December is the season for Persephone's mythical pomegranates, honey-sweet persimmons, meltingly rich avocados, rare red walnuts, aromatic guavas, and bright citrus - in southern California. If you read Edible San Diego, you'll see that the tents that line the street of the Little Italy Mercato, on a hill with a view of the sky-blue ocean and within a persimmon-throw of the airport, form one of the biggest and best of the San Diego farmers markets. The San Diego farmers markets we visited over Christmas rounded out the luscious tropical fruits with other things like: candy-sweet popcorn shoots (a surprise party for your mouth), gorgeous golden beets, hot peppers and the season's first asparagus. We've tipped over the edge of Solstice and the New Year and spring is coming! Albeit much slower here in Michigan.
Besides the tropical fruits of SoCal winter, San Diego markets are a bit different from ours. For one thing, there are a LOT of them. And there are more crafts and prepared foods (like taco stands, yum!), and at least in this season seem to be few CSAs and not so many organic vendors. The greater San Diego area has about 45 certified farmers markets, in neighborhoods all over the place. So there's at least one market on every day of the week. If you're a real market junkie, there are 11 different markets you could go to just on Saturdays alone. One of my favorites is the market at the ferry landing on Coronado Island. Taking the little ferry is great way to see the city and experience its beautiful (Naval) harbor, with F-14s and B-17s passing overhead, plus get a snack of fresh strawberries.
Another difference, San Diego farmers go through a certification process where "inspectors from the Department of Agriculture, Weights and Measures inspect farms and other properties to verify what is raised or grown there." So, "certified farmers offer for sale only those agricultural products they grow themselves, or products from another certified farmer." Ann Arbor's market is also supposed to be a "growers only" market, but we don't have a certification process at the county level. Although inspections have been instituted, for a few of our vendors it seems there are suspicions and a considerable gray area about the practice of "re-selling" (buying wholesale produce elsewhere, like the Eastern Market, and selling it again, marked up.) So, accept no substitute for knowing your farmer.
Visits to other places are exciting to obsessives like me because it's a chance to know the personalities of different farmers markets across the country. In the U.S., the markets are usually a direct line to the arty, alternative, granola-eating, composting, and bicycling contingent. The people who want to leave the planet no worse, and maybe even a little better, for having been here.
Often those folks are both in front of and behind the vendor tables. You expect it in Bellingham, Washington (one of the most beautiful and vibrant markets I've seen), but even more conventional places like Omaha, Nebraska and Broad Ripple, Indiana (with the best tamales this side of the Mississippi) have these crowds of folks carrying their own shopping bags. I can't think of a better way to know a place than to learn about (and eat!) what's unique to that region. Mallard ice cream in Bellingham, fire-roasted Hatch chiles in Tucson, creamy avocados just off the tree in San Diego....mmmmm.
So what about those avocados of San Diego? I learned that avocados are native to the Americas, originating in Mexico where they've been cultivated since before 500 B.C. The word avocado comes from the Aztec word "ahuacatl" (aka "testicle") and was known as the "fertility fruit." The Aztecs also ate "ahuacamolli" - avocado soup or sauce, from which our "guacamole" springs. There are around 500 different varieties of avocado. Although California grows only a half dozen varieties commercially, they make up 90% of the American avocado crop. And San Diego County produces 60% of that total - mostly of the familiar pebble-skinned Haas variety that we see in stores here.
No matter how much I enjoy it, invariably each visit elsewhere makes me love even more the incredible markets, farmers, and artisans we have here at home. There's no Mill Pond Bread in Bellingham. No Frog Holler carrots in Tucson. No Tantre beets in Omaha. Those particular foods (and the relationships that came with them) changed me, and they bind me to this place. Love is specific like that, and accepts no substitutes.
If you're in San Diego, be sure to look for Knight's Salumi, Terra Bella walnuts, and Dennie Giles' avocados. And try some sugar-sweet popcorn shoots. I can just about guarantee you'll enter into a new relationship with your tastebuds, and maybe with your farmer.