Unlike some of the blighted, benighted areas where some of our friends live (hello, Manhattan!), in Southern California, farmers markets are stacked deep with beautiful fruit and vegetables all year long. But there's no arguing that June marks the start of their high season, when even people who never shop at farmers markets suddenly wake up on weekend mornings with an itch to go.
This is good, of course, and we don't resent the noobs one little bit, even if they do sometimes make finding a parking space more of a challenge. In fact, we're happy to offer them a little guidance, provided they keep their sticky fingers off our mulberries and Blenheim apricots. Our munificence goes only so far.
So, for those of you who are only occasional visitors to our markets, here's a primer on how to get the most out of them. And, hey, even those of you who are already regulars might pick up a tip or two.
Walk before you shop: Remember when you were a kid in the candy store and your mom would tell you, "Keep your hands in your pockets"? That's good advice for shopping at farmers markets too. It's easy to get carried away with the first pretty display you see. But there will be more. And it will only be after you've walked the market from start to finish that you'll know exactly what's best that day. Where Mom's advice breaks down is that, while you should be resisting the urge to buy, you should be tasting like a crazy person.
Be flexible: One of the worst things you can do when going to a farmers market is have a menu already in mind. Nature is fickle, and the markets even more so. Plan your menu after you've decided what's best; don't try to force a pre-existing plan. You may think you know perfectly well that cherries are going to be at peak season and so you are absolutely definitely going to make a clafoutis for dessert. But when you get there, you find out that the farmer with the good stuff isn't there because of a broken-down truck or ran out just before you got there. Rather than using second-rate cherries, be flexible enough to switch to apricots or grapefruit.
Don't fall for a brand: Yes, there is something magical about heirloom fruit varieties, but remember that you're buying produce, not socks. There is a lot more that goes into a great piece of fruit or a vegetable than a brand name. Genetics are but one factor. I'd rather have a standard fruit variety grown by a great farmer than an heirloom grown by someone who didn't know what they were doing.
Follow the farmers: Along the same lines, don't make the mistake of thinking of the farmers market as a single store with nearly identical merchandise. Instead, think of it as a mall that includes everything from Dress Barn to Brooks Brothers. Learn which farmers at your market are the best growers, and then follow them. Nine times out of 10, they'll be the ones with the good stuff.
Trust but verify: That said, even great farmers have bad days — or even bad seasons. Taste before you buy. And if your favorite farmer seems to be in a bad spell, still try to find something you can buy from him. The farmers market runs on a fragile economy, and if you want to make sure the good growers stick around, sometimes you have to go out of your way to be supportive.
Take your time choosing: This was probably the hardest lesson for me to learn. Once I'd zeroed in on what I was going to buy, I'd scoop it up in handfuls and stick it in my bag. And then when I sorted it after I got home, I'd find that some of it needed to be tossed for one reason or another. Do your sorting up front, when you're filling the bag, and you'll waste a lot less.
Don't rush the seasons: This was probably the second-hardest lesson. As cooks, we're attracted to what's new and novel. But remember that the first crops to come to market usually aren't the best. They may be varieties that are grown just because they come on early, or they may be coming off marginal ground. Wait another week or two, when you're buying at the peak of the season, and you'll be a lot happier.