I finally did something I have wanted to do for ages; take a trip to that superstar of all Southern California farmers markets, the Wednesday Downtown Santa Monica Farmers Market. Not to be confused with Santa Monica’s three other farmers markets—one on Saturday also downtown, one on Saturday at Pico and Cloverfield and one on Sunday in Heritage Square on Main St.—this is the largest growers-only
certified farmers’market in Southern California and the one that all the coolest chefs in town scour for the newest and best produce items available.
It was a beautiful, crystalline November morning as I headed from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Monica. It also was unnaturally hot for November—in the high 80’s. As I parked near 4th and Arizona at about 8:30, I saw energetic Santa Monicans scurrying away from the market, having already purchased their fresh treasures. The market is open 8:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m., but I imagine the vendors would dismiss anyone who shows up after 9:30 as an amateur.
The market is overwhelming for a newbie. Over 75 stalls of magnificent fruits, vegetables, eggs and some fish and meat. I walked around, head down, looking at all the fresh offerings, barely able to take in the parade of old hippies, young women in yoga wear and moms with toddlers promising their kids the “BEST” strawberries are just down the street. Every so often I would spy white-coated chefs or their staff purposely pulling hand trucks loaded with fresh produce destined for tonight’s menu.
My first stop was Jaime Farms, where I was drawn to some greens with beautiful, long red flowers. “Pineapple sage,” I was told. They also had a supermarket of carrots in various shapes, sizes and colors, potatoes of all colors, root vegetables, greens and dozens of other items. The next stop was Harry’s Berries, where I succumbed to some Sweetheart Cherry Tomatoes with incredible flavor and umami, that incredible, rich, savory quality that foods like grilled meat and Parmesan cheese possess.
Harry’s famous Gaviota strawberries are heavenly tasting and at over $120.00 a flat, heavenly priced. In another stall, I picked up some Roysum plums after sampling these nectar-like fruits. In November! California really is golden. Heirloom garlic? I had to pick up a couple of heads. I bought some Albion strawberries which proved juicy and incredibly sweet and a little less pricey than the Gaviotas.
My only plan for the market was to meet up with my friend and business acquaintance, Jill Overdorf. Jill is a CIA-trained chef, all-around produce diva and Director of Business and Culinary Development for Coosemans Los Angeles Shipping, a highly respected source for uncommon produce that supplies distributors and culinary professionals throughout the U.S. Jill spends most Wednesday mornings at the market filling orders for customers and seeking out new trends and products. I tagged along for a while to soak up some of her expertise and to meet some of her vendors. Jill knows everyone worth knowing and the growers respect her knowledge and support. When I commented on the expense it must take for these growers to take their ‘show’ on the road, Jill replied with authority, “These are business people first and foremost. They do this because it’s profitable but they’re also driven by their desire to contribute to the food landscape of LA. A number of the farmers grow things because local chefs have requested that they try unusual items like spigarello (a leafy green that tastes like broccoli sprouts), agretti (a thin-leafed Italian green that looks like chives on a stalk), aji amarillo (a hot yellow chile originally from Peru) and San Marzano tomatoes (a long, plum variety with low acidity, firm pulp, deep red color, easy to remove skin and low seed count). These are items that chefs couldn’t find and they have collaborated with the farmers to grow. So while this is a business endeavor, it is also a community collaboration.” This gave me new respect for the growers. Maybe some start out with the dreamy idea of going back to the land for a simpler life, but clearly these farmers are sophisticated, resourceful and dedicated to contributing to the culinary scene.
When you get to see and taste such beautiful produce, it’s easy to forget about things like patty melts and curly fries. The care, the effort, the expertise that goes into producing these luscious fruits and vegetables really borders on art. Yes, produce at the farmers’ market is expensive, but this is artisan farming. Like sun dried tomatoes and ‘designer’ pizza from the 1980s, with time and luck, the products and techniques will trickle down so even more of us can enjoy them. Sooner rather than later.