As farmers markets have proliferated in the past decade, many communities now consider a local venue to be an essential amenity, for social as well as culinary purposes. Such was the feeling in Palms, where the Motor Avenue Improvement Assn., comprised of business owners and residents, opened a market last Sunday. It's managed by Diana Ionescu, a UCLA graduate student in urban and Latin American studies, who received advice from Pompea Smith, former director of the Hollywood market. Ionescu recruited 20 vendors, evenly split between farmers and prepared foods, and of better than average quality for a new market.
Most cultivated mushrooms at local farmers markets are sold under second certificate by other growers, or in non-certified sections; a rare exception is Jiro Watanuki of Sun Smiling Valley Farm, who emigrated from Japan in 1971 and for many years worked sexing baby chickens. He now operates a 7,000-square-foot facility in Sanger, near Fresno, that produces pristine oyster, shimeji and enoki mushrooms, and is selling at a Southern California farmers market for the first time.
There are two Hmong growers from Fresno: Her Farms has Filipino and Chinese eggplant, long beans, okra and a wide variety of Asian greens; Moua's Farm offers tomatoes, peppers, onions and bitter melons. Lark Farms of Fillmore may have the youngest, tenderest Persian cucumbers in the markets, as well as tasty Cherokee Purple and Brandywine tomatoes.
For Central Valley stone fruit — the summertime linchpin of a market, but now in its last innings — there's Ken Lee of Reedley, whose Emerald Beaut plums are reliably sweet even when firm. From the high desert, still in peak season, there's Tenerelli Orchards of Littlerock, which withstood two inches of rain last week, but will have August Lady peaches, a rich-flavored descendant of O'Henry, for the next week.
The Palms market has some lacunae (eggs, apples), which Ionescu says she hopes to fill soon. The location on a relatively narrow street requires vendors to offload their wares and park their vehicles elsewhere, an inconvenience. But most farmers enjoyed robust sales the first week.
"I thought it was a very good start for a new market," said Bill Lewis of Bill's Bees, a honey vendor based in Lakeview Terrace.
And locals were delighted. "I'm thrilled that we have our own market, right where we live," said Peggy Kravitz, 59.
Palms (Motor Avenue) farmers market National Boulevard between Motor and Mentone avenues, Sunday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Parking at the IMAN Center, 3376 Motor Ave.; "bike valet" near the corner of National and Motor.
Many farmers say that they are stretched thin trying to cover the plethora of new markets, which have the potential both to expand and to dilute sales. But Helen Lee, a filmmaker who runs markets in Los Feliz and Newbury Park (Thousand Oaks), says that her vendors were asking her to open another venue. She reached out to a helpful contact at the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks for a site, and on July 27 opened a new market in Del Rey, just east of Marina del Rey, at the northern edge of Glen Alla Park.
It's an attractive, verdant setting, and there are well-stocked sections for prepared foods and crafts, with about 20 vendors. Pickings are slimmer in the certified produce section, with 10 vendors on a holiday weekend, and not all of those worth recommending.
One notable stand was run by Dael Wilcox of The Natural Honey Company. Based in Riverside, he removes unwanted bee swarms and hives from residences throughout Southern California, and puts them to work making honey. He's also at the Los Feliz and Sun City markets.
A vendor for Frank Suarez had dried jujubes, cherished in Asia for their sweet, apple-like flavor and medicinal properties, from an intriguing 12-acre orchard in Cuyama. Curiously enough, he also displayed bags of peanuts, which were not on the farm's certificate and which he said that he had bought to resell; asked about this, Lee said that she should put up a sign making clear to customers that the peanuts were in a non-certified section.
Del Rey farmers market Glen Alla Park, on Glencoe Avenue west of Alla Road, Fridays noon to 7 p.m.
Supremely delicious, perishable, and a bit mysterious, passion fruit are ideally suited to farmers market sales. To be at their best – full of juice, with a balance of sweetness and acidity, and alluring aroma – they need to be harvested fully ripe, just as they are about to wrinkle. At this stage their shelf life is not long, and as they become overmature their pulp dries out and develops off flavors. So they are usually very expensive, a couple dollars each, at supermarkets.
Passion fruit vines flourish in coastal Southern California, where they are prized in home gardens for their ornamental flowers as well as their fruit. The fruits are available from many vendors at farmers markets, but no one has a large, dependable supply, partly because the plants are susceptible to phytophthora, a fungal disease. There are two seasons, each just a month or so, in spring and late summer, but the exact timing varies from year to year.
Vicki and Vince Bernard, who planted about 25 vines in Valley Center three years ago, started their second harvest last week. They sell their fruit for $10 a pound at Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades on Sundays, and at Santa Monica on Wednesdays.
"We let them fall to the ground," says Vicki. "They're not as smooth and beautiful as ones that are picked from the vine, but they're fully ripe and a lot tastier."
Tips of the week from Santa Monica Wednesday: Hudson's Golden Gem and Golden Russet apples from Michael Cirone (See Canyon, San Luis Obispo); Belle de Boskoop and Ashmead's Kernel apples from Windrose Farm, Paso Robles; Pineapple quince from Mud Creek Ranch, Santa Paula.