The Encino farmers market remains the largest and best in the San Fernando Valley, with about 30 produce vendors. This count has held steady over the last decade, but the number of prepared foods and nonagricultural stands, selling everything from hot dogs to pet nail clippers, has almost tripled during that time, from 13 to 37. That trend is common these days, as the sponsors of farmers markets -- whether cities, charities or entrepreneurs -- find that craft and food stalls generate higher fees than farmers. In Encino's case it's for a good cause, to benefit the One Generation Daycare center for children and frail seniors.
It's prime season for grapes, and G Farms of Exeter has natural Thompson seedless, which are smaller than commercial berries because the vines haven't been girdled or treated with plant growth regulators. Supermarkets want Thompsons big, and grass-green so that they stay on the bunch, but the ripest, sweetest ones, available chiefly at farmers markets, are yellowish or amber in color.
G Farms also has Princess grapes, which, when fully ripe, have a touch of the muscat aroma beloved by connoisseurs but are seedless, unlike traditional muscat varieties. The stand's sign calls them "Princess Melissa," whereby hangs a tale: Ron Tarailo of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, co-breeder of the variety, originally named it "Melissa" after his daughter, who died young; but Melissa's, the specialty produce company, objected, and he renamed it "Princess."
Sticking with the green riff, G Farms and Gene Etheridge of Dinuba, Calif., have Emerald Beaut plums, from a cross involving Wickson and Red Beaut. Don't be put off by their greenness; if harvested ripe, they're among the sweetest and most delicious of plums.
Sycamore Hill Ranch of Fillmore has Lamb Hass, a good bet for avocados at this time of year, when regular Hass from the warmer growing districts, like north San Diego County, pass from firm to rancid very quickly. Knowledgeable market-goers have several choices: (1) Hass from cooler areas like coastal Ventura County or points north; (2) Reed, with big round fruits, which mature later; and (3) Lamb Hass, which is a different variety from Hass (actually its great-grandchild). Although often sold commercially as Hass, Lamb Hass are later in the season (their main attraction), typically larger, with a blunter stem end, and slightly lower in oil content.
Gutierrez Farms of Nipomo brings cactus paddles, nopales in Spanish. Mercedes Rodriguez, a shopper who was waiting as a vendor scraped off the spines with a knife, said she'd grill them, adding lemon and salt.
Givens Farm of Goleta sells beautiful Blue Lake beans, deep green, fresh and tender.
Celery is one of the few forms of produce for which supermarkets often provide better quality than farmers markets. The crop requires considerable horticultural expertise, without which the stalks tend to be too thin, or too dark green, tough and stringy. Maria Chavez of J&J Farm of Santa Maria, Calif., always seems to offer excellent celery, just the right shade of green, tender but crunchy, and pleasingly aromatic.
Encino farmers market, 17400 Victory Blvd., between White Oak Avenue and Balboa Boulevard, Sundays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Tip of the week: Muscat of Alexandria grapes are the top of the class of muscats, the flower of viticulture. These are real table grapes, with seeds, naturally large berries, a voluptuous texture, intense sweetness and rich flavor. From Scott Family Farms of Dinuba, Calif., which sells at the Mar Vista (Sunday) and Santa Monica Wednesday markets.