One of the great joys of summertime for me is the abundance of fresh local food. So much so that I don’t (well, barely) mind waking before dawn to get the first crack at the best of the local best at Charlottesville’s City Market (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Charlottesville-City-Market/90079662898?skwall ). Sometimes I get there so early that even the vendors aren’t set up yet (hey, if it’s early or nothing, you gotta do what you gotta do).
I second-guess myself for a minute or two when I set that alarm Friday night, knowing that a rare Saturday morning sleep-in could be sprawled out before me like a cozy down duvet on a particularly comfy bed. Nevertheless, I opt instead for the squalling-baby-type of predawn reveille courtesy of my alarm clock, only because I am a craven (make that cravin’) foodie and love-love-love me some awesome summertime fruit.
Over the years I’ve established some quirky little Saturday morning traditions around the farmers’ market. For many years my son also would drag himself out of bed to join me on the venture. He’s older now, so not so readily available (though I know he’s planning to hit up Ignacio and Maria Becerra for several servings of their now-legendary homemade tacos as soon as he rolls back into town). Those folks give me sad, quizzical looks each Saturday when I bypass them, sans my son, who’s been out of the country. They knew they could always count on him to stockpile their manna from Mexico. They’ll be pleased he’ll be back to gorge soon enough.
I usually make the rounds, much like following the pattern of the board game Candy Land, starting with Kathy Philhour, the Orchid Station owner (who doesn’t love her exquisite orchids?) and H&H Farms (with its distinctive yellow van with the oddly rounded roof that makes it look like a loaf of bread on wheels). I wend back and forth through each aisle of the market in a quest for the best and the freshest (and for me, organic, organic and more organic). I’m thrilled with the April arrival of asparagus, which truly heralds spring to me, and when that crop starts to fade, I know the most delectable, juicy strawberries are coming in, with sweet blueberries fast on their heels. In between, the most tender of springtime lettuces, English peas and sugar snaps as well, and when those are gone I’m safe in the knowledge that wild blackberries, heirloom tomatoes, peppers galore and corn so fresh your fingers stick if you rub the kernels will be showing up soon.
Over the years we’ve lost some wonderful vendors; the infamous goat cheese man John Coles sadly passed away suddenly last year. Waterpenny Farms, my go-to guys for the most amazing varieties of heirloom tomatoes, left us this year for a more remunerative market in Arlington. But new ones surprise me regularly with their interesting offerings.
I love the music at our farmers’ market. Some days it’s a lone fiddler, others a jug band complete with washboard player belting out bluegrass. We might get some local violinists playing another time. Makes for a great atmosphere.
And the breakfast options are mind-boggling. Of course, fruits and veggies like you can’t ever get in a grocery store. But add to that local sausage, the smell wafting throughout and practically forcing you to purchase them. The Bagel ladies (Janet Dob and Cynthia Viejo) with their amazing Bake’mmm bagels and bagelinis (link: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Bakemmm-Bagels/48453664975). The aforementioned tacos with prepared-on-the-spot tortillas (need I say more?). Homemade donuts from Tom Cervelloni, whose wife, Sheila, owns the nearby Bakers Palette (http://www.bakerspalette.com/bakery.html) (calories? Who’s counting? You’ll make up for it with all that healthy food you’re bringing home).
There is fresh bread, homemade granola, honey from local bees (how sweet is that? Hungry Hill Farm http://www.facebook.com/pages/Hungry-Hill-Farm/181340211918368?skwall. And look for their observation beehive where you can see those bees in action — it’s the bee’s knees). Goat cheeses, sheep cheeses, crepes, tarts, muffins, quiches, whoopee pies (not cushions) and a host of foods from various ethnic groupings, depending on the weekend. Michael Clark’s Planet Earth Diversified (http://www.planetearthdiversified.com/ ) offers up the world’s best (and I’m not lying) out-of-season tomatoes. And he grows all sorts of fabulous edibles you never thought you’d buy local — fresh ginger, bamboo shoots, bay leaves. I love his selection of baby greens of all kinds and edible flowers to spruce up my summer salads.
Lest we forget, those fresh farm eggs are always calling out to me (can you ever go back to commercially-produced eggs with their limpid, sallow yolks when you can eat eggs with yolks the hue of a summer sunrise instead?). And then there’s the freshest of beef and buffalo and chicken and hams (and even turkeys, come November) from animals humanely raised by local farmers. There are soup samples from chef Mark Gresgne of L’Etoile (http://www.letoilerestaurant.com/), and creative curry samples from Disha’s Kitchen (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Dishas-Kitchen/127791847260894). And don’t forget to top it off with coffee from Shenandoah Joe (http://www.shenandoahjoe.com/) or other coffee vendors, or a panoply of homemade lemonades and iced teas (just spotted them last week for the first time).
Once you’re stuffed to the gills, it’s on to the jewelry, clothing, pottery (which has the potential to bankrupt me, it’s so gorgeous and so sadly not in my budget), plants (I don’t dare grow my own; guaranteed they’re dead by July if left to my brown thumb), furniture, hand-carved knives, even hand-wrought iron. And herbs, teas, salsas, syrups. Even llamanure. Seriously. The sky’s the limit.
I used to lament that the spoils of my early Saturday marketing were gone by early in the week. But City Market has solved this quandary by adding market days midway — at Pen Park from 3-7 p.m. Tuesdays and Meade Park from 3-7 p.m. Thursdays. So if you are unlucky enough to have to missed the treasures of Saturday morning at the market, you can get your fix, albeit on a smaller scale, during the week as well.
Upon reading this I realize there is probably more diversity of product in one city block at the City Market than there is in an entire shopping mall. And a lot more bang for your buck. You can’t imagine what you’re missing out on if you’ve never made it there. Hope I’ll see you on Saturday.