Tips on what to look for, what to ask the vendors, and justifying the higher market prices.
As we move into spring, the seasonal tapestries of colorful floral bouquets and produce temp our sensations. Everything sold outdoors looks beautiful and is delicious! The weather is perfect for strolling down market aisles and smelling the aroma of fresh baked breads, flowers and seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Here are some local markets surrounding the Santa Monica Mountains. I have chosen a couple to give you some comparisons and unique selections.
Calabasas Market: (Saturdays 8-1 p.m.), 23504 Calabasas Road, Calabasas—Dates! Dates! Dates! A variety is sold at Jewel Dates. Underwood Farms’ local fresh produce always has the best seasonal vegetables and fruits. This market also has many sweet orange variations. A selection of sprouts, raw honey, dry rubs, hanging plants and the best vegan baked goods! They also have a crèpe stand, a real treat! Many samples are given at this market. You can have breakfast just on sampling! Something to keep in mind, this market is packed with vendors, crowds and kids in strollers. It’s a family outing!
Santa Monica Market (Wednesdays 9-1 p.m.) Arizona & 2nd Streets—This is a very popular market in the heart of Santa Monica! A melting pot of beach goers, cyclists and joggers, not to mention your local businessmen and women. Grab an organic hand pie and a coffee before you head to your office and you are good to go! This market has lots of variety. Produce from all over California truck down to this seaside town. An abundance of fresh flowers, dates, olives, raw nuts and organic produce and the best burrata in town!! Do not miss the burrata tasting…it’s a melt-in-your-mouth experience like no other from Obica Mozzarella Bar. There are plenty of organic vegetables and rare selections as well. Make this your next one-stop shop of culinary farm-to-table eats!
Topanga Farmers Market: (Fridays 9-1 p.m.), Topanga Community House, 1440 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd.—This is our neighborhood market. Although a smaller, “boutique” market, it has the most unique array of vendors. All well balanced and well curated to make shopping a gastronomical adventure! Most vendors have all-organic produce from locally sourced farms and California grown. Farmers grow what they sell. Free-range organic chicken and eggs, grass-fed beef, fresh seasonal fish. Village Organic Herbals has a medicinal array of spices and tea blends you won’t find anywhere else. The best Avocados from Gerwig Avocado Ranch I have ever tasted and exotic fruits. The dried fruits and nut butters are pure organic and delish! The Raw Cows’ Milk and Sheep’s Yogurt is not to be missed (the best Sheep’s yogurt in town). New to the market are the rare spice blends of Convivial. All herbs all locally sourced in California. The stand has great recipe cards to make your taste buds water. This market has a couple of unique attractions as well as its produce. The first Friday of the month is “Community Day” that invites community organizations and non-profits to set up a table. On this day, it featured Family Story Time led by Meredith Sires, the Children’s Librarian at the Topanga Library, live music, and Scott King, the sharpest guy in town with his Artisan Knife sharpening so don’t forget that dull chef knife! This Farmers Market definitely draws to the community. Vendors trade, customers share recipes and this is where relationships are built. You can also smell the aroma of hot prepared foods by Ohm (Vegetarian Indian) and Me Gusta Tamales makes the best Tamales. A real sense of community support is present. The market is on the grounds of the Topanga Community Center (TCC) in the parking lot. TCC has been generous in hosting this unique market. and Market Manager, Sarah Seelinger, is very active and present. Sarah is supportive of the community’s needs and has a great rapport with each and every vendor.
EIGHT TIPS ON HOW TO SHOP A MARKET:
Embrace “Whole” Vegetables—Root vegetables like carrots, beets and radishes are sold both whole and with greens attached. You can get them trimmed, but opt for the whole version; they last longer than the trimmed. If washed carefully they make great pesto and good vegetable rootstock for soups.
Think of Time and Place—Crates of apples can be appealing in days of summer, but realize they could be sitting in an industrial refrigerator since most apples are harvested in fall, thus, losing flavor and texture. Go for the seasonal fruits like Oranges and Clementines instead. California has the best variations. Spring in California has an abundance of Artichokes, Avocados, Asparagus, Bok Choy, Broccoli, Grapefruit, Kiwi, Kumquats and Lemons. In April, Cherries come into season so watch for those tart gems! Since we do live in California, pretty much everything is grown here.
Go Early—Treat the farmers market like an early appointment; get there early or pay the price! Vendors will sell out their best products by early afternoon, which is especially true of highly perishable items like seafood and meats. If you are after the fish, show up early!
Location! Location! Location!—The atmosphere of the farmers markets can trick you. Not everything at a farmers’ market is better, especially prepared foods like breads and jams. A local bakery is just as likely to offer great bread as a stand at a farmers’ market and a local bakery needs your support!
Know Your Produce—The produce at a farmers’ market is usually going to be different than at a grocery store. Learn how to pick out the tastiest heirloom tomatoes, even if they look equally deformed. Scour the bins of Brussels sprouts for the tightest, smallest ones. Learn to snap a green bean between your fingers to see if it’s ripe. Smell a melon. Farmers, themselves, if you ask, will be more than happy to pick out good produce for you. In these times you can also Google “Seasonal Produce” before you go shopping!
Survey it like a hawk—At most reasonably sized markets there will be more than one vendor selling certain items, whether it’s Apples, Baby Bok Choy, Breads or Oysters. Before you buy, take a quick lap around the market trying samples if you can. Try using your produce hunting techniques to figure out quality and ripeness and scope out the prices. You don’t want to buy the first pint of blueberries you see; you could perhaps find a cheaper sweeter pint at the opposite end of the market!
Go Weird! —Your market is likely home to products you can’t find at the local Ralphs, so why not try them out? Instead of a standard deep purple eggplant try a Thai or a long pure white eggplant. Instead of Salmon why not try Tilapia or Sand Dabs? If you see Rainbow Carrots or crazy wacky twisted ones, grab them! There is nothing wrong with getting good fresh versions of what you usually eat. A farmers market gives you an opportunity to step outside your palate habits and eat what is growing locally. Go weird & wacky.
“My price is better than your price!”—If you are shopping for the best prices on Avocados, for example, find out why the Avocados are cheaper in Oxnard than in Santa Monica? The produce varies from county to county and, depending on how far the farmers travel to the market destination, they may be competing with locally grown.
Farmers and growers have to figure in their costs and make a profit somehow. You will find many markets vary in prices on the same produce. There are many things to consider: freshness, quantity, two-for-one discounts, and plentiful Heirloom Varieties.
Buy Local—If you want fresh and locally grown, then buying local supports small farms and local economies and is sustainable.
“To market to market to buy some Bok Choy!
Home again, home again,
For fresh local produce I so enjoy!”