Farmers market snares foodies frantic for organic quality
There's a mosh pit by the berries, and the elbows are flying.
In a new twist on Portland Organic Wrestling, throngs of once mellow Portlanders crowd-surf toward pints of strawberries and bundles of fresh green basil. The city's 'urban pantry' is open for business. And it's a blowout.
Many folks these days not just chefs are obsessed with obtaining the freshest food possible. It's not enough to have a mere salad of wild greens when one can have nasturtium blossoms in a certified-organic mesclun salad.
It's what's known as the farmer-table connection.
The Portland Farmers Market is the city's largest open-air green market. Open three days a week, it operates in three locations two in Southwest and one in Northwest depending on the day of the week.
Farmers come from as far away as Joseph, in the northeastern corner of the state, to sell their goods. In 2002, there were 205 vendors; this year it's grown to 250.
The Portland Farmers Market is no hayseed affair. In fact, it's become downright 'foodie.' Growth is especially strong in two areas, says its manager, Dianne Stefani-Ruff: on-site chef demonstrations and protein foods, such as meat and fish.
Portland chef Marco Shaw demonstrated his recipe for lamb chops with morel mushrooms and asparagus during the market's opening weekend at its site near Portland State University. The lamb comes from SuDan Farm in Canby, the same place that Shaw gets it for his restaurant, Fife. Grass-fed lamb chops, shanks and steaks can be purchased at both the Saturday and Thursday farmers markets.
Saturday is the market's busiest day, with 110 vendors setting up near PSU. Six thousand people attended the market on typical Saturdays last year.
Hood River-based Packer Orchards sells cherries and cookies, as well as cherry, marionberry and huckleberry pies, depending on the season. Lisa and Tammy Packer were behind the counter recently. 'Men are always partial to the double-crust,' Lisa advised a tentative shopper.
Over at the market in Northwest Portland, Carrie Kuerschner stopped by to pick up a few bulbs for her back yard. Sold to her by Peter and Yolanda Wilson of Vanveen Bulbs International, the hyacinths, daffodils and calla lilies come from a nursery in Estacada.
'It's all about the dirt,' Peter Wilson said of his beautiful bulbs. 'This is a very dirty business!'
Nearby, chef Ronnie MacQuarrie of Southpark Seafood Grill & Wine Bar prepared oven-roasted mussels with anisette and hormone-free lamb sausage. She was joined during her presentation by farmer Dan Wilson of SuDan Farm, whose sausage is featured in the dish.
One of the reasons he and his wife, Suzie, decided to sell at the market, Wilson said, is the chance it gives them to talk to people directly.
'We're able to give them the facts about farming sheep,' he said. Wilson explained that sheep don't overgraze and aren't environmentally harmful. The Wilsons, who supply about 16 area restaurants, keep 150 sheep on 11 acres.
The chef demos typically last 45 minutes and are an ideal way for the home cook to get a free, impromptu cooking class from some of Portland's notable chefs. Recipes are handed out afterward.
Where's the beef?
Growth in the protein category, propelled by the low-carb movement, is going strong, Stefani-Ruff says.
In 2000, no meat or fish was sold; now, shoppers can pick up big hefty chops, steak, salmon or oysters from 10 vendors to go with that bag of mesclun salad mix. River Run Farm of Clatskanie sells certified organic, pasture-finished black Angus beef. Dungeness crab from Chinook is sold within 48 hours of being caught. Two vendors sell wild salmon, and both plan to bring in fresh tuna.
Farmstead cheeses also thrive at the market. The cheeses are made by farmers from their own cows' milk. Artisan cheeses and goat cheese are popular. Lines are long at Alsea Acre Goat Cheese, which produces fresh chvre, fetas and chvre in olive oil, all sold for about $7 a jar and packed in ice to ensure that it makes it home farm-fresh.
Another popular vendor is the Willamette Valley Cheese Co., from west Salem. Owners Rod and Melissa Volbeda tend a herd of pasture-grazed Jersey cows on their farm.
Noble Rot chef Leather Storrs singles out two intriguing vendors: Pierre Kolisch's Juniper Grove Farm for its cheeses and Beard Family Farm for its asparagus.
'The market is the pulse,' Storrs says. 'It's so invigorating. I come here to kibitz, and to razz the other chefs and just check in with what's going on. It helps me write menus and to find out where things are going.'