It just doesn't get much fresher than this To Market, To Market

August 17, 1994|By Kathryn Higham | Kathryn Higham,Special to The Sun

For many, August is the best month of the year -- not because it marks the end of summer or the start of school, but because that's when the sweetest and ripest produce makes its way to local farmers' markets.

The markets are an urban Eden for fruit and vegetable lovers. Here, it's OK to touch, sniff and even taste the merchandise. Find a perfect white Italian eggplant. Learn about sweet yellow Shiro plums. Get cooking advice for red and white shell beans direct from the farmers who grow them.

When Cinda Sebastian arrives at the Towson farmers' market, her tomatoes have been picked just hours earlier. The same goes for her potent Genoese basil and tiny green beans.

"Everything I have here, I picked today," says Ms. Sebastian, who owns the Gardener's Gourmet farm in Uniontown.

There are more than 50 farmers' markets scattered throughout the state. Each has its own personality. Since the Towson market takes place in the middle of the workweek, many business people drop by on their lunch hour. Church-goers in their Sunday best are easy to spot at the Baltimore market. The 32nd Street market in Waverly has a laid-back, neighborly feel that's perfect for a leisurely Saturday.

Some people frequent the markets just for the ambience -- the crowds, the color, the chance to talk directly to farmers. Others go to buy produce they can't find anywhere else.

Of course, variety is limited to what can be grown in this climate. Don't expect to find mangoes and kiwis. Farmers generally sell only what they grow.

August is the favorite month of the growing season for many customers. That is when the long-awaited and, for many, unsurpassed Silver Queen corn finally arrives. The first weekend of this month, several vendors at the Baltimore market were selling a dozen ears of the sweet, white corn for $2.

Thanksgiving Farm in Adamstown grows no less than 17 varieties of eggplant. Customers at their stand in the Baltimore market compared the differences between bright violet Neon and lavender Japanese Pintung, and the bite-size Bambino and white Ghostbuster.

Gardener's Gourmet, which has stands at the Towson, 32nd Street, Baltimore and Owings Mills markets, is a terrific find for cooks looking to experiment with exotic or interesting produce. They sell choice mesclun, unusual herbs such as pineapple sage, peppery-fresh garlic, shoe-peg corn and heirloom tomatoes like the fat, yellow and red streaked Mister Stripey.

Richfield Farm in Carroll County sells four different kinds of beans, several different varieties of tomatoes and eggplant, and peppers in seven different colors. Orange, white, red, yellow, purple and lilac peppers cost more to grow than green bell peppers, says Richard Seletzky, who owns the farm. The seeds are more expensive, the plants don't yield as much and the color is harder to maintain. But Mr. Seletzky, who takes part in the Towson, Baltimore and Pimlico markets, still only charges 50 cents per colored pepper.

Dong Zhang, from Towson, can sometimes find bok choy and other Asian vegetables if he goes early enough to the Baltimore market. While he has to supplement his shopping at the supermarket, he likes the quality of the produce he buys from farmers. "What we can't find here, we'll get other places," he says.

Certain crops are scarce this summer at the market. Farmer David Hochheimer, of Black Rock Orchard, lost his entire peach crop because of the brutal storms last winter. The storms also rTC thinned the yield of the rest of his trees, but what remains is "bigger, nicer fruit," says the Carroll County farmer. Along with nectarines, plums and apples, Mr. Hochheimer sells several varieties of cherries, including a juicy pale yellow version. Asian pears will be ready around the first of September.

Fruits and vegetables aren't the only items for sale at the markets. Cut flowers, freshly baked breads and pastries, homemade jams and jellies, raw unfiltered honey with the comb, organic products, eggs, cheeses, fish and meats also are available. The Owings Mills market even offers chef's demonstrations each week through Labor Day.

At the 32nd Street market, Odessa Dunson and Barbara Lahnstein of 1536 Gourmet Cuisine sell rainbow trout cured with garlic and herbs over hickory wood, salmon seasoned with cognac and dill over apple wood, small rolls of smoked chicken breast and other culinary enticements. Fresh goat cheese from a local farm mixed with apple, dill and garlic was a memorable buy for $5.

At a different stall at the market, Bedford Produce sells smoked meat and ham, sausage and cheese. Bedford started out with vegetables and got into the meat business when people started requesting something to season their greens, explains Floyd Robinson, who works for the company.

But there are reasons other than convenience to frequent the markets. "The thing that brings people back is the color and ambience," says Pat McMillan, agriculture market specialist for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

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