I was introduced to the notion of an open-air market back in my college days at Case Western. On Saturday mornings, if I wasn't too hung over from the night before, I would get up bright and early and drive myself down to the West Side Market located at the corner of West 25th and Lorain in downtown Cleveland. Once inside the massive building you'd find stall after stall of amazing meats, breads, fruits, vegetables, cheeses and pastries. Often, you'd find quite the deal on many items, especially if they were in season and plentiful. A flat of fresh strawberries for $4? Absolutely. Of course, as I was just buying for myself, that flat of strawberries would usually go bad before I could finish it (that or I'd never want to even look at another strawberry again for six months after finishing an entire flat of them).
At the time, the market appealed to a baser set of instincts: it was fresh food that I could get cheaper than at the grocery store. But as I grew older, I began to understand the idea of this kind of market and why they are an important part of our food ecosystem. The people who run these amazing food stands aren't just there to turn a quick buck. Often times these are very passionate people who have a love for growing or preparing healthy and delicious food. The market provides a way to directly link the consumer to the farmer or purveyor. In addition, many if not all of the purveyors at these markets are going to be local to the area, thus promoting "greener" products that haven't been shipped across the country or from around the world.
So it was with this in mind that I accompanied my three Cleveland friends on a trip to two of Cleveland's farmers markets. The first one, the Shaker Square market, occupies the entire central portion of the square, making car travel normally allowed directly through the middle of the square impossible. Cars now had to navigate around the square instead of through it. This is a fairly large market with two entire sets of booths to walk through. Join me now as I walk through the market.
First up, a local bakery, Lucy's Sweet Surrender, offers many of it's baked goods for sale:
And a shot of some of the nut and fruit rolls:
After Lucy's, we walked by a number of other vendors selling anything from homemade soaps to clothing and candles. But it was when I walked by this stand selling Ohio strawberries:
That I had to stop. Quarts of fresh, ripe berries were $5 for 1 and $4 for 2 or more. I quickly got in line and when I arrived at the front of the line, the heady aroma of strawberries filled my nostrils. I breathed the scent deeply and just shut my eyes. Fresh, ripe strawberries have such a short season and I wanted to make a sense memory I could hold on to until next spring. Try getting that sensory experience in a supermarket and you'll likely be disappointed. I quickly bought 2 quarts and moved on, but not before first sampling my spoils and passing some out to my friends.
After finishing up with the first set of booths, we crossed the RTA tracks and headed over to the second set. First up was a woman selling all manner of herbs and plants. I didn't stop to count all the varieties, but it was impressive:
Just past the herbs, we ran into a Cleveland Food and Wine Forum fixture, Ohiohoney. She was selling her wonderful local Ohio honey in various forms:
She also had some amazing Florida Orange Blossom Honey that one of my companions decided to give a try, too. Ohiohoney truly knows the vintages on the products she sells. Another shopper had asked her specific questions about where the honey had come from and when it was harvested. Without batting an eyelash, Ohiohoney knew exactly the information that was needed to answer the question.
Here is a photograph of a placard describing her operation in more detail:
Of course, at farmer's markets, sampling is highly encouraged!
Next to Ohiohoney's stand was the cart for Millgate Farms:
Millgate sells all natural, grass-fed beef in various cuts and grinds. I have bought their ground beef for hamburgers before and I can tell you it is simply marvelous beef and quite tasty. The ground beef is sold in one pound blocks and is frozen, so it's a good idea to bring a cooler stuffed with ice with you when coming to the market.
On one side of the Millgate cart is a poster that I thought was informative and funny at the same time:
"Beef Made Easy". I think one step lower and they might have to relabel this, "Beef For Dummies". Like I said, the poster's title struck my quirky sense of humor as being oddly humorous.
Further down the row we came to another Ohio farmer selling their Ida Reds and Golden Delicious apples:
My friend Debbie (from the Greenhouse Tavern post here) has been totally into pie baking lately and picked up a nice big basket of some of the less pristine fruit. Since it's going into pies, it doesn't have to be picture perfect, right?
Our final stop at the Shaker Square market wasn't actually at the market at all. It was in a store in the square itself, Dewey's Coffee:
They sell Fair Trade coffees here and when we walked into the shop you immediately got the heady aroma of roasted coffee beans. It was around 11 am when we stopped by and the place was buzzing with activity. You can tell that they do a lot of business on the weekends just by the amount of turnover we experienced in our brief stop here.
From there we headed back to the car, packed up the iced coolers and headed to the Coit Road Market on the corner of Coit and Woodworth Roads. This was a much smaller market than the Shaker Square market and as we arrived about twenty minutes before it was scheduled to close, the vendor selection was much smaller.
Fortunately for us, another Cleveland specialty vendor, Spicehound (also on the Food and Wine forum) was there peddling his AMAZING selection of spices, herbs, and salts. I stood in the middle of the table and took a shot to my left, my front, and my right:
Truly a breathtaking array of available spices. And the wonderful thing is that they are all pre-portioned so that each bag is just $1. One bag? $1. Five bags? $5. A beautiful way to be able to pre-package before you show up and then just sell what you have.
I walked away with three different spices, Vietnamese cinnamon (which you could smell right through the plastic), szechuan peppercorns, and dried Thai chiles:
Spicehound also had a series of bags hanging above his table offering dried and powdered versions of the world's hottest known natural chili pepper, the Bih Jolokia:
Prior to the discovery of this pepper, the habanero was thought to be the hottest at somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The Bih Jolokia is now the hottest at over 1,000,000 SHU. Definitely NOT for the faint of heart. I passed on acquiring one of these peppers, worried about what might happen if I were to accidentally touch my eyes (or other sensitive place, ahem!) after handling one of these hotties.
After wrapping up our shopping at the Coit Road Market, we packed up the car and headed back to the suburbs to enjoy the spoils of our adventure today. Besides meeting the farmers, the purveyors, and other market goers, you get a nice morning walk in the sunshine, fresh and amazing food, and the satisfaction of knowing that your money is being reinvested back into the community and local businesses. I encourage you to investigate the farmer's markets wherever you live and by learning to cook seasonally, you will always be in a position to enjoy food at the peak of its flavor and nutrition.