Le Chef, when growing up in the South of France, would go to the market multiple times a week with his beloved Mamie, Pierrette. While we were living in France, I had the opportunity to observe Pierrette as she did her shopping. She would wheel her shopping bag behind her with purpose and determination as she navigated the busy market like a salmon swimming up stream.
She wouldn’t give a second look to the market stalls that she did not favor, going straight for the stalls where she was welcomed, literally, with open arms. A kiss on each cheek (la bise) for her dear friends and questions of “ ça va les petits?” (how are your children/grandchildren) And then she got down to business. Les artichauts, are they ripe enough? Not today, says the vendor shaking his head while simultaneously shrugging his shoulders, maybe tomorrow? I could see Pierrette mentally building the menu for today’s lunch as she eyed the abundant stacks of eggplants, tomatoes, zucchini… “les fleurs de courgette?” Pierrette asks if they have zucchini flowers and of course, the vendor thought to save some especially for her behind the table. He knows that they are her favorite!
This may sound like the stuff of a film or travel book about France, but I know that we can live experiences like this in the USA, we just have to know how. While they may not (yet!) be daily, Farmer’s Markets are all around us. Here around Washington DC, any given weekend there is a handful of markets that I could go to quite easily.
Of course, strolling around a farmers market, fresh squeezed raw juice in one hand and a warm crepe in the other is a fabulous weekend activity to do with friends, followed by a bottomless brunch, but what if we went to the market like the French do? Treating it as not only a lovely, highly instagramable social outing but also as the best possible way to get our groceries for the week?
I know what you are thinking…we have all done it, gone to the farmers market and spent way too much money on a hodgepodge of beautiful ingredients that we have no idea what to do with. What ends up happening is that we go back to our regular grocery store for our weekly shop where it feels safer, more familiar. We buy big tomatoes that are white inside and peaches that go from rock hard to rotten. There is another way!
Here are my tips for going to a Farmers' market as the French do. Filling your fridge with fresh seasonal produce that you will actually eat and that doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
Make a list
Just like you do when you go to the grocery store. Before going to the market, take stock of what you already have. If you already have a bag of spinach you haven’t opened in addition to a Caesar salad ready made kit, perhaps the butter lettuce should wait until next week? Also, think about how many times you will realistically eat at home in the week. Are you having friends over for dinner on Friday and will want some extra special ingredients or do you have a busy week ahead and will likely only eat a couple times at home? There is nothing more frustrating than throwing out food that has gone bad. Everything is so beautiful at the market, I find it helpful to have a list that keeps me from overbuying.
Survey the market
Unless you know your local market by heart, like Mamie Pierrette, it helps to do a full lap of the market when you arrive. Take a look at what is being sold. When something is fresh and in season, it will likely be offered by multiple stalls. Compare prices. If you are looking for organic elephant garlic ( my current seasonal favorite) why pay more than you need to? Also, stop in at the market organizer’s stall. Ask if they have a newsletter you can sign up for. This is also the perfect time to enjoy that raw juice or ham & cheese croissant you have been eyeing before your hands are full of groceries!
Buy in order
Go for breads and berries first. If it is peach season, buy those first too. These items always sell out! There is nothing worse than having your eye on a loaf of fig and walnut bread only to see the stand has folded up before you got back to it! Same for fresh cut flowers. If you can, ask the vendor to keep your flowers off to the side while you complete your purchases so they can stay fresh in water. Next, vegetables and fruits. These guys can hang out for a while so no need to rush. Lastly, eggs, meat and cheeses. You will want to go straight home after buying any of these. Unless you keep a cooler in your trunk. If you keep a cooler in your trunk for market purchases I applaud you. You deserve to go to brunch!
Talk to the vendors
The luxury of a farmers market is that you can actually get to know who grows your food. If the farmers themselves are not there, at least you are speaking with someone who has been to the farm, knows what is at its best and may even have a recipe tip for you! Say hello, introduce yourself. Tell them that you bought such and such from them last week. Seeing a familiar face the next week makes the experience all that much more enjoyable and fosters a sense of community that you can’t find in most grocery stores.
Prep your food
Lastly, when you get home, spend a few minutes in the kitchen before putting your purchases away. Cut the leaves off of the radishes and give them a quick rinse. Put your bunch of basil in a glass of water in the fridge to keep it fresh all week long. Take stock ofwhat you bought and make a plan for when you will eat it. Too many times I have stuffed my fridge with an assortment of vegetables from the market only to find beets that have gone bad because they were lost behind of forest of leaves…not good.
I always like to make a beautiful meal with my market finds. Today when I came back from the market I made myself a big salad with the ingredients I had just bought. I took a big handful of the fresh sorrel, a lettuce-like green that tastes lemony and tart, and topped it with fat slices of beef steak tomatoes, olives, tuna, parmesan cheese and basil. With some balsamic vinegar and lemon infused olive oil as a dressing it was absolutely delicious. A chilled glass of rosé elevated it to the divine. And as I sat in my kitchen, smugly thinking about how I had paid 25$ for a similar salad in a restaurant only yesterday, I felt much more value out of my farmers market experience than a grocery store ever gave me.
Markets that I frequent: