America's Best Farmers' Markets
As a child, award-winning chef Steve Corry remembers marveling at the local markets in his father’s native Ireland, which carried whole rabbits and baskets of onions and potatoes with dirt still on them. Not surprisingly, today he prefers to use local growers and producers when buying ingredients for his restaurant, Five Fifty-Five, in Portland, ME. “I like talking to the farmers…. I like seeing where my food has come from,” he says. “And smelling it too. I still prefer to pick up a cut of lamb and get that muttony scent.”
More and more people these days—not just chefs, but everyday home cooks and travelers, too—are developing an appreciation for farmers’ markets. In fact, some of these local spots for buying fruits, vegetables, dairy, seafood, and meat directly from the growers are even becoming tourist attractions.
As a result, weekly markets are flourishing across America. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these urban outposts for farmers have grown from 2,863 in 2000 to 5,274 in 2009. And while part of the fun of shopping here is certainly sensory (sticking your nose in a bouquet of fresh dill, testing the snap of wax beans just off the vine, sampling 10 kinds of apple slices), community sustainability—small regional operations employing organic or eco-minded practices—is a big part of the draw, too. With the diversity of farmers’ market offerings these days, the chances to appreciate such agricultural bounty are, well, bountiful.
So which urban locales feature the best country flavor? In Travel + Leisure’s annual America’s Favorite Cities Survey, we asked readers to rank 30 U.S. cities on their markets. The consensus? Seattle, Portland, OR, and New Orleans offer the best farmer fare, while Phoenix, Miami, and Las Vegas fared less well. (Of course, most visitors to Sin City are probably more interested in finding cherries and watermelons on their slot machines.)
But a poorly ranked city doesn’t necessarily mean its markets are all bad. New York City finished 25th in our survey, but the Big Apple boasts one of America’s top markets: the sprawling Union Square Greenmarket . Here you’ll find springtime favorites like ramps, sunchokes, and fresh-milled buckwheat flour—all from farms just a couple hours north of Midtown Manhattan. And at Seattle’s University District market, foodies can try chanterelles, truffles, and fiddleheads foraged from the deep forests that surround the city.
Experiencing local products—learning their provenance, tasting them, developing an appreciation for them—makes cooking and eating more enjoyable, says Steve Corry. It also makes a delicious meal feel something like a communal project.
“When I plan my restaurant’s menu, it’s not just my choices going into the dishes, it’s the farmers’,” Corry says. “It’s their menu as much as mine.”
University District Farmers’ Market,Seattle
The Spread: Seattle claimed the No. 1 spot for farmers’ markets in our annual America’s Favorite Cities survey, so it’s no surprise to find one of the country’s best single markets as well. On Saturdays, 60-odd growers and procurers gather in the University Heights Community Center playground to sell their wares—which all come from within Washington State. Award-winning chefs like Maria Hines and Jerry Traunfeld (of Poppy) are often seen stocking up here on seafood like Alaskan spot prawns and tiny Pacific oysters; cuts of heavily marbled Mangalitsa pork; and foraged edible plants from the state’s deep, wet forests—including fiddlehead ferns, stinging nettles, and morels.
Most Unusual Find: Ozette potatoes—thin-skinned, lumpy fingerlings that were cultivated by Makah Pacific Coast Native Americans 200 years ago—from Full Circle Farm in nearby Carnation.
Green City Market, Chicago
The Spread: Between May and October, the south end of Lincoln Park comes alive with sustainably minded farmers and producers every Wednesday and Saturday (the market moves indoors to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum during the winter). The 55 stalls—stocked year-round with everything from organic micro-greens to artisanal cheeses like butterkase—draw many of Chicago’s best chefs. No less than Alice Waters—the high priestess of America’s local culinary movement—has called Green City “the best sustainable market in the country.”
Most Unusual Find: Grass-fed, hormone-free elk meat (sold as steaks, roasts, burger patties, and bratwurst-style sausages) from Hawks Hill Elk Ranch in Monticello, WI.
Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, San Francisco
The Spread: Some 85 vendors and growers spread out around the waterfront Ferry Building on Saturdays in San Francisco, the No. 7–ranked city for markets in our America’s Favorite Cities survey. Well-known local chefs (like Annie Somerville of Greens and Craig Stoll of Delfina) vie here year-round with home cooks for specialty ingredients like Maitake and Bear’s Head mushrooms; Meyer lemons and Tahitian pomelos; persimmons and Mission figs; and squash blossoms and cactus pears.
Most Unusual Find: The odd-sounding but wickedly satisfying Korean-style street snacks—including garlic-chicken rice balls wrapped in thin egg pancakes and kimchi-spiked, seaweed-wrapped short rib “tacos”—from Namu (an outpost of the eponymous local restaurant).
Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, California
The Spread: The biggest and oldest of Santa Monica’s weekly markets (there are three others) is this Wednesday gathering downtown. Most of L.A.’s top chefs—including Mark Peel from Campanile and Suzanne Goin from A.O.C. and Lucques—shop here for ingredients like Ranier cherries, snap- and snow peas, and deep-red Vulcan lettuces; nectarines, avocados, and Romano wax beans; and organically grown herbs and specialty bottled oils.
Most Unusual Find: Smoked tomatoes and peppers—which look like sun-dried but have a rich, almost meaty flavor—from Windrose Farms, in Paso Robles.
Crescent City Farmers’ Market, New Orleans
The Spread: In NOLA, a foodie town that claims the No. 3 position on our America’s Favorite Cities Survey, chefs from some of the Louisiana city’s best restaurants (including Donald Link from Herbsaint and Cochon) troll for ingredients at this market held on Saturday mornings in the downtown warehouse district. The 30 vendors sell Ponchatoula strawberries and buttercrunch lettuce, Creole tomatoes and Silver Queen corn, and fresh-caught shrimp, wild catfish, and crabmeat—among other locally grown treats.
Most Unusual Find: Goat-meat cuts (shanks, chops), summer sausages, and jerky from Ryals Goat Dairy, in nearby Tylertown, MS.
Portland Farmers’ Market, Oregon
The Spread: Portland ranks No. 2 for farmers’ markets in our America’s Favorite Cities Survey, and this Saturday hot spot is the epicenter for Oregonian locavores. Held on Portland State University’s campus, it swarms with gastronomes—and 130-odd farmers and producers who get them their fix. The regional spring and summer produce here includes organic raspberries and huckleberries; fresh-caught Dungeness crab; soft sheep’s-milk cheeses; handmade pappardelle noodles; and Asian greens like bok choy, yu choy, and gilan (Chinese broccoli). Among the regular shoppers here are top local chefs Naomi Pomeroy (of Beast) and Cathy Whims (of Nostrana).
Most Unusual Find: Buffalo and yak meat—sold as cuts, ribs, and sausages—from Pine Mountain Buffalo Ranch in nearby Bend.
St. Paul Farmers’ Market, Minnesota
The Spread: True locavores haunt the 167 stalls of St. Paul’s downtown Saturday market, and for good reason: every farmer and producer selling here comes from within a 75-mile radius of the city (a top 10 vote-getter for markets in our AFC survey). Top-selling springtime wares here include organic asparagus, and veggie- and flower-plant seedlings for gardeners; summer brings bell peppers, tomatillos, and muskmelons; and hormone-free poultry, small-batch honey, and artisanal cheeses are available all year.
Most Unusual Find: Unconventional pastries and baked goods—including tuna empanadas and crisp-crusted Philippine-style pan de sal rolls—from local bakery A Toast to Bread.
Portland Farmers’Market, Portland, ME
The Spread: The 30-odd growers and producers who gather on Saturdays in downtown Portland’s Deering Oaks Park are carrying on a tradition that goes back more than two centuries (the city’s first farmers’ market opened in 1768). Today, foodies come for the wide array of organically grown vegetables, especially hydroponic greens and European cucumbers in spring and heirloom beets, Striped German tomatoes, and napa cabbage in early summer. Late summer also brings a luscious array of fruit, including gold flower watermelons, butterscotch melons, and—of course—Maine blueberries.
Most Unusual Find: Lacto-fermented foods (made without sugar or vinegar) from Thirty Acre Farm in nearby Whitefield—including red-cabbage sauerkraut, kimchi, dill pickles, and gingered carrots.
Union Square Greenmarket, New York
The Spread: Never mind that New York ranks 25th out of 30 cities for farmers’ markets in our AFC survey: this market has as much variety as the Big Apple itself. Customers as high profile as Dan Barber (the sustainable-food guru who was voted America’s Best Chef by the James Beard Foundation in 2009) shop for ingredients here. Though it’s held three days a week, the Saturday market is the biggest, with 80 vendors selling seasonal produce like cardoons, pea shoots, quince, Concord grapes, ramps, black currants, and 88 different apple varieties; local-grown and milled rye and cornmeal flour; and meat and seafood like fresh rabbit loin and wild-caught bluefish, squid, and bonito.
Most Unusual Find: Emu and ostrich eggs—so big that each is equivalent to six chicken eggs—from Roaming Acres Farm in Columbia County.
Santa Fe Farmers’ Market, New Mexico
The Spread: Distinctly southwestern produce is on display at this Saturday market in Santa Fe’s rail yard, where 100 vendors gather to sell locally grown white sweet corn and blue-corn posole; bolita beans and mesquite cactus honey; buffalo sausages; heaps of organically grown dried chiles, including ancho, guajillo, and habanero; and more than 100 heirloom tomato varieties, including Oaxacan Jewel, Purple Smudge, and Rose Quartz.
Most Unusual Find: Jujubes—desert fruits whose origins date back thousands of years to the Indian subcontinent—from SunStar Herbs in Madrid, NM. When dried, jujubes are often called red dates, and they make an excellent trail food; when steeped into tea, they purportedly have medicinal properties.