Explore Your Local Farmers Market
You’ll Discover a Trove of Fresh Treasure
Today’s farmers markets range from small roadside stands to sophisticated metropolitan multi-block extravaganzas.
You might want to consider setting your alarm clock an hour or two earlier on Saturday mornings. There’s treasure to be found at your local farmers market. Each week, a cornucopia of fresh ingredients is just waiting for your creative touch to awaken its secrets. Farmers markets in America mirror the ages-old custom of purchasing fresh foodstuffs daily on market streets and town squares across the world.
Today’s farmers markets range from small roadside stands to sophisticated metropolitan multi-block extravaganzas. And more and more chefs are taking to the streets to garner unique ingredients directly from the producers. Incorporating local sustainability into their operations affords restaurateurs that point of difference that sets them apart from the rest of the pack.
LARGEST PRODUCER-ONLY FARMERS MARKET IN U.S.
The Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin, is comprised of four square blocks surrounding the state capitol building and its lawns and gardens. Each Saturday from April to November, every square inch of sidewalk surrounding the square is occupied by the Dane County Farmers Market, the largest producer-only farmers market in the U.S. On average, upwards of 15,000 shoppers converge each week during peak season. Bill Lubing holds down the gargantuan job of managing this enterprise. “Our market began in 1972 with a few vendors selling vegetables on one corner of the square. Today, we have a membership cooperative of 288, with a long waiting list. All items sold at the market are produced locally by the vendor who’s selling his or her wares from the stalls. Visitors enjoy hearing right from the source how the food was grown or made.”
In spring, you’ll find baby spinach and lettuces, asparagus, ramps, rhubarb, Morels, bedding plants and hothouse cucumbers and tomatoes. By July, there’s an abundance of currants, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, eggplant, sugar snap peas, summer squash and zucchini. In late summer and fall, add apples, sweet corn, winter squash, many varieties of melons and tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, leeks, parsnips, potatoes, rutabagas, gourds, pumpkins, gorgeous chrysanthemum plants and cut flowers in profusion.
FAMOUS MARKET PATRONAGE
Odessa Piper, the renowned chef and sustainability champion who garnered the 2001 James Beard Best Midwestern Chef award, helped put the Dane County Farmers Market and Madison itself on the culinary map. Piper opened L’Etoile in 1976 — directly across the street from the market — an auspicious location to augment her farm-to-table philosophy, similar to what her contemporary, Alice Waters, was doing at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. After dazzling Madison palates for 30 years, Piper sold L’Etoile to Tory Miller, another James Beard winner. He and other local chefs carry on the market patronage. In fact, in the winter months, and as the farmers market moves indoors, Madison chefs continue to unite urban and rural cultures through the “Taste of Madison Breakfast.” This event is a big draw for the winter market, when products such as meats, artisanal cheeses, honey, maple syrup, eggs, and produce grown in hoop houses are available.
Rick Starr, the acclaimed chef/owner of Ad-Lib Geocafe in Lindenhurst, Illinois (just north of Chicago), has long been an aficionado of local products of all kinds. “You can find some pretty progressive growers and producers at today’s farmers markets. It’s always interesting to meet the farmers, and hear their stories. There are several farmers in my area who operate markets right on their property. They’ve become so popular that it’s difficult to find a parking space. I now have dedicated farmers and growers who produce what I need year-round. I can access all kinds of vegetables and fruits, trout, bison, pork and lake food within a few miles radius of the restaurant.”
This season is a great time to add home-grown appeal to your menu. With a little research, chefs can find an abundance of fine sustainable products in their neighborhoods.