Baskets of spices arrayed in rich, rainbow tones. Thick tubes of sausages dangling from umbrella rafters. Rattan baskets pressed between arm and hip, bulging with selected produce. Olive oil vats paired with tiny taster spoons. Sagging bunches of lavender more populated by swarming bees than swirling masses of shoppers. Crusted honey oozing from jars with homemade labels. Deft hands picking up, squeezing, discarding, re-choosing, squeezing white eggplants, apricots, tomatoes, escarole, Cavaillon melons, zucchini, peaches, yellow peppers. Eggs reposing in tottering rows. Talking, joking, haggling, moving. Above all, a smell that seems naggingly familiar in its overwhelming intoxication. After some time spent drifting around a Provençal open-air market, it hits me. The smell? Food. Real food.
I fell in love (because who couldn’t) with market shopping on one of my first trips to France. While not unique to the French, the experience of brushing a rim of dirt from a tomato or having a mishmash of egg sizes in one container was the antithesis of American grocery store stopping. And yes, the produce is so fresh and so local, it retains its native scent. A tomato actually smells like a tomato. Perhaps that Peruvian tomato at my grocery store once smelled of something, perhaps even of tomato, but somewhere in its weeks-long, thousands-of-miles-long journey to my plate, it lost its tomato-ness. Lost in the vibrant sights, sounds, and smells of a market in Aix-en-Provence a few years ago, I surfaced from my orgy of photo snapping to find a grocer laughing at me. Yes, my bulky camera glued to my eye was a neon arrow pointing out a tourist, but he found my photo subjects even more hilarious. “Don’t you have vegetables at home?” he queried with a smile ruffling his thick moustache. “Yes. No. We don’t have vegetables like this at home” I replied with another click of the shutter. He had gorgeous bunches of basil.
My rusty French could not begin to communicate the world of difference between a French market experience and the cold, sterile aisles of a grocery store where shopping revolves around convenience (Now open 24 hours a day 7 days a week 365 days a year!) and not around community (French village life buzzes around the one, two, or three days a week the market arrives) or even about food. It took me a trip across the Atlantic Ocean to realize it, but I now want my life to revolve around food not grocery store. So every week from April to October, I sling my empty Provençal rattan basket over my shoulder, head to my local farmer’s market, and return home with basket bulging. When I do have to make a rare trip to a grocery store, I stand a moment in the entrance blinking in surprise at how many people are actually shopping the aisles of California produce while mere miles from the whooshing doors of the front entrance are genuine, soil-warmed Pennsylvania produce stands.
Truthfully, my market of choice to frequent would be the one found on the steps of Aix-en-Provence’s Hotel de Ville. Since I don’t have a weekly first class ticket to France waiting in my purse, I go with my second best option: the Sewickley Farmer’s Market located in the parking lot of St. James Church. Now in my third year of Farmer’s Market shopping, I’m delighted to arrive each week and make my rounds to the favorites. I recognize faces. I know some names. I field comments about how quickly my daughter is growing. I ask about how the chickens are laying on the farm. (Usually “prolifically” is the answer, and “in car tires, on old dressers, and behind the dog’s bed.” I guess that’s the answer you want if you’re wondering whether the eggs are fresh.) I can now open my fridge and freezer and instead of seeing nationwide brand labels, I see the dog-bed eggs, the goat’s milk yogurt that was originally milked by hand, the steaks from grass-fed cows, and the apricot jam with the homemade label in a jar I’m supposed to return when I’m done (“because we re-use them, you know.”) To me, visiting the local farmer’s market isn’t just about the food I buy, but about where the food begins. I know the real hands behind my food. I’m pleased to give my money straight into the same hands that stripped my blueberries off bushes that morning.
The Sewickley Farmer’s Market is unique in its variety of food offerings. Not simply a gathering of vegetable and flower stalls, Sewickley’s Farmer’s Market offers options that will stock a full pantry. A trip to the market, whether a quick dash between other errands or a leisurely morning’s meander, has to include stops to my favorite vendors. Follow me on my rounds:
First stop, Dream Thyme Farm. The moment we arrive, we check for Lynne from Dream Thyme Farm. If she is on time (which often she isn’t, and therefore we move this stop later in our rotation), we want to be among the first in line for her eggs. A motley group of speckled, white, brown, blue, and even green eggs, a dozen of Dream Thyme Farm eggs are happy eggs. They come from happy hens. Hens who have been free to wander and build nests where nature dictates best. We drop off our egg cartons from the previous week to recycle and then pick up another dozen or two mismatched orbs for the coming week. Lynne also comes well-stocked with her handmade goat’s milk soaps. With scents surely inspired by Grateful Dead songs, these soaps lather beautifully and moisturize luxuriantly. I jealously guard my bars of soap, even though I have easy access to more, at least through the summer months.
After eggs and soap, we peruse the Dream Thyme Farm stall to determine what else we need to take home with us. The offerings are always eclectic: her asparagus, blueberries, and strawberries are unrivaled. Don’t miss them. She frequently brings butchered chickens, lambs, and goats to market as well. Stock your freezer. And if you’re in the mood for goat’s milk fudge, sauerkraut stuffed peppers, hot sauce, or a dried sheepskin, well, Dream Thyme Farm may just be able to oblige.
Stop two: mosey on over to Dillner Family Farm. Dillner’s is our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) of choice. Thanks to this cheerful, hardworking family, my family enjoys weekly bags of farm-fresh veggies from June through October. While not a certified organic farm, the Dillners are committed to sustainable agriculture. Talk to Jane Dillner, and she will quickly assure you that she and her husband only spray when absolutely necessary and take other measures to make sure their land stays healthy, safe, and fertile. The resulting fruits and vegetables bear testament to such love and care. We love their red onions, asparagus, corn, tomatoes, and zucchini.
Stop three: turn away from Dillner’s corner stand and get in line at McElhaney’s for all of your beef needs. And I do mean needs. One taste of this farm’s hamburger and you will need it. One spoonful of their chili, and you will need it. Same goes for their steaks, kielbasa, and dog bones (not that I’ve tried them, but the dogs sure look pleased). The pasture-raised cows are fed a green diet that’s blissfully free of hormones. With each bite of flank steak, I picture calves kicking up their heels in sunshine and grass. In addition to the weekly à la carte selections, McElhaney’s offers excellent deals on bulk beef purchases. You can choose between 25 and 40 pounds of steak and/or hamburger packs.
Stop four: goat cheese from Riverview Dairy. I can’t offer a website for this particular farm, but I can give my strongest recommendation for their cheese. The Bylers, a Mennonite family located in Emlenton, PA, hand milk all 45 goats on their farm daily. Their goat cheese, and yes, I will put it against anything coming from France, is some of the best I’ve ever had. In addition to the Sewickley Farmer’s Market, they sell their cheeses at Whole Foods Market in Pittsburgh as well as the East End Food Co-op. Sample the flavors (and there are many to choose from) to find your favorite. I can’t get enough of the French herb and chive varieties, respectively. I’m also enjoying their brand new offering of goat’s milk yogurt, which has a consistency similar to kefir.
Stop five: my favorite organic foodie, Evan from Cherry Valley Organics. I couldn’t ask for a better selection of organic produce. Cherry Valley’s vegetable array is thoughtful, fresh, varied, and always, always delicious. This past week, kale seemed to be the big ticket item, although none of the bundles looked like the kale I find at my grocery store. Evan informed me that his three (three?!) different varieties of kale were indeed unlike the grocery store in that his were actually tasty and tender. After buying a bunch of each, I agree! Evan knows so much about his produce and flowers that he can even tell you the latin names of his plants. No wonder some of his produce stand walks away with me each week. I also buy Cherry Valley seedlings each year for my own garden and have been quite pleased with the resulting plants.
For now, I will stop the post here, although it pains me to leave off some of my other favorite Sewickley Farmer’s Market stops. You should know about Enon Valley Garlic (44 varieties!), Callefonte’s fresh pasta, and Moon Family Farm’s pastured pork, and Betty Starn bakery, and, and, and… Stop reading, grab a basket, head to the Sewickley Farmer’s Market, and don’t leave until that basket is bulging. Then you’ll see what I mean.
The Sewickley Farmer’s Market operates April through November on Saturday mornings from 9 am until 1 pm. Enjoy free metered parking on Saturdays and plan a family excursion to the Farmer’s Market followed by a leisurely stroll through the quaint main street of town. If you’d like to read more about our adventures, markets and elsewhere, in France, check out my Travelpod travelogue from the trip.