Some of the most entertaining features in print media such as magazines and newspapers are the restaurant reviews. I am talking about the restaurant reviews that appear as regular features — the ones that are written in an incredibly dense and hard-boiled style, with no quarter given for any menu item at any time, on any night, that is anything less than total perfection.
Some of the reviewers’ most caustic comments are reserved for restaurants at which the food is “uneven” or “overreaching” — and how would the average diner even know that the mascarpone polenta with fresh peas was too highly salted? Still, it makes for thrilling reading as we breathlessly negotiate course after course only to crash on the reef of a superfluous truffle butter reduction.
And yet what are the standards for the raw ingredients of the breathlessly waiting to be reviewed new chef or restaurant? Produce standards are set by the industry that is trying to sell them. This industry extends from the farmer’s field right up to the last wholesale outlet, beginning with an assessment paid by the farmer for every box of fruit or vegetables packed for commercial sale. In order to sell fruit, for example, to an ever-widening market, each box of packed fruit must be able to hold up for one to three weeks so that it may be shipped, stored and distributed to retail outlets.
At the first sign of maturity — a faint pink blush on a nectarine or a tomato-the fruit is picked, packed, cooled and put into the wholesale pipeline. Discerning shoppers can find the best in-season produce at their local farmers’ market. Chefs whose restaurants are subject to influential reviews have discovered farmers’ markets, where they can be seen each week buying more and more of their trend setting fare. Let’s see if we can take a tour of the farmers’ market as though it were a restaurant, holding it to standards of perfection, and rate it on a scale of one to four stars.
Venerable old institution, established in California in 1978, with fair to elegant décor. No need to make reservations, but parking can be a bit of a hassle so plan to arrive early for the best access to the site. Valet parking generally not available, but it gets talked about from time to time. Arrive early for best selection, although some bargains can be found at the end of the selling day, if you are willing to wait and toss your shopping list to the wind. Dress is casual, comfortable shoes are recommended. Serious shoppers bring a cart, the style of which does not matter since it will wind up festooned with bags of produce and bunches of flowers anyway. Child strollers are an excellent means of conveyance for purchases, but there remains the question of how to transport the conveyance’s original occupant once the stroller is full of oranges and kale. A kiddie backpack or Snugli serve as suitable options. Best table in the house — head for the one that is already packed with shoppers or where you see chefs hanging out in back.
Starters: depending on whether you begin with salad or with a California style (eclectic) antipasto type dish, you have an excellent array of flavorful salad greens and toppings to choose from. Select from any number of toppings to add crunch and variety to your salad, including walnuts, almonds or macadamia nuts; minced whole citrus like limequats or orangequats; fresh peas (English, sugar snaps or Chinese,) or a variety of sprouts. For appetizers you can choose from award-winning goat cheeses, raw, farm-processed Goudas in four flavors and three stages of aging, farm-processed olives, organic proprietary varieties of dates and several types of sweet, juicy tangerines, including the famous Ojai Pixie. (Note: the appetizers also make an excellent dessert plate.)
First course: so you’ve been reading about sorrel soup and cilantro pesto and have been looking for enough of the fresh herbs to make a nice batch of your own. Herbs are always fresh and abundant at the farmers’ market, and if you mention to the farmer what you are planning to make, you are likely to come away with some extra herbs and hastily noted recipes to try at a future date. Buying oregano? Have you tried the extra spicy Greek variety? Basils and thymes come in varieties almost uncountable.
Main course: here is where we have only our lack of imagination or inspiration to hold us back. Whether you are vegetarian or omnivore, you can select from some of the best, hardest to find ingredients known to Bristol Farms, Gelson’s and Whole Foods combined. Where else can you find organic, free range grass-fed, dry aged beef and pork? Free range chicken and duck and their eggs are also readily available (order ducks and chickens a week in advance). Flaky-skinned “new” potatoes are in season in April and throughout the year when the potato harvest is almost ready. Fresh green almonds and green pistachios are available only at farmers’ markets, if you have a hankering for the truly exotic. I will skip over the other 350 plus and counting ingredients to buy each week at the farmers’ market and go straight to dessert.
Dessert: everything except flour, chocolate and vanilla extract. (See above appetizer menu if you are not into fruit, eggs or honey.)
Rating: there is something called “beyond category” that applies to the offerings you can find at the farmers’ market – as in -stars just can’t say it all. Bon appetit!For the record: It was recently reported (“Freeway Classic”) that the McGraths were third generation California family farmers. In fact, the McGraths of Camarillo are fifth generation farmers.