The Heart of the City Farmer’s Market is as integral a part of my living experience in The City as is eating, walking and breathing. I go every Wednesday without fail, and it’s a key addition to my daily diet and my cooking. I LOVE to cook, and one of my favorite events each week is going to the market and buying whatever inspires me, and then figuring what to make out of my bounty. I never come back without at least 3 cloth shopping bags full of precious jewels of veggies, fruit and eggs, and sometimes butter, organic beef, olive oil and dried fruit and nuts.
The quality of the farmer’s offerings here is stellar. Although the Ferry Building may have more super high-end esoteric and gourmet offerings that cater to the well-heeled tourist and restaurant chef, HotC is like the produce department of your dreams. I’ve found some of the food experiences of a lifetime here. In recent weeks, I found kohlrabi, a root vegetable that I fell in love with whilst living in Germany. That night, I made a simple gratin with batons of kohlrabi, a bechamel sauce laden with nutmeg and shallots, plenty of gruyere and topped with crispy fried pan levain breadcrumbs. I ate it standing up in the kitchen, memories of midday winter suppers in a northern German town flooding into my head.
Then there was last summer, when I had the Best Melon Ever–an orange coloured honeydew that was so sweet, juicy and redolent of an exotic floral perfume that I’ve never experienced in a melon’s flavour profile–I still get shivers thinking about it. It was still hot from the sun when I got it home, so I refrigerated it until dinner, then cut long, thin slices with the rind removed, so that each mouthful was of perfectly cold and sweet melon with no bothersome seeds or rind. I went back for that melon every week afterwards, and the vendor only had green honeydew; my orange honeydew was a once-every-summer delicacy, making it all the more special.
And then there’s the Plant Lady who hawks her amazingly cheap wares at the very end of the market closest to City Hall. I recently bought 3 little cactus and 4 small succulents/jade plants for $7 total. I purchased these little guys a month ago, and all of the succulents are now putting forth flowers! Peerless value for tiny spots of greenery that are perfect accents in my humid shower window, and in little clusters of pots on the mantle in the living room. And, the Plant Lady is really knowledgeable about her plants–she gave me great advice about putting cactus in your bathroom to live off the humidity from the shower.
The prices are downright amazing. Shopping for top quality produce here is much cheaper than Whole Foods or Rainbow or even Safeway. At the height of a seasonal glut, you can get bargains that are nothing less than amazing, and a real boon for canner like myself; I’m thinking particularly of the $0.75/lb organic heirloom tomatoes being aggressively and vocally hawked during the tomato months of August and September–these same tomatoes going for $4.00/lb and upwards during the same time period at the Ferry Building.
I use EBT–food stamps–and I’ve noticed a much higher percentage of fellow EBT users here than at the Ferry Building, indicating this market’s roots as a market for The People. Its customers are a true reflection of The City’s diversity–every nationality under the sun including Asians of every nationality (and the vendors that serve them), senior citizens on fixed incomes, City workers on lunch break, yuppies and hipsters, and the ever-present homeless who are kept on their best behavior by both the security guards, and the infectiously happy mood all around.
Going to HotC feels like part of everyday living in The City, wheareas going to the Ferry Building Market, HotC’s only real competitor, feels like a special outing, kind of like being a tourist in one’s own city. I’ve been to the Alemany Market a couple of times, and while I know that this market has its fans, something about the layout and the environment/location under the freeways and bleak Bayshore makes it less inviting. HotC is smack dab in the middle of bustling downtown SF, with a gorgeous view of the gilded cupola of City Hall framing the whole experience as part of The City. The Alemany Market is also prohibitively hard to access for those who use MUNI, while HotC is accessible by literally almost every single transportation line in the city. The MUNI subway’s stairs are right in the middle of some of the stalls.
This market has become a part of my soul, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Go forth and shop!
9 June, 2012 UPDATE: I went to the Ferry Building Farmer’s Mrket today, and in the past 6 months or so, it’s radically changed. Well over half of the vendors are now food stands offering pre-made food instead of traditional farms selling their harvests. The Ferry Building Farmer’s Market had always been the posh, touristy option to the more workaday HotC, with high profile farms like Frog Hollow and Full Belly offering their rarified produce at prices darn near the same as what you’d find at Whole Foods. I always half expected to see a New York Times Magazine reporter doing a trend piece and asking man-on-the-street questions of the well-healed urban sophisticate shoppers. The new FBFM is designed to appeal to the new breed of “food fetishist” who is caught up in the wave of “food porn” peddled by food TV shows, endless food blogs, and that ubiquitous trend piece in The New York Times Magazine and the like. This new-fangled “food fetishist”, interestingly enough, is usually not a cook; in fact, with their busy busy lifestyles, many are adverse to the “labours” of cooking.
Still though, despite it’s unabashedly posh leanings, the FBFM used to be fun because of its trendiness–the next big thing in farm-to-table cooking came up through the ranks in the stalls of the FBFM. Things have changed. Now, there are so many food plate and beverage vendors that it took some serious hunting to put together the ingredients for a bread salad–cucumbers, scallions, arugula, radish, sweet peppers, basil, mint, parsley and farmer’s cheese, all staples in great abundance at HotC. What I did find was easily twice, almost three times as expensive as what I would have found at HotC. Admittedly, I was able to find a surplus of options of bakeries from which to source the bread. But there are so many $10+ sandwiches and $7 cups of ice cream and sorbet that this farmer’s market has crossed permanently into the land of tourist attraction. And there were huge throngs of wealthy tourists literally eating the FBFM right up.
As long as this trend doesn’t spill over into my Old Reliable HotC, (which is quite crowded already) I’m fine with the FBFM becoming a high-end tourist attraction, because it does do a decent job of showcasing San Francisco’s food obsession, albeit from the fancy side of things. But unless I’m taking out-of-town guests on a food tour, I doubt I’ll be going to the FBFM again anytime soon.