By Jane Knoerle
Shopping the Menlo Park Farmers' Market is a natural on a summer Sunday. The sun is shining, casual dress is the uniform of the day, and the stands are filled with tempting fruits and vegetables, flowers, plants and much more.
The market on a rainy January day is another matter. It's wet, cold and windy. However, that doesn't stop the regulars, who cheerfully brave the elements for their weekly shopping. And while there are no ripe tomatoes or cherries, there is a surprising abundance of good things to eat.
Thalia Lubin of Woodside kept warm in a hooded parka for a recent visit to the Menlo Park market. "I come here because the produce is freshest and best and I want to support the local farmers," she says. Her shopping bag held root vegetables, radicchio and citrus.
"I also come because the market gets me down to Menlo Park and I can do other errands while I'm there."
Another fan of the winter market is Alison Simmers of Menlo Park, who was picking up carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes for a stew. "This is stew weather," she says, ducking out of the rain.
Vera Shadle of Palo Alto was filling her bag with tangerines at the Jopley Farms stand, which featured an array of apples, pomegranates, citrus, broccoli, and root vegetables. "I want to support the vendors. You get to know them, ask about their families, and have a relationship," she says.
Having worked on a farm, herself, Ms. Shadle says she appreciates the hard work that goes into farming.
Ellie Flegel of Menlo Park shops the market all year round. "I really enjoy it and get to know the vendors," she says. The Melody Ranch stall is one of her favorites for apples, green beans and peppers. "They have the best peppers."
Ms. Flegel, who is of Greek descent, also finds the ingredients for tourlou, the Greek version of ratatouille. She combines Japanese eggplant with onion, squash, sweet red pepper, parsley, Roma tomatoes, and a "secret ingredient" — one carrot — and bakes it at 375 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes.
"Sam (the late Sam Petrakis, chef/owner of The Golden Acorn) told me about the carrot. It adds sweetness," she says.
Many vendors have been coming to Menlo Park's market since it opened in 1992. Pietro Parravano is one of them. His fish stand at the entrance of the market is always busy and sells out early, especially the salmon and Dungeness crab. On a recent Sunday, however, Mr. Parravano was absent because a storm had prevented him from going to sea.
One of the newer additions to the market is Holding Ranch of Montague, California, which sells grass-fed beef and lamb, pork, free-range chickens and eggs. Savvy shoppers know the eggs sell out early. Holding Ranch has been coming to the Menlo Park market for the past two years.
Another newcomer is Heba Badran of Stanford, who is selling her baklava under the "Happiness Within" name. Ms. Badran says she has been baking baklava since she was 10. She makes four flavors: pecan, pistachio, walnut and nut-less.
The pastry comes attractively packaged in small amounts. She was offering free samples to passers-by on a recent Sunday. "It's very light and different from any you have tried before," she says.
The Schmidt Family Farm of Selma was featuring olive oil and balsamic vinegar, as well as organic raisins. Jim Schmidt, who has been farming for 40 years, says, "The population needs to take better care of the farmers."
Chefs for trendy restaurants often say their menus are inspired by the products they find at farmers' markets. The Coke Farm of San Juan Bautista provides plenty of inspiration with unusual vegetables, such as romanesco cauliflower, which comes from northern Italy. It is a pale lime green color and its florets, rather than being rounded, rise in a pyramid of pointed cones. It's pretty enough to be used as a centerpiece.
Coke Farm also sells Meyer lemons, cipollini, celery root, shallots, a variety of beets, and a gourmet's selection of greens, from radicchio to escarole. Coke Farm was founded in 1981 by Dale Coke, who is credited with combining several varieties of greens to create "spring mix," featured in many fancy restaurants.
The rain was coming down pretty seriously when we stopped at the Coke Farm stand, but it didn't seem to bother Julia Coke. "We've never not come (to market) because of the rain," she says.
Toward market closing time, Melissa Rentena of Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport was doing a little business with the date vendor. She traded him kiwis, broccoli, celery and a cauliflower for a sampling of his seven varieties of dates. "We often do a little trading at the end of market," she says.
Swanton Farm, which includes a year-round farm stand and u-pick in season, is also noted for its homemade jams, says Melissa.
Lions Club project
As it has since the beginning, the Menlo Park Live Oaks Lions Club manages the operation of the market. With the market, the club raises more than $35,000 a year to benefit its charitable projects.
At present, there are about 35 booths that rent for $22 for a 10-foot stall, according to market manager Lori Hennings. She says many of the farmers have been with the market for years and there is a long waiting list. "They like this market, because customers really appreciate them," she says.
Volunteers from the Lions Club are on hand every Sunday at the market, which is located in the parking plaza off Chestnut Street, between Santa Cruz and Menlo avenues in downtown Menlo Park. Club members provide bottled water and soft drinks to the vendors at minimal cost.
After the market closes, volunteers deliver leftover produce to local charities and half-way houses. Members of the Menlo Park Host Lions Club help with collecting and distributing the food.
The Menlo Park Farmers' Market is one of the few on the Peninsula that is open all year round. Regulars know that, rain or shine, the market offers good organic food and a connection with the farmers who grow it.
The Menlo Park Farmers' Market is open every Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the parking plaza off Chestnut Street, between Santa Cruz and Menlo avenues in downtown Menlo Park. For more information, call Lori Hennings at 831-688-8316.