circuit, perusing our options and narrowing down our choices, and then go back to particular vendors to make our purchases. Once we happened upon Woodbelly Pizza’s artisan breakfast pizza, though, I knew Chris wouldn’t be able to walk away without sampling a slice. Fresh from their mobile wood-fired oven and topped with bacon, eggs, and fresh basil, it was a new flavor sensation.

Their other pizzas looked exceptional as well, and if we had stuck around for lunch I probably would have had a slice of their sausage and onion pie. When we asked if he had a restaurant, the young owner replied with a laugh, “No, we’re too smart for that. We just do farmers markets and catering.”

Moving on, we passed an intriguing soft pretzel vendor,

when a sign at the same stall caught my eye.

It was a hot morning and I hadn’t had a beverage yet (Chris had picked up a coffee on our way to the market), so cold chocolate sounded like a perfect way to start my day. I didn’t want something overly sweet, but an inquiry to “Nutty Steph,” the chocolatier, revealed that the chocolate rating was 71% and that it was sweetened with a hint of maple syrup. I couldn’t resist.

Frothy and served over plenty of ice, it was a good ‘n dark way to start my day. I savored it as we finished our circuit, pausing to listen to Coco and Lafe singing their blues-based acoustic music. This duo performs at farmers markets around the country as part of their "Get Fresh" tour.

On our second loop around, I was drawn to an unfamiliar cheese vendor, Mount Mansfield Creamery. Cheesemaker Stan Biasini handed me a taste of his “Inspiration” cheese and pointed out a sign showing that it had won second place in the Farmstead Cow Milk category at the 2011 American Cheese Society Conference.

The raw milk European style cheese was complex and creamy, and I was surprised I hadn’t discovered it before. When I mentioned this, Stan said that they were just in their second year of making cheese. As his son sliced up another sample for us, I asked Stan what his secret was. “My wife takes good care of our cows and produces quality milk. That, and a lot of time and hard work.”

A little research revealed that Mount Mansfield Creamery has been in Stan’s wife’s family since 1888; this recent transition from family dairy farming to successful artisan cheesemaking is yet another example of the quiet shift that is taking place in Vermont agriculture.

With a different style and approach to cheesemaking, Laini Fondiller of Lazy Lady Farm is also a regular, and a long-time one at that. A high energy pioneer in Vermont cheesemaking, Laini  has been making organic French style cheese for over twenty years on her solar and wind powered farm. Her cheeses are renowned throughout the country and bear memorable names such as Barick Obama and Bi Partisan (a goat and cow mix), and her full bodied chèvres are consistently some of my favorite cheeses.

Produce vendors, large and small, offered the fruits and vegetables of their labor, including Pete Johnson of Pete’s Greens, another pioneer in the Vermont year round organic food movement. His stand attracted a long line, attesting to his rock star status in the state.

People are not only fans of his bodacious produce,

but also of his thoughtful leadership in twenty-first century farming. Many vendors displayed the Vermont Farm to Family program sign indicating that families and individuals can use their food assistance benefit, known as 3 Squares Vermont, to attain fresh, local food. Not only are they able to eat healthier, but they're supporting local farmers in the process.

Our next stop was at a table set up by a chef from the New England Culinary Institute.

She provided samples of cucumber mint tea, a refreshing cucumber salad tossed with rice vinegar and sesame oil, and a spinach salad with a mild maple syrup dressing. All were tasty, but I hadn’t really had breakfast yet, so a stop at Red Hen Bakery was next on our list.

Red Hen turns out some of the best bread in the state. The bakery is located in Middlesex, not far from Montpelier, but too far from Bristol for a regular trip. Fortunately I can buy their breads at our local coop. Their seeded baguette and ciabatta are regular items on our table, and more recently their par-baked “Pizzaz” pizza crust is a popular new addition. It makes a killer homemade pizza.

Not yet having satisfied my dark chocolate tooth, I bought a flaky, buttery pain au chocolat,

and Chris followed up his breakfast pizza with a maple walnut sticky bun.

We strolled past Tanglewood Farm's cart selling ethically raised meat,

a Peruvian food stall that was attracting a lot of customers,

and some gorgeous hand crafted items.

The crowd was eclectic, including a goodly number of children and dogs, always a positive sign.

We saw the owner of the restaurant we went to the night before: Salt Café, a tiny, unique place serving interesting food with exceptional attention to detail. Chris and I both agreed we’d be returning for another meal there soon.

We nibbled our baked goods and enjoyed the music and the scene a little while longer. And I thought, this is what heaven must be like: a giant farmer’s market in the sky, where no one goes hungry, the food has been grown and produced with care, and everyone gets along.

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