AT almost any farmers market, I can find something to make me hungry. Maybe it's the musky perfume of guavas from a backyard grower. Or the sharp scent of citrus as someone peels a tangerine. It could be a farmer who still plants one plot of winey Chandler strawberries just for the market crowd. Or maybe it's nothing more than the irresistible way the morning sun gleams off a mound of moist spring onions.
Still, the hard-bitten realist in me knows that although all farmers markets may be created lovable, not all are created equal.
So, of the more than 90 markets in Southern California, which are the best? To find out, I polled farmers, chefs, shoppers and other experts and then spent three weeks driving more than 1,000 miles and visiting more than 25 farmers markets from Irvine to Ojai to sort out the cream of the crop.
What separates a great market from the rest of the pack? It's a combination of several things.
Size is not a prerequisite, though better markets do tend to be bigger. Success draws a crowd, especially now when good farmers are becoming more selective about how many markets they want to attend.
Age seems to help too. It really takes five or six years for a market to become established and another five or six years for it to reach its maturity. You can tell when a market starts to feel settled, with a regular cast of complementary farmers so that the individual parts add up to something more than a loose collection of farm stands.
More important is variety. There should be a mix of fruits and vegetables and enough unusual crops to be interesting. You can buy bags of oranges on the street corner. At a great farmers market you want to find not just oranges, but blood oranges, and maybe even a choice of Tarocco or Sanguinelli varieties. There shouldn't be just regular tangerines but great ones like Dancy, Pixie and Gold Nugget.
Quality is most important, of course. That means not only the obvious things such as fruits and vegetables that are sparkling fresh, but also that they are the best varieties and have been carefully farmed and fully ripened. And certainly there should be nothing that looks like it came from the produce distributor.
There can be crafts and prepared-food stands, but there shouldn't be so many that they overshadow the produce. Farmers markets are about more than just Kettle Korn.
Less obvious are those things sportswriters love to call "the intangibles." A great market has a spirit about it, an infectious joy that makes your step lighter and quicker as you approach it.
What causes this? Who can say exactly? But visit any of these markets and you'll see what we mean.
1. Best in show
The Santa Monica farmers market, which turns 25 this year, is the crown jewel, the best in Southern California and among the three or four best in the nation. That's why you'll find so many chefs and professional produce people shopping here. If you don't get excited walking through this market, you simply don't like food. There is so much to choose from, with more than 90 farmers, so where do you start? There's Weiser Family Farms with its rainbow of a half-dozen potatoes, two or three cauliflowers, a couple kinds of carrots, sprouting broccoli and even crosnes, knotty little tubers that are spectacular sauteed in butter. Right next to them is Jaime Farms, with all kinds of chards and greens and eye-popping radishes. And so it goes down the line: citrus from Polito Family Farms, Friend's Ranches and Peter Schaner; killer vegetables from McGrath Family Farm, Rutiz Farm and Coastal Organics; herbs and greens from Coleman Farms; fabulous cheeses from Redwood Hill and Winchester Cheese; heirloom apples from Windrose Farms and See Canyon. Santa Monica also has excellent farmers markets Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It really is an embarrassment of riches.
Santa Monica, Wednesday, Arizona Avenue at 3rd Street, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (310) 458-8712.
2. Mardi Gras market
If the Santa Monica market is like a temple where we worship great fruits and vegetables, the Hollywood market is like a big street fair celebrating them. It's Hollywood, baby, and the people-watching is out of this world. Movie stars -- and people who look like movie stars -- stroll by dressed down in baseball caps and outsized sunglasses. Others are seriously dressed up in zany costumes. (What? You don't do your vegetable shopping in gold lame?) No market has a better lineup of prepared foods. And there are some really cool arts and crafts. In fact, the 16-year-old Hollywood market is so much fun that you might be tempted to forget what terrific fruits and vegetables are sold there. Right now, among the roughly 90 farmers, there are three great growers of mandarins: Mud Creek Ranch, Friend's Ranches and Churchill Orchards. And that's just one example. Tutti Frutti Farms, McGrath Family Farm and Givens Farm have fabulous mixed vegetables and Harry's Berries and J&J; Farms have terrific sweet strawberries.
Hollywood, Sunday, Ivar Avenue between Sunset and Hollywood boulevards, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. (323) 463-3171.
3. Total Victory
Tucked away in an affluent corner between Sierra Madre and San Marino, Victory Park is a big market that somehow still feels neighborly. Established in 1984, its maturity shows. While lesser markets can brag of only a few scattered high points, at Victory it seems like everything is terrific. There is a splendid balance among the roughly 40 certified vendors every week: vegetable dynamos such as Underwood Farms, which this week is selling three kinds of radishes, celery root, baby leeks, two kinds of cauliflower, beets and kohlrabi; high-quality mid-size farmers such as Joe Avitua at Walker Farms, who has several types of mandarins, Oroblanco and Melogold grapefruits and blood oranges, as well as dried fruit and walnuts; and even backyard grower Mike Taylor, who draws lines every weekend for his eclectic mix of head lettuces and citrus. On one recent visit, there was even someone selling fully grown artichoke plants in 10-gallon containers -- the ultimate in cooking from scratch.
Pasadena Victory Park, Saturday, North Sierra Madre Boulevard and Paloma Street, 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (626) 449-0179.
4. All in the family
The Ventura farmers market feels very much like a family affair. Out front one morning is a band of teenage musicians playing Celtic tunes, including a dancer cutting a fine jig. This is the original farmers market in Ventura County, and it is still going strong after more than 20 years (and it's still organized as a cooperative run by the growers). Part of what creates the family atmosphere is that many of the farmers work within 25 miles of the market. If not blood relatives, they are certainly neighbors. The roughly 45 farmers include such established regulars on the market circuit as Oxnard's Harry's Berries and Camarillo's DiTomaso Farms, which has tangelos and Fuerte and Hass avocados, as well as newcomers such as Dave Pommer from Santa Paula, whose stand features a gorgeous arrangement of artichokes, chards, fava beans, carrots and lettuces, and even backyard growers such as Fillmore's Jerry Joske, who brings Bacon avocados, bay leaves, chards and mint, and Lucy Vanoni and her grandsons, descendants of an important local farming family, who bring loquats, Dancy tangerines and other citrus.
Ventura, Saturday, City Parking Lot, Santa Clara and Palm streets, 8:30 a.m. to noon. (805) 529-6266.
5. South Bay style
The Torrance farmers market is the very essence of the laid-back South Bay. It's huge -- the market area is roughly the size of a couple of football fields -- but no one ever seems to be in much of a hurry. It's a great market, but even after 15 years it wears its mantle lightly. You won't find white-jacketed chefs, baseball-capped movie stars or bejeweled society matrons -- just a diverse crowd of home cooks shopping for dinner. They have plenty from which to choose. Among the 60-odd farmers, some of the highlights include Downey's ABC Rhubarb, which now displays its wide assortment of herbs and salad mixes in the style they deserve -- arranged in pretty straw baskets. Thys Ranch from Fallbrook has a similar selection of citrus and avocados; right now it's got Oroblancos, Eureka lemons, kumquats, loquats and blood oranges. Coming shortly will be its Pixie mandarins. Also check out Zubair Farms, from sun-baked Brawley, which is already selling sweet white corn as well as eggplants and cucumbers.
Torrance, Saturday, Wilson Park, 2200 Crenshaw Blvd., 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. (310) 328-2809.
6. A well-chosen sampler
Located on a side street behind the new City Hall and public library complex, which somehow has the fake urban feel of a City Walk or Grove, the 13-year-old Beverly Hills farmers market is full of surprises -- not the least of which is how such a down-to-earth enterprise could thrive in such a contrived setting. Certainly, given the neighborhood, just a diamond's toss from Rodeo Drive, the demographics are enviable. But that can't be the only reason the market has succeeded so well. Among the 40 or so farmers, there is a wonderful mix with all sorts of unexpected surprises, including Westfield Farms, which has six varieties of avocados (Zutano, Bacon, Fuerte, Pinkerton, Hass as well as one they call Denjiro). Mitchell Herbs has not only red and white bulbing onions but also Garnet, Jersey and Oriental sweet potatoes. Rancho Mexico Lindo has blood oranges and Gold Nugget, Pixie and Daisy mandarins, as well as passion fruit and loquats. Lu Thao brings in green garlic, sugar snaps and spinach, as well as yu choy and bok choy, Chinese celery and daikon radishes.
Beverly Hills, Sunday, 9300 block of Civic Center Drive. 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (310) 550-4796.
7. Shopping in Shangri-La
Could there be a sweeter place to spend a lazy Sunday morning than the Ojai farmers market? Tucked just off the sleepy main drag, nestled under shady oaks, the 25-year-old market has got a great vibe no matter the time of year, but it's especially good right now, when the valley's citrus is flooding in. Among the 40-odd farmers in attendance recently were Jim Churchill and Lisa Brenneis with their spectacular mandarins -- satsumas, Gold Nuggets and Pixies, as well as what's left of the avocados that survived the January freeze. Mud Creek Farms from nearby Santa Paula had an even wider variety, including seldom-seen Daisies as well as Dancys, Murcotts, Gold Nuggets and the new University of California varieties Tahoe Gold, Shasta Gold, Malibu Gold and Sierra Gold. In addition, there were vegetables from McGrath Family Farms, Givens Farms and great local grower Robert Dautch (whose farm is alternately known as BD's and Earthtrine), strawberries from Harry's Berries, walnuts from Rancho La Vina, and even hothouse tomatoes from Beylik Farms.
Ojai, Sunday, 300 E. Matilija St., 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (805) 698-5555.
8. Bustle and flow
They work hard for their bustle at the Irvine farmers market, located just off campus from the University of California in a mall parking lot that seems to stretch for acres. Founded in 1994, it is a huge street fair that's roughly half crafts and prepared foods and half produce. Every Saturday at noon, they raffle off baskets of each to those in attendance. But it's worth it to attend even if you don't win anything, even if it's just to shop at a couple of great stands. Among the 50 or so farmers are Cal Poly Pomona's school farm project, with students selling the fruits and vegetables they grow on campus. They've got several types of citrus right now, and come summer they're planning on growing a wide variety of heirloom tomatoes. Besides that, the market has one of the more interesting assortments of Asian produce in the area. CJ Farms in Camarillo has dried jujubes, Chinese chives, five or six different choys, winter melon and water spinach as well as fresh pounded mochi -- both the more traditional white wrapped in a leaf and some tinted green with herbs.
Irvine, Saturday, University Center across from UCI, 8 a.m. to noon. (714) 573-0374.
9. Positively Main Street
This is the little farmers market that could. Not only is it the youngest market on the list, started in 1995, it's also the smallest. It stretches a short block of downtown Culver City's Main Street, a gentrifying shopping area that includes furniture stores, galleries and thrift stores. There aren't more than 25 vendors, but among them are some real all-stars. Bernard Ranches has Star Ruby grapefruit, Oroblancos, kumquats, blood oranges and avocados. Valdivia Farms has fava beans, baby carrots, squash blossoms (both female and male -- with the squash and without) and English peas. Zuckerman has its usual wonderful asparagus and assorted potatoes. Suncoast has artichokes and asparagus as well as dried beans -- favas, limas, speckled limas, black, yellow and pinquitos. Besides the fruits and vegetables, there's J&P; West Coast Seafood with fresh fish, Laurent Bonjour's Cheese Corner with 60 types of cheese and L'Artisan du Chocolat for dessert.
Culver City, Tuesday, Main Street between Venice and Culver boulevards, 2 to 7 p.m. (310) 253-5775.
10. Hidden treasures
There are some wonderful farmers at the Encino market, but turn the wrong way and you may be dismayed. To the right of the entrance at the 13-year-old market there is a wonderful selection of produce in a relatively small space. Turn the other way, though, and you'll find a veritable swap meet with stands peddling everything from old vinyl records and books to arts and crafts. Though there are roughly only 30 farmers, they grow some terrific produce -- another example of how you don't need a cast of thousands to make a great market, as long as the growers you do have are among the best. Underwood Farms has purple, green and gold cauliflower, red, white and orange carrots, radishes, turnips, red and golden beets and celery root. Yang Farms from Fresno has an amazing assortment of vegetables both Western and Asian: green garlic, leeks, beets, turnips and chard; and Chinese broccoli, sour leaf, Malabar spinach and amaranth and Thai, lemon and purple basil. Kendor Farms from right down the street has chicken and eggs, and Santa Maria's J&J; Farms has drop-dead-sweet Seascape and Camarosa strawberries.
Encino, Sunday, 17400 Victory Blvd., 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. (818) 708-6611.
Begin text of infobox
On the road, at the market
SOME people visit museums when they travel; some go to plays or bookstores. When I hit the road, I'm looking for farmers markets. If there's a good one within 20 or 30 miles, I'm there. Here are a few of my favorite stopovers.
Santa Barbara, Saturday. This is a huge, splendid market, nearly on the same level as the Santa Monica gathering on Wednesdays (not surprisingly, since many of the same farmers attend). But there are enough differences to make a stop not only worthwhile, but pleasurable. That goes both for the growers and for some of the ancillary attractions. Although you can always find folks handing out screening passes in Santa Monica, the Santa Barbara equivalent is doing something holistic involving a rock hanging from a tripod.
Corner of Santa Barbara and Cota streets, (805) 962-5354
San Luis Obispo, Thursday. Have you ever seen a town devoured by a farmers market? Thursday evenings, all of downtown San Luis Obispo becomes a giant street fair. Local farmers from Santa Maria and Paso Robles as well as the Central Valley line the streets. At almost every intersection there's a bandstand with musicians playing everything from retro rock to bluegrass. And everywhere the scent of burning oak from countless Santa Maria barbecue stands hangs heavy. Grab a tri-tip sandwich or a smoked turkey leg, listen to some music and maybe even pick up some local strawberries, apricots or apples for dessert.
Downtown San Luis Obispo, (805) 544-9570
San Francisco Ferry Plaza, Saturday. By now, most food-loving visitors to the Bay Area have discovered the Ferry Plaza building, which has been made over into the food court from heaven. They may even have visited some of the farmers who are occasionally stationed out front. But the real action at Ferry Plaza takes place Saturday morning out back of the building. By great market standards, this one is fairly small. That's particularly true if you're looking for fruits and vegetables -- more and more of the space is given over to prepared foods and products. But the farmers there are among the best in the state.
Embarcadero at Market Street, (415) 291-3276
-- Russ Parsons