It’s spring. There’s popcorn popping on the trees, I’m wearing shorts more than pants, I played my first round of golf in six months, and the Portland Farmers Market is open. Equinox be damned. It’s spring.
I can’t remember better weather for a market opening than we had today. Even with the expanded layout of the market, it was crowded like a summer festival. I saw a woman so excited by beets, she unintelligibly rattled off all the things she was going to do with them. The old farmer in his straw hat just looked at her stone-faced, continuing to stuff the purple roots in a bag.
I got a chance to take pictures of nearly every booth, sample a lot of food, buy a few things, and talk with vendors.
The theme this spring must be raab. Broccoli raab? Sure, but also kale raab, collards raab, and brussells sprouts rapini. Farms like Deep Roots, Osmogaia, and De Noble’s are selling the flowering tops of various greens and cabbages as raabs. Viridian was even selling flowering arugula. Turnip and mustard greens seem boring by comparison. Other fun greens available included pea shoots, primarily at the Asian flower vendors, such as Lucky Farm. Stinging Nettles were at several stands as well, including Osmogaia and Winter Farms.Still exciting were the woodland foraged foods from Misty Mountain and Springwater Farms. I saw a guy slowly push his way between two women until he could get his hands on a pile of morels. The women didn’t budge. Yellowfoots, black trumpets, maitake, abalone, hon shimeji — great variety of mushrooms this year. Fiddleheads were at a few stands as well. Misty Mountain had sea beans and wild watercress, too.
Root vegetables were looking terrific. I don’t know if it was the cold winter we had or what, but the parsnips were huge and milky white, especially at Winter Farms. Rick Steffen Farm and De Noble both had hefty turnips with two foot long tops. Steffen also had the choice of purple or green kohlrabi. Several vendors, such as Gathering Together Farm, had jerusalem artichokes.I don’t know why, but even with all the more unusual choices among produce, it was the fragrant leeks and the crimson red rhubarb that made me want to cook. Well, that’s not entirely true. The dried costeños amarillo chiles from Nature’s Fountain put me in a mood for mole, so I bought a bag full.
The one thing that really pissed me off, though, was seeing both Draper Girls Country Farm and Packer Orchards selling apples, six months out of season. If I wanted desiccated apples, I’d go to Safeway. It’s exactly the wrong message for a farmers market to send.
Meat & Cheese
Elk, buffalo, yak, beef, lamb, and pork are all for sale this year. The fact there’s yak available makes me wish we still had a Tibetan restaurant. Three vendors are selling pork: Sweet Briar, The Total Pig, Tails & Trotters. What ever happened to Northwest Heritage Pork? I really just miss the smell of the sizzling bacon. I’ve tried the pork from Tails & Trotters at Laurelhurst Market and it’s excellent. The pigs are finished on hazelnuts. I’m not sure I can tell how that improves the meat, unless it’s the reason why it’s so fatty (and thus, delicious). They were selling a shortrib cut, essentially pork belly with the ribs attached cut crosswise. Imagine slow roasting that until the fat is almost translucent, basting with a little soy and ginger, and finishing in a pan until crisped.
The cheese selection is well-rounded with cow’s milk, goat’s milk, and sheep’s milk cheeses. All the producers I’ve tried make good cheese, too, especially Rogue Creamery, Willamette Valley Cheese, and Ancient Heritage. Everyone knows about Rogue. Willamette Valley is fairly prominent among foodies now as well. But really, anything from Ancient Heritage is pretty damn good. They’re probably the best of the cheesemakers at the market and one of my favorite cheesemakers in the Northwest.
The largest disaparity among vendors probably exists within the bakeries. At the low-end are Gabriel’s and Packer Orchards with pastries that would be refused at a bake sale for kids with cancer.
At the other end of the spectrum is a place like Two Tarts, where they specialize in fabulous one-bite cookies. I love that I can get a baker’s dozen for only $7, allowing my wife and I to sample six different flavors each, plus have one that goes in my mouth, instead of the box. The Oreo-style cookies are their best, such as the cappucino cream and the peanut butter cream. The crunchy cookies yield to a fluffy center that’s so light and moist it makes an Oreo seem pasty.Monica — “The Tart Lady” — who owns The Market Gourmet is one of my favorite people at the market. She’s always so sweet and generous. Her pastries always look amazing and taste delicious. I love her coconut custard tarts, but it’s usually her savory tarts that I get instead, such as the caramelized onion, pear, hazelnut, and blue cheese. Today, though, was a dense chocolate cake with a bit of strawberry.
Black Sheep, New Cascadia, and Petunia’s offer gluten-free and vegan baked goods. Both New Cascadia and Petunia’s (especially the latter) create beautiful pastries. I tried the mint-truffle brownie from Petunia’s. It was more like a thin chocolate cake with mint and chocolate frosting than a brownie. It tasted like an Andes candy. I don’t think any of these are as good as The Market Gourmet or The Two Tarts, but they’re more than acceptable. They’re enjoyable. I can remember when all the vegan and gluten-free pastries looked like mishapen lumps and tasted even worse. Each year these alternative baked goods taste better and better.
Dave’s Killer Bread is a much better whole grain sandwich loaf than you’re likely to find at the store. Pearl Bakery, of course, makes excellent rustic breads. Delphina’s isn’t too far behind. I picked up a yeasty, lightly crusted pretzel from Fressen Bakery, the specialists in German and Eastern European breads. Their dark breads and loaves of rye are some of the best in the city.
Other Snacks & Treats
Several of the best food vendors are still pleasing tongues and tummies. As the only chocolatier, Alma Chocolates had sold out of my favorite treat, the Thai peanut butter cup by the time I got around to making a purchase. Instead, I had to “settle” for an intensely rich chocolate macaroon and the honey-kissed Chloe truffle. At least I got a taste of Chop’s elk and black pepper salami — bold and unique, gamey in a good way, with fat that melted on the tongue. Too bad whole sausages were all sold. When I worked at the Hillsdale Farmers Market, I used to trade pastrami for fish from The Smokery. Their sable (black cod) tastes almost buttery and has a wonderful honey-sweet finish.Unbound Pickling makes a creative variety of pickles, from soy-wasabi asparagus to pomegranate pickled beets to cajun pickled green beans, although their labels and some of their ideas seem suspiciously close to New York pickler Rick’s Picks. Zoe’s Preserves was also at the market, but I didn’t see Pickopolis.
The row of hot foods are anchored at the southwest end with Pine State Biscuits and the middle of the west side with Salumeria di Carlo. Each were doing a brisk business, but the line was so long for Pine State — probably more than 50 people — that I joked with another vendor that it might be faster to drive to the Belmont store, wait in line there for a biscuit, and drive back to the market. But seriously, if parking were taken out of the equation, I’d wager on the Belmont run. The way they have the (for lack of a better term) food court set up, though, with few stalls directly across from the hot food vendors, it allows lines to form without significantly blocking shoppers’ paths. Definitely welcome, especially since things will only get crazier come summer. The one exception seemed to be Tastebud which had its pizza and bagel oven set up on the east corner of the central east-west row.There’s only one new stall selling hot eats, as far as I could tell, Via Chicago, a chicago pizza stand. So that’s what I tried. (Plus, there was no line.) They have both standard Chicago pizzas, pre-baked and cut into slices, and a breakfast pizza, served whole. Among the more classic style pies, they have one meat, a veggie, and a vegan choice. I tried the “meaty”, which has pepperoni, fennel sausage, pickled peppers, cheese, and tomato sauce. The pepperoni could be better. It’s all heat, no flavor. The sausage is decent, both moist and sweet. The tomato “sauce” is fairly classic for a Chicago pie, though a little too chunky. It’s very simple, almost like they had just chopped up whole canned tomatoes. It’s a little sweet and a little tangy. It may be a bit wet, though, causing my crust to get soggy. Cheese seemed bland, but there was some parmesan and herbs sprinkled over the top. The crust has that pastry-like quality I expect from a Chicago deep dish pizza. It was rich and a little flaky, with a bit of a crunch around the edges. It didn’t seem as deep or as dense as I would expect from a Malnati’s or Giordano’s, where you often get a full layer of whatever is the filling, covered by a thick layer of cheese. But it’s in the ballpark. The breakfast pizzas looked pretty interesting. They’re cooked in a 5″ springform pan, creating something even deeper than most stuffed pizzas in Chicago. They look great. I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up being the star of their menu.
Too Big for Its Own Britches?
The market doubled in size this year, but it didn’t double the number of vendors. While the number that gets thrown around is 19 new vendors, less than half of those seem to have been added to the PSU market. The actual number appears to be only 8 new vendors on Saturdays.
Last year when I applied to the market, I was (probably unintentionally) misled, made to think that I was going to be approved at least on an occasional basis, then was refused with a form letter. This year I thought I’d have a better chance — as I imagine many vendors did –, but had it made very clear to me during the interview process, without it being explicitly stated, that I had no chance of getting in. That I didn’t get into the Monday or Thursday markets either was probably a little more surprising. I’ve talked with others who applied and were turned-down. They, too, were caught off-guard with how difficult it was to get in this year, especially given talk of the expansion.
On the one hand, I understand. I’m part owner of two popular restaurants. We’re big. We don’t need to be at the market. We’d be doing it primarily for the fun of it and because ever since we transformed from farmers market stall to 60-employee restaurant, we’ve been eager to get back, feel the comradery again, and have time to shake hands and gab with customers. It makes perfect sense to me that the market would favor small vendors looking to make a start instead of established, successful businesses.
However, the market is sending mixed messages. Pine State has one very popular restaurant now and is working to open its second. Salvador Molly’s has a busy restaurant and catering business (and seems to have a stall at several markets). Tastebud now has a restaurant and wholesale bagel business. Black Sheep Bakery has one cafe and a smaller coffee house, plus is at three of the markets. Pearl Bakery, Delphina’s, Alma Chocolates, Two Tarts, New Cascadia, and Blue Gardenia all have brick and mortar stores. Dave’s Killer Bread is at several markets, plus can be found in many local grocery stores. Is there a double-standard?
Probably. I’m sure there are competing interests and even a little politics at play behind the scenes. In February, Morgan Brownlow of Tails & Trotters announced that he had been turned down by the market. Tails & Trotters started at the market, building a successful wholesale business at the same time. They’re attempting to open a shop as well. The announcement made the rounds on Twitter and various food blogs. Not long after, Brownlow announced that they’d be at the market afterall. I was told there were two openings for hot food vendors before this announcement. I was told that circumstances had changed and there was only one opening after the announcement.
I do have a suggestion for opening up spaces: get rid of the crap. Why is Packer Orchards with its out-of-season apples and second-class bake sale pastries allowed to return year after year, for example? While there may be many reasons a vendor gets a spot at the Portland Farmers Market, the primary factor seems to be tenure. Quality of product, size of business, uniqueness, market ubiquity, proximity to market, etc, all seem secondary — or even meaningless by comparison — to whether the vendor was there the previous season. A clever restaurateur would join the market, then open his restaurant, knowing that once in, your place is secure.
That said, some vendors may be leaving of their own volition. While in the past vendors paid a flat fee, this year they’re paying a percentage. I talked to one owner of a long-time market favorite who said they’re looking for a retail shop and are sick of the increasing rules, costs, and headaches. I talked with other vendors who echoed their concerns and had their own gripes about changes and communication with market management. There are some hard feelings. I was surprised to hear unsolicited complaints on such a busy market opening day.
It’ll be interesting to see how the market matures. I hope it can present a consistent vision, one that puts the goal of serving the community and market-goers, including educating by example, above all others.