IN the tree-shaded space where the Leimert Park farmers market is gradually coming to Saturday-morning life, shoppers sleepily sip coffee from nearby Fifth Street Dick's coffeehouse -- but they wake right up as they approach the Gourmet Tamale Factory stand, where handmade tamales (wrapped in the husks removed from the ears of corn used to make the fillings) beckon to be taken home for brunch.
On a Tuesday afternoon in Culver City, shoppers stepping off the bus hurry to snatch up a fresh fruit cobbler at the Cobblermania stall before Shae Seward and her assistants sell out, as they do every week. Today there's strawberry rhubarb and blackberry apple, but some regulars are already looking forward to stone fruit season, when there will be cobblers made with white nectarines.
Taking home a half dozen tamales or an in-season cobbler is as much a part of the farmers market experience these days as is hanging out and smelling the strawberries. In fact, some of the best finds at farmers markets are food products lovingly prepared in farm kitchens, urban ateliers and local bakeries and confectionaries. More and more we're discovering -- and carting home -- delicious, surprising, sometimes idiosyncratic artisanal foods: small-batch chocolates, nut oils, goat cheeses, even smoked salmon.
Here are a few that have really grabbed us lately:
Wild Alaska salmon lox from J & P West Coast Seafood
Pete Siracusa sells wild-caught seafood from his truck at six markets each week. He's known for his red king salmon (available now) and Copper River (coming in a month) but a best-kept secret is the North Coast lox he obtains from Romel Perez. It's made from wild fish, not farmed, so it's more velvety and less fatty, with a light touch of salt. $16 per pound. Culver City, Hollywood, Long Beach, Pasadena, Redondo Beach and West Hollywood.
Peruvian trail mix from Guanni Chocolates
Since 2003, chocolatier Mariella Balbi has peddled her chocolates, truffles and confections in farmers markets, mostly in San Diego County, with stops in Riverside and Santa Monica. They're made in small batches with organic ingredients, many including peppers, grains and cacao directly imported from South America by Balbi and her husband Andres Huguet, both originally from Peru. The generous bags of chulpi, which resembles trail mix, were created when Balbi tossed together many of the chocolate-making ingredients she had on hand one day to give hungry workers a snack: organic Criollo cacao nibs, Peruvian corn, goji berries, almonds, pistachios, cashews and panca, a Peruvian chile pepper, caramelized in yacon powder (a sweet plant material). $8 (8-ounce bag). Riverside (Sears) and Santa Monica (Main Street and Ocean Park Boulevard); guannichocolates.com.
Fruit cobblers from Cobblermania
Two years ago, Shae Seward started making old-fashioned fruit cobblers and selling them at farmers markets. The look is pure county fair: rustic, golden-brown crusts with glossy bubbled-through bits of fruit showing. And the taste is pure farm kitchen, especially in the two-fruit combos, with, for example, the bright tang of slightly sweetened strawberries playing off the mellow softness of apple. Seward doesn't advertise this, but the cobblers are sweetened with agave and the crusts are vegan. Individual cobblers, $3, two for $5; large (serves 4), $8. Culver City, Eagle Rock, Hollywood, Little Tokyo, Leimert Park, Los Angeles (Central Avenue), Manhattan Beach, Pomona, Silver Lake, Toluca Lake, West Covina, West L.A. and Westwood; cobblermania.com.
Classic tamales from Gourmet Tamale Factory
Magali and Roberto Ortega made tamales for friends from their home kitchen before deciding to turn pro two years ago. They put a small retail counter in their San Fernando tamale factory (where you can watch corn being cut and ground, masa stirred and tamales steamed), but most of their sales are through farmers markets. These are not wimpy new-age tamales but classics -- beef, chicken, pork, chile cheese, vegetable, sweet corn and sweet pineapple -- made from a friend's family recipe from northern Mexico. They're amazingly light with warm corn flavor and terrific savory fillings. $2.75 each; $30 a dozen. Beverly Hills, Burbank, Echo Park, Encino, Highland Park, Hollywood (Sears), Leimert Park, Manhattan Beach, Newhall, San Dimas, Silver Lake, Toluca Lake, Valencia (College of Canyons) and West Hollywood.
Goat cheeses from Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery
Although this family-owned artisanal goat-milk cheese company is based in Sebastopol, for the last 10 years, extended family members David and Maggie Schack have brought its handmade cheeses to the Wednesday Santa Monica market every week. Several of the five cheeses they sell really wowed us: the fresh chevre (amazing on a warm bagel), $4.50 (4-ounce tub) and $7.50 ( 8-ounce tub); $6.50 (4 ounces); Bucheret (a Bucheron-style cheese), $7.50 (5 ounces); and California crottin, $4.50 (3 ounces) and $7.50 (5 ounces). Santa Monica (Third Street at Arizona Avenue); www.redwoodhill.com.
Unsweetened granola from Sconeage Bakery
We took home a pound of Sconeage's granola and after a first handful, returned to the container again and again. It was gone in a few hours. Roasted daily in the Long Beach bakery, the granola is made with oats, wheat germ, coconut, canola oil, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, vanilla and salt. It's just one of those things that is better than you think it could be. $6 per pound. Culver City, Irvine, Long Beach (downtown; also Southeast-Alamitos Bay), Huntington Beach, Pacific Palisades, Pasadena; sconeage.com.
Pistachio oil from Santa Barbara Pistachio Co.
This dense oil is deep green, beautiful and delicious in a citrus salad, with wonderful pistachio flavor. Rancher Gail Zannon began pressing the nuts a few years ago and now does two or three batches a year, alternating raw and toasted versions. It's pressed by a farmer in Yuba City, who sends down the resulting byproduct too: pistachio meal, great as a flour substitute when making biscotti or to make pistachio cream for use in gelato. Oil, $18 for an 8 1/2-ounce bottle. Santa Monica (Third and Arizona); sbpistachios.com.
Box of chocolates from L' Artisan du Chocolat
Chocolatier Christian Alexandre, whose handmade confections have been recommended in these pages, sells from his shop in Silver Lake and at two farmers markets. There are assortments and truffles as well as holiday specialties. Truffles, $25 for half a pound (about 18 to 22 truffles). Assorted chocolates: 4-piece box, $10; 9-piece box, $20; 16-piece box, $30. Culver City and South Pasadena; lartisanduchocolat.com.