The farmers market a dose of country living

There is something inherently questionable about a farmers market.

Set up miles from any farm, under pristine white tents, with artfully chalked-up signs advertising overpriced and out-of-season fruits and vegetables, a farmers market, for a visitor, really is an exercise in living vicariously. Without shoveling an ounce of dirt or planting a single seed, you — the humble city dweller — can roll out of bed, stock up on organic produce and walk half a block to Starbucks feeling as if you’ve tasted country living.

 
 


On a sunny day in D.C., there are some great farmers markets to visit, some good cheese to try, some kids to trip over — and, somehow, the salad you make when you get home is just that much more satisfying for your having purchased the lettuce outside.

If you’re downtown, one of the better markets can be found near Dupont Circle, right outside the northern exit of the Red Line Metro stop. Open on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the market is a “producer-only” market, one of six such markets operated in the Chesapeake Bay area by an umbrella organization called Freshfarm Markets.

Being a “producer-only” market means that what it sells comes straight from the farm of the person selling it to you — i.e., if you buy a bar of soap, then the soap maker had to grow the herbs that went into the soap. No secondhand sales here.

It also means that the people manning the stalls know a lot about what they’re selling and often have handy suggestions on how to prepare it. If you don’t know what a ramp is, for example, no worries. A quick Q&A with the person behind the mound of lettuce and parsnips will enlighten you with the following details: Ramps, which look like green onions, have an extremely strong oniony flavor, are native only to West Virginia and are best saut�ed with a touch of butter. Similarly, around the corner, you’ll get a recipe for ginger-rhubarb sauce and learn that the bundle of rhubarb comes from a 17-year-old plant and is excellent in pies.

Don’t miss the mushroom stall, which sells both cultured and uncultured varieties — the cultured come from Pennsylvania and the wild hail from Maryland. “This stand always has the most beautiful mushrooms,” said one woman, ogling a carton of morels. That’s the other amusing thing about farmers markets; often the people doing the buying are more talkative than the people doing the selling.

There are a number of award winners at the Dupont market. If you want internationally ranked bleu cheese, go no farther than Firefly Farms. Its Mountain Top Bleu was the bronze-medal winner at the 2004 World Cheese Awards in London and is ranked 14th in Saveur magazine’s list of America’s 50 best cheeses. “We’re selling out like crazy,” said Aaron Osherowitz, one of the sellers, pointing proudly at the crowd in front of the stall’s counter.

Another choice farmers market is Eastern Market on Capitol Hill. The market has been a Hill staple since the 1870s, when it was built, and is open during the week from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (except Monday), with a larger farmers market and flea market set up on the weekends.

There you’ll find Steve Adams, or “Nutsy,” as he affectionately has been dubbed by informal market authority Dan, who runs the fruit stand next door. During the week, Adams is an assistant director to the student union at the University of Maryland, but on the weekend he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to sell candied nuts, almonds and pecans.

“My wife makes them fresh every weekend,” he explained, grinning, adding that he had once tried to follow her “secret” recipe and created a tarlike mess.

A quiet salesman, Adams lets his samples do the work. “My favorite is when people take a sample, walk halfway across the street and then do a U-turn to come back for a full bag,” he said.

You can see his theory at work inside as well, where people crowd up against the counter of the market’s main cheese seller for samples of cheddar and Parrano, sliced and presented efficiently on Scandinavian cheese cutters.

Other highlights inside include the crab ravioli from the market’s pasta stand, smoked pepper bacon from the meat sellers at the northern end of the market and pulled-pork sandwiches — apparently best with coleslaw — from the deli next to the bread and pastry sellers.

And there’s plenty of nonfood browsing to do at Eastern Market as well. The artisans and flea marketers outside offer an array of furniture, scarves, jewelry, bags, books and a variety of other wares.

There are a number of markets scattered around the city — in Foggy Bottom, the 600 block of H Street N.E. and Adams Morgan. Some operate during the week and are seasonal, so check the USDA’s website (www.ams.usda.gov) for a complete listing before you head out.