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Encino Proves to Be a Fertile Field for Lovers of Fresh Produce

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is the magic time. This is the golden time. This is the brief, shining moment when the tomatoes purchased in the San Fernando Valley taste like tomatoes.

And the corn tastes like corn. Melons are ripe and basil--with leaves as big as your hand--is the perfect accompaniment for those really real tomatoes.

To some, August means unbearably hot and smoggy days. To me, it means mouthwatering tomato salads, pasta with fresh pesto sauce, grilled eggplant and ears of white and yellow corn.

And now these glories of summer are available in Encino--better known perhaps for antiseptic-aisled Gelson’s than as the home of the Valley’s biggest, newest farmers’ market. Opened just seven weeks ago, this market has the kind of produce that would make perfect hostess Martha Stewart salivate.

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White eggplants. Yellow beans. Cantaloupes and honeydews of all sizes and shapes. Eight kinds of honey. Organic strawberries. And of course, those luscious red tomatoes--from the tiny cherry variety to the giant beefsteaks.

Round a corner and there is six-grain wheat bread made with no eggs or dairy products. Brown or white eggs from chickens or ducks. Long, thick-stemmed sunflowers and bunches of fragrant lavender.

It’s an eclectic mix. In addition to farmers selling home-grown produce, there is a seafood salesman with coolers filled with swordfish, clams and other fresh fish and a young artist selling earrings she makes with colorful glass beads. A pasta stand offers noodles of all shapes with sauces to mix and match. And, this being the Valley, there is the obligatory cappuccino and cafe latte stand.

The market is right on Victory Boulevard. Heading west, between Balboa Boulevard and White Oak Avenue, you see a dust bowl and there it is. Two Los Angeles Police Department Explorer Scouts guide cars and pickups into the so-called parking lot.

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All this and charity too. The market is run by the Organization for the Needs of the Elderly, a private, nonprofit group that gets about 5 cents on the dollar from the vendors to pay for senior citizen programs that include adult day care, home care and food service for older shut-ins.

About 30 volunteers spend their Sunday mornings--the only day the market is open--setting up the stalls, greeting and counting visitors and selling cold drinks.

They are obviously pleased to be there. Last Sunday, a volunteer sat in the hot sun holding an umbrella for shade, handing out flyers advertising the market’s hours, 8 a.m. until noon. The market had about 1,000 visitors that morning, she said happily, adding that business was good despite the heat and the thick smog.

The group’s leaders estimate that about 3,000 to 3,500 people visit the market each weekend, an estimate that seems high. Nonetheless, the market still is new--it opened June 26--and the opening is still being advertised.

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Banners publicizing it fly over sections of Ventura Boulevard and ads have appeared in newspapers. ONE officials say they expect the turnout to grow, especially once they begin holding special events.

Next month, for example, the group plans to have Latino music and entertainment one week and a talk by the author of a cookbook that emphasizes farm-fresh produce the next.

The best advertising, the group says, is through word of mouth: neighbors and friends telling each other and using the market as a meeting place.

“I think people really like buying fresh produce and they enjoy dealing with the farmers,” said Audrey Phillips, the group’s director of community relations and volunteers. “Besides, how many supermarkets can you go to and find ducks’ eggs?”

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It’s the one little reminder that fruits and vegetables are seasonal even in barely seasonal Los Angeles. It’s real food sold in an all-too-real setting, complete with worms in the ears of corn and flies buzzing around the peaches.

And you had better bring a shopping bag. Farmers weigh the produce on old, rusty scales, returning the gems in small, plastic bags. More than a few and you need a larger, sturdier sack.

The more knowledgeable among us came prepared. One woman had a hand-held cart to carry her goods. Another--more environmentally correct, perhaps--carried a large net bag in which she loaded the fruits and vegetables.

The prices are fine. Five ears of small white corn for a buck. A bag of medium-sized tomatoes for less than $2 and three baskets of strawberries for $3.50.

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We aren’t sure whether the prices are better at our local supermarket, but who cares? This is food from the earth, still dirty and displayed without mist makeup and bright lights. No plastic-wrapped cucumbers here. No waxy peppers either.

So what if it takes a little care before feeding? The peaches could stand a day in a paper bag but the cantaloupe can’t. One man, feeling the tiny melons, declared them too ripe, opting instead for a thicker-skinned variety.

The choices are plenty. The market has more than 25 farmers, food and other vendors. Their stalls, which coil in circular strings that snake through the big lot, might not be in the same place from week to week.

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But finding your favorites again is part of the fun.

So goodby to driving across the Valley to produce stands at Pierce College. So long to the even longer drives northwest to the farms in Ventura County. And to Beverly Hills, Burbank, Calabasas and Santa Monica: You can keep your farmers’ markets.

We have our own now.


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