Monday, July 20, 2009

Bite into Life at a Farmers' Market.

It's high season now for farmers' markets. I was raised a farm kid and it stayed with me. When you live in the city and get your produce from a grocery store most of the year, it is a big deal to be able to go to an open air market and talk to the folks who rose before dawn, loaded their trucks with fresh spinach, baby carrots, string beans picked just as the dew disappeared, sweet early peas, home made root beer and various other home made treats.

My favorite farmers' market was the one beside the old Munsingwear building in Minneapolis, in the shadow of the freeway overpasses. When we lived there over 20 years ago, it was a riot of Midwestern produce mixed with a wildly diverse flea market; part exotic circus atmosphere where jugglers mixed with Scandinavian farmers in bib overalls.

Currently, the closest one to me is in the parking lots of the Theater District in Lone tree, Colorado. I probably pay more there because it's considered quite a chic zip code. But my bargaining is half-hearted, because I know the effort it takes to raise this good food and I prefer to pay those who actually do the producing instead of an impersonal middleman. I like to people watch – to see who wanders the stalls, who seems to bargain more fiercely, who from the farm stands seems to really know their tomatoes or potatoes or who's an expert on garlic.

Here in Colorado it is possible to type into Google and an entire roster of Colorado Farmers' Markets will pop up. None of this holds a candle to the elegant jumble that is the rue Cler in Paris.

This tiny street, only a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower and a few blocks long, is a Paris legend. The rue Cler is where the Parisians go (and in increasingly irritating numbers, tourists like me trying desperately not to look like tourists!) It's intimate, authentic market atmosphere, especially on a leisurely Sunday morning, puts the process of acquiring one's food on a human scale. The rue Cler is home to a year-round market of assorted culinary delights; picked-that-morning produce, breads, fish, pates, cheeses, crepes, wines, country cream, dark chocolates, hearty jams, kitchen utensils, handmade linens and flowers. It tumbles in joyful profusion onto the narrow, cobblestone street, piled in bins, stacked on tables and umbrella'd carts that partially obscure the shop doors and display windows behind.

The street is crowded at this early hour, tastefully-dressed French families, children in prams or in tow, stroll about, their cloth shopping bags or pull-carts ready to pop in their treasures. A violinist stations himself at the alley entrance mid-way through the street and begins to play. Restaurants and outside cafes beckon, heaters at the ready on the cool April morning of our visit. Sausages of various kinds, eels from the north Atlantic and fat French chickens spit and smoke on fire burners. Chocolate crepes roll out of crepes pans into parchment paper wrappers. Incredibly strong, French coffee is sipped from tiny coffee cups in one cafe, while a few doors down French rose wine is poured into elegant glasses. The acid smoke of French cigarettes roll delicately about the sidewalk as the French have...horrors....recently banned smoking in all indoor restaurants!

Poking about the bins and carts we select rounds and wedges of pungent cheeses, going heavy on the Brie and Camembert, the authentic kind that is so much better than that which reaches us in Denver via export. My son loads up on still-warm croissants, while I salivate in front of a display of sweet, French, torpedo strawberries, their scent hanging delicately over the bin. Why can't America grow strawberries like this, I wondered?

The morning at the rue Cler will remain forever mixed in my mind with the views from the top and grounds of the Eiffel Tower. I have come to suspect that many of us who hunger for farmers' markets are also passionate cooks and frustrated gardeners, lacking the space, time or climate to produce that which we really wish we grew. What we want is something that Rodger Doiron, founder and director of Kitchen Gardeners International, a Maine-based nonprofit, calls “relocalizing” food. We want to know the source. We like it to come from nearby if it can't come from our own plot of land. We like it fresh and deep down, we hunger for the connection to the land and the life of the people who grew it.

This weekend, if you're not out back in your own garden thumping the watermelons – find a farmers market!

No comments: