I finally found a nice-sized clump of maitake, picked up some mizuna, and earlier in the season was great for scoring sunchokes. I know my way around the farmers market, and I’m not afraid to admit it. But then, I write about food professionally — you probably wouldn’t have much faith in me if I didn’t know these things, would you?
Nonetheless, farmers markets can be intimidating if you don’t go on a regular basis. Some people use them as old-fashioned gathering places to jaw with their neighbors and pick up some tomatoes. Others want to find the exotic ingredients so many recipes are sporting these days. And most people want to support local farmers in the best way possible — by cutting out the middleman and giving them cash for their goods directly.
Whether or not you fall into any of these groups, you still may need a few tips to make the most of a trip. And what better time to visit than during Farmers’ Market Week in Virginia? It takes place Aug. 7-13, and you can find your nearest market at virginiagrown.com.
1. Bring your own bag. Besides the obvious pluses of reusables, it’ll make you feel very European.
2. Get there early. You’ll avoid the rush and won’t have to worry about missing out on the raspberries. And there’s a real upside to getting there first thing — you can still remember that you’re human before the merciless, apocalyptic heat begins for the day. And if you take your fruits and vegetables right home, they should keep a little longer than the ones that were sitting out all morning. That being said, I can never seem to manage this. Don’t be like me.
3. Don’t bring a list. You’ll never find everything you need. You’re buying seasonally — and we’re all about that! Instead, stay flexible, open-minded and buy what’s available. This doesn’t mean you need to buy okra — there’s always another option when it comes to okra. You can figure out what to make with your haul later — the entire internet is waiting for you at home. In fact, Google probably already knows what you bought, so those recipes shouldn’t be hard to find.
4. Talk to the farmers. This is really my favorite part, because I can chat away with the best of them. I’ll talk to them and I’ll talk to you and then go home having had a grand old time. I’m probably a distraction in this equation, but the farmers can reassure you that what they’re selling is fresh and tell you when it was harvested, explain the more exotic varieties, outline the care of their farm animals and may have a recipe or two to pass along — if you don’t like the idea of Google knowing what you’re having for dinner.
5. Don’t squeeze the produce. If you’ve been talking to your farmer (see above) as I recommend, you’ll know that it’s fresh. If it looks firm and colorful, buy it instead of bruising it.
6. Try new things. There are so many to choose from and you should vow to buy one crazy-looking vegetable or something with an exotic name on each trip. Eventually, they won’t seem unusual to you anymore and you can run with the high-flying foodies who like to say “umami” and “street food” and sometimes “kale.” Still with the kale, people: Why? Why? Why?
7. But don’t go crazy. Bring cash, and when it runs out, leave the market. It’s easy to vow to eat fresh and local, but if you have a produce drawer with six varieties of lettuce wilting in it the following week, you need to rein in your exuberance. According to Jo Robinson, author of “Eating on the Wild Side: the Missing Link to Optimum Health,” the first things you should eat to avoid nutrient loss are artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, kale, leeks, lettuce and spinach. Kind of an eclectic little bunch, isn’t it?
8. Don’t bring your dog. I know this will engender a lot of hate, so I avoided it until I absolutely couldn’t anymore. I’ve seen too many dogfights that could have been avoided, tripped over too many leashes and seen too many small children eye-level with strange dogs getting unwanted smooches — or scary growls. Most Richmond-area farmers markets are overcrowded anyway, so leave the pets at home.