Tastes of Spring: A Trip to Farmer’s Market

The enticing aroma of ripe, fresh strawberries scents the air.

strawberriesIt is a bright spring morning and I have walked from my writer’s cottage in Carmel-by-the-Sea to the weekly farmer’s market. The gathering of vendors is a modest affair, perhaps a dozen tables, the market significantly smaller now that the City exiled it from the Sunset Center parking lot. Briefly the market settled at the little park between Ocean Avenue and 6th Street, but then it was bumped from the grass to sit streetside, between Mission and Junipero, which is where I find it today.

Above me, the morning sky aches with a song of clear blue on a day that shimmers with warmth. As with yesterday, the temperature will reach 75 F (23 C), and having recently been in the frozen lands of Utah where spring is still months away, I’m deeply appreciative of California’s temperate climate (while still praying fervently for rain). Though the equinox has just passed, here on the central coast the colorful riot of spring is bursting forth everywhere in foliage, flowers, fruit and vegetables. Blessed be.

Walking sandals strapped on my feet, a favorite wide-brimmed hat somewhat hiding my unruly and unbrushed hair, and toting my Provence market basket with its leather handles, I amble unhurriedly toward the town center, utterly content to be out and about on such a gorgeous day. It’s hard to imagine that by lunchtime or this afternoon the entire landscape could be draped in fog, tall trees transformed to ghostly sentinels in the trailing mists, but moods of weather shift quickly here on the Cypress Coast. We shall see what unfolds.

For half a dozen reasons I have relocated my writing retreat into town, and almost every day when I am here, I walk the few blocks to the shops or down to the beach. Part of such an outing is for the exercise, to move my bodysoul and escape from the confines of the tiny house where I spend much of my day quietly holed up, stringing words into sentences like glittering beads on a necklace. But there is also the simple delight of strolling through the environs of this charming little village set among the coastal pines and Monterey cypresses. And if you read this column at all regularly, you know that I am big on small, everyday delights.

I ramble quietly through the tree-lined streets (there are no residential sidewalks), admiring the cottages and gardens clustered closely together, each one different (and each costing a fortune). Every time I go walking, I intuitively choose a different route, following a zigzagging path with senses cast ajar, stopping frequently to admire whatever catches my eye—some adorable casita or petite maison, an alluring garden, a brightly flowering bush, a particularly stately or picturesque tree, or any of the amusing denizens that I share this place with—Crow, Jay, and Squirrel, to name a few of the noisier ones. Bless them all.

The market has just opened for the morning, and in my usual way I walk through once just to scan quickly what is here and available, even if I mostly know what’s on offer from the previous week. But often there is a new discovery with what’s coming into season, the first of a crop, especially in spring and summer. Having scouted briefly, I then circle back to make another pass, this time looking more closely and taking my time at each of the vendor stalls that interest me. Whose produce looks best? It doesn’t take long at a market this small, unlike some of the larger ones that I have come to know and love in my journeys, like the marchés in France, and my perennial favorite in dear old Santa Fe, New Mexico. I bypass anything grown conventionally, focusing only on what is ‘organic’, which narrows my choices further—though here in California the selection of ‘organic’ is far greater than at home in Hawaii. Less costly, too.

The short Mexican farmer with a sun-weathered face, wearing a plaid cotton shirt and bushy dark mustache, when he sees me eyeing his piled jumble of small, multi-hued potatoes, offers me a plastic bag. He seems surprised that I answer him in Spanish, telling him that I already have several bags in my basket. “Hablas español,” he smiles approvingly, his comment somewhere between an observation and a question. His surprise heightens when, continuing in Spanish, I share that I used to live in Spain, in Andalucía amid the olive groves. Disappointingly, his potatoes aren’t ‘organic’ and so I don’t buy any (I’m not big on potatoes, regardless), but I wish him a good day and tip my hat.

Strawberries are the star of the morning, it seems, their scent tempting everyone who passes. These overly large Californians aren’t the sweetest or most flavorful; they were bred for sturdiness and to survive long shipping. Wistfully, I muse for a moment, recalling the small red jewels of Oregon and France, strawberries as tender, sweet and juicy as a lover’s warm kiss on your tongue. They don’t last but a day at their peak, and cannot possibly be shipped across a state or country, which makes them all the more wonderful. They embody ‘local’ at its delicious, mouthwatering best. Alas, the super-sized Californians will have to do, and I will gratefully savor them for their own merit, as an opening prelude to spring.

Early blackberries are arriving, and though not here yet, soon the glorious fresh peas will arrive (rhapsodized over in a post from late last spring, “A Bowl of Peas”). I can hardly wait.

From the plump, soft-spoken hispanic girl with shy but flashing dark eyes, I buy short nubby carrots with pale golden skin, a sizable bushel of fragrant cilantro (‘fresh coriander’ my UK friends call it), a vibrant bunch of rainbow chard (I can never resist the assortment of multicolored stalks) with glistening dark leaves, and some tender broccoli rabe. All of it is so fresh and crisp that it seems to hum quietly in my hands.

At the next table, I purchase a dozen eggs in an assortment of colors from the ‘free range egg lady’, her orange permanent mascara eyebrows looking abnormally bright behind oversize eyeglasses (but matching the curly locks of copper orange hair that wing loose and rowdy from under her blue baseball cap). The eggs are beautiful and I long to place them in an attractive basket and keep them on the counter as I did in Europe—where eggs, even after being washed, are never sold refrigerated—to admire the collection of pastel hues. (In the States, I’ve been told that once eggs are refrigerated, they should stay that way, but that may just be the paranoia of neo-Pasteurians in an age fearfully obsessed with bacteria.)

I pause at the table of apples and fresh-pressed juices, debating for a minute, as my eyes sweep the selection. I know these apples are ‘cold storage’ fruit, their season now passed, but I do relish a nice Pink Lady—crisp and sweet with a slightly tart edge. I’m likely to be disappointed in them, and I can almost hear my dear friend Sara (whose business is growing amazing organic apples in Kent, England) telling me to pass on them, but I plunk three into my trusty basket. I figure that if they turn out to be too lackluster for eating on their own, these Pinks can always be blitzed up in the Vitamix as part of my daily green smoothie.

It seems enough. I’m on my own for the next two weeks, working away on Book 2, and my solo meals at the cottage are usually simple and modest. Mostly vegetables and salads, with an occasional piece of wild-caught fish or organic poultry to keep things interesting. I do try to have the fridge empty on market days, so that lunch and supper that day can be as fresh as possible (not having a vegetable garden in my nomadic life). But often, as today, I find myself still needing to use up a few items previously purchased. There’s the last bit of pencil-thin asparagus I bought. And the local globe artichoke, that I am envisioning for dinner tonight with a bowl of pungent, Provençal aïoli made with unctuous olive oil and garlic cloves pounded in a mortar and pestle. (I’m alone and can gorge contentedly without offending my mate or having to sleep in a different room. Bring it on, I say.)

In multiple posts over the past years (most of them filed under ’Slow Food’ in the archives), I have written about my delight in farmers’ markets, my gratitude for the fresh bounty they offer, my sincere appreciation for such hardworking people, and how happy it makes me to press my dollars into the well-calloused hands that grew the food I eat. I have said it before: it matters what we eat, how it was raised and produced, and where we purchased it—it matters not only to our own health, well being, and sense of soul, but also in our relationship as a species to this planet of which we are an integral (and hugely influential) part.

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My French market basket

Walking home in the late morning beneath the bright blue sky, I’m humming happily in my core. To put a face and a smile with otherwise anonymous food, to inch closer to sustainability, and to be deeply nourished—literally—by food grown locally in a way that honors and nurtures the earth, this is deeply important to my soul. My French market basket is quietly singing with gorgeous produce and fragrant strawberries, and I’m enfolded by a brilliantly warm spring day as my mind considers what I will cook later, while simultaneously enjoying the trees, cottages, gardens, and birds of the neighborhood.

If there is a theme that runs continually through these posts, it’s probably the ways that we nourish the soul through the simple celebrations of being human—those everyday offerings where the ordinary intersects the sacred and we realize that, ultimately, little difference exists between the two. Walking to market on a fine morning is one of those everyday, ordinary events that can so easily be a celebration. If our senses and heart are open and we’re paying attention, that is.

Soul Artists know that it is the daily moments and events of life that make up the richly woven tapestry of our existence. Some threads are thicker, darker, or coarser than others, while others shimmer softly as if spun of pure gold. Standing back, we see that these experiences form patterns, familiar shapes, and passages of our lives. Meanwhile, the weaving goes on. Another day, another dozen—or a hundred—different threads woven in with the small, ordinary pleasures of being embodied as a sensual soul in a vast garden of small wonders… like fresh strawberries in a pretty bowl, perfuming the kitchen, waiting to be savored.

Gentle reader, here’s hoping that something in your day feels like a simple celebration. Dinner placed on the table, fragrant and enticing. Pulling weeds in the garden, or planting fresh seeds. A walk through the neighborhood, admiring what’s in bloom. Curling up with your beloved, feeling their heartbeat and breath. A new poem read aloud by candlelight, or spilling forth from an old pen. The held, visceral power of the body freed by a great shout or roar. A trip to farmer’s market to appreciate and gather what is local and fresh from the good earth.

I wonder, here in the northern hemisphere, as spring bulbs dreaming of sunshine and color push eagerly forth from the dark soil, what is it that you will most deeply savor today?

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