California’s rainy season, which normally coincides with what passes for winter in this sunny desert clime, announced itself with authority this year. It was the second rainiest season on record since 1877, and it isn’t over yet, as spring, which is often rainy in California, has arrived. A new record for rain may still be set.
Market shoppers hung in there with their farmers this year, understanding the difficulties they had with picking and planting, and the extra hours of driving needed to get their produce to market. Even at a farmers’ market it is alarming to find shortages of produce, but seasoned shoppers know how to improvise.
They can make a salad out of winter greens, find innovative ways with cabbage and fennel, and select tender young herbs to season a late winter dish. Fresh basil may be gone, but Basiltops dozen-plus varieties of pesto, available at the Sunday Main Street Market, bring back a taste of summer. The harbingers of spring are out there, and they mark the change of season with a taste of anticipation.
Peas are a wonderful spring crop. First come the sugar snaps from the central coast. These gently curved, crisp vegetables are meant to be eaten pod and all — the pod, in fact, is where all the sweetness and flavor lies. All one has to do is remove the tough string that runs along the pea’s top. This is easily done by snapping the pea at either end and pulling the string off the curved side of the pea’s back. Stringless snap peas are a different variety, and not as tasty or sweet as the old fashioned string-y kind. A little later comes the sweet, tasty English peas. These look bulkier on the outside than the snaps, and their pods are not to be eaten. The peas are, however, easily unzipped from their crisp pods and are delicious eaten raw, or very gently cooked if you must. Pea greens are the climbing tendrils of pea plants, and they are full of flavor and nutrition. They can be added to salads or soups and are both beautiful to look at and highly flavorful.
Almonds and nectarines have already flowered up in the central San Joaquin Valley and are beginning to set fruit. Farmers actively prune flowering fruit and nut trees to get the trees to produce sizeable fruit, so earlier in the year they brought in branches of fruit blossoms to sell.
Peaches and cherries will be blooming next, and it remains to be seen what kind of damage late rains will wreak on their delicate blossoms.
In springtime, customers look for cultivated flowers like tulips, daffodils and iris to mark the season, although the first true breath of spring may be the mountain-grown lilacs that come in from Tehachapi and Lake Hughes. These high-altitude lilacs go through a true winter like their Eastern cousins, and their fragrance is far superior to the lowland hybrid varieties.
Our goat cheese supply is diminished in spring, because the mama goats are “kidding” — bearing young, called “kids,” and given a break from milking to care for their young. You can check with Maggie and David Schack, who bring Redwood Hill Goat cheese to Santa Monica Markets, about the availability of your favorite cheese. This is a good time of year to appreciate the regenerative cycles that small, sustainable dairies go through in order to care for their herds and flocks.If you have a grapevine or apple tree in your backyard, check out the vigorous leafing out that is going on out there. Scaly brown grapevines have burst forth with pale green leaves and some are showing new growth. The grape harvest is months away, but the vigorous spring activity is a happy reminder of things to come. Spring represents the turning of the earth towards the sun. Longer days and milder temperatures bring the promise of bountiful days ahead. It is a time to celebrate, a time for hope and renewal, and a time that we can mark with the subtle changes at the market.