Thursday, June 12, 2008

RFC Visits: Berkeley Farmer's Market

In Part 2 of my continued West Coast food adventures, I managed to catch the last hour of the farmer's market in Berkeley, CA. I admit I've always thought of the West Coast as a land of plenty when it comes to seasonal and local eating; I was curious to see how this farmer's market compared with our own in Richmond.

A mountain of fava beans.

I was amazed by the amount of produce left at the end of a long afternoon market -- there were still piles of everything, including tantalizing stacks of radishes, squash, greens, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower and oodles of strawberries. There were definitely more produce vendors, which was nice to see, though not particularly surprising. Clearly there are some major organic farms established in this area, serving a wide range of marketgoers -- again, pretty much what I expected, though nice to see. The market had a definite sense of establishment and place in the Berkeley community.

Though most produce selections were similar to what I see at home, I was really excited to see stacks of fava beans -- I'd really like to find a good alternative in Richmond to buying can after can of beans (especially with concerns about Bisphenol A), and I know favas are delicious. Is there a reason why I haven't seen these at the market?

Vendors and customers still busy in the last hour.

I also noticed vendors hawking foods I've been longing for at the Richmond farmer's markets for some time: in particular, dairy products like hard and soft cheeses and yogurt. The yogurt was available for sampling, and I was pleased to find that the flavorings weren't too sweet. At the cheese booth we had an animated conversation with the vendor, who ended up giving us free packages of two products: cheese curd mixed with hot peppers and a creamy, almost bitter spread called 'quark.' He told us he'd be giving his leftovers to the food bank anyway, so he was happy to let us have a few things. After that we bought a loaf of multigrain bread coated in sunflowers from one of the several bread vendors, hoping to eat it with the cheese the next day. Both products turned out to be delicious. And, of course, everyone was quite friendly and willing to discount their products during the final market hour -- I felt right at home.

Multigrain bread.

As we headed home from the market, I wondered if any of these vendors sold to Chez Panisse; the idea of cooks from the restaurant coming down to the market and shopping for fresh ingredients was certainly romantic, though probably not entirely realistic. The restaurant probably receives its own planned shipments, but it's fun to think of Alice and the rest of the market staff mingling with other marketgoers, passing through each booth evaluating the day's produce.

My verdict on a comparison between Berkeley and Richmond is that what we need is time -- more seasons to establish the market as a part of people's lives, and to draw more vendors and farmer's into the burgeoning community. But, honestly, I think farmer's markets are pretty similar from place to place: mini street fairs full of interesting people and great food.

Following my visit to Berkeley, I discovered a great foodie/locavore restaurant called Marché in Eugene, OR. In Part 3 of my West Coast log, I'll talk about lunch and shopping at Marché's cafe and 'Provisions' shop.


  1. The Bay Area has had great Farmers Markets at least as far back as the mid-60s. Lots of truck gardens in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta..

    And UC Davis (the ag campus) is just over the hill..

  2. Re: Alice W & growers..

    There's a recent biography of her.. it'll give you the straight skinny on her.. at near soap opera intensity..

    Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution

    by Thomas McNamee

  3. "I'd really like to find a good alternative in Richmond to buying can after can of beans"

    Not as good as fresh, but have you tried dried beans? You can get them in bulk at Ellwood Thompsons, Ukrops, or the Good Foods grocer. Not much work, just a few extra hours to prepare -- and they taste sooo much better than the canned kind. And they're easier on the digestive system, in my experience.

    I only use canned beans for last-minute meals that I haven't prepared in advance.

  4. Kat,

    I think this might make me a bad cook, but I have never been able to deal with dried beans: I rarely have the forethought to begin soaking them ahead of time, or I don't cook them long enough and they are crunchy when the dish is served. There is certainly no excuse for that kind of lazy cooking behavior, and I appreciate your reminder that cans are not the only option! However, I would still like to find a more local option for my beans...