Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Westminster Market

It's Saturday morning at the Westminster Farmer's Market. White tents dot a small parking lot along an industrial road, and people stream in and out between the barriers that informally mark the entrance to the market. Beyond this invisible line, only producers are allowed to sell their goods. This distinction ensures shoppers that the cucumbers, tomatoes, and beans were all grown by the merchant behind the table. The meat sold is from Maryland farms, the cheese is from Maryland cows. Still, the farming practices may vary significantly. Some are organic, some not; some meat is grass-finished, some grain-finished. The great thing about a "producers only "market is that you can ask questions and have reasonable faith you'll get honest answers.

The market opens at the end of May and runs until early November. This spring I had waited with great anticipation of the fresh produce. To get things early I located local farmers who could supply asparagus, greens, and strawberries before the market season began. It was wonderful to get those items, but I wanted more! I arrived that first Saturday around 9:30 am looking forward to a bag of supplies for the week. I was not the only one. By the time I arrived, the farmer stalls had been picked clean of their early season harvest.

This past Saturday, it felt like a rainforest outside. By the time I arrived at the market, it was well over 90 degrees, and the humidity: oppressive. It had just hit 10 am. I noticed there was less traffic in the parking lot, and soon realized I had arrived too late. Mind you, there was still produce available, plenty. But I had come with my mind's eye set on gnarly, full flavored, heirloom tomatoes. Those had all been snatched by early shoppers. Except one.

As I stood chatting with Josie of Truffula Seed Produce ( I spied a single, giant, Brandywine tomato on a table behind her. Pointing to it, I ask, "Are you going to sell that one, or, better said, will you sell that one?" She explains that it has some rot on it. This kind of thing occurs when bugs- in this case Josie said stink bugs- take a few tasty bites and move on. The exposed flesh begins to decay soon after. But this is easily overcome by cutting the bad bits out. Josie agrees to sell me the tomato, and at a generous price. Yum! That night it gets chopped and mixed into bruschetta. The flavour and texture are fabulous.

While I was standing there, an older woman, probably in her mid-60s, came by. "What's that?" she asked Josie, pointing to small green and purple bundles on the table. "Basil" is the reply. The woman continues, "What does it taste like? Peppermint?" How do you use it?" Her friend assures her she has cooked with basil before, and surely she has. But it occurs to me that she hasn't seen fresh basil before, and she is genuinely interested in our suggestions of how to use it. At the next stand, she asks about fresh eggs and buys a chicken. Its clear this is her first time at the market. Later, I ask Josie if she bought any basil. She did. How cool is that?!

I rounded out my purchases with peaches, plums, cucumber, tomatillos, and Peruvian Purple hot peppers. The peaches and peppers made their way, along with a yellow Brandywine tomato, into grilled peach salsa. The tomatillos went into a fresh green salsa -- a resounding success for my first experiment with these tomato-like veggies.

I left the market just in time to stop by Serpent Ridge Winery, just south of Westminster. More on that to come ....

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