It’s mid-summer in Chicago and the local farmer's markets are in full swing. Throughout the city – and in many suburban neighborhoods – you can find the freshest fruit, vegetables, bread, meat and preserves our local purveyors have to offer. By shopping at the farmer's market, we continue the tradition of congregating around what sustains and nourishes us, and we meet to share our knowledge of food. Whether you want to know the origin of a particular food, how to prepare an ingredient or a creative way to cook a dish, someone at the market will know the answer.
Growing up on the farm in Missouri, I spent many summers picking strawberries until the fall harvest when we picked apples and pumpkins for holiday pies. Before the advent of organized farmer's markets, it was common to just pack bushels of produce into the truck and set up a roadside stand along a busy street. As I began travelling all over the world (40 countries and counting!), I went to every type of food venue including farmer's markets, food halls, gourmet festivals, floating wet markets, grocery supermarkets and specialty shops, ultimately visiting more than 500 markets in 80 different cities on five continents.
How do farmer’s markets compare across the world?
In many countries, farmer's markets are open every day year-round rather than once or twice a week during the summer and some outdoor markets have heated tents or move indoors temporarily. Farmer's markets open as early as 6am (and close by early afternoon) so most locals do their shopping in the morning before work, and they buy only enough for a few days.
Foods that Americans buy at grocery or discount stores such as eggs, cheese, butter, yogurt, ice cream and milk are more often bought at a farmer’s market instead and many also sell a wide range of cookware, utensils, spices and prepared foods. The largest markets have seating available so shoppers can rest awhile, enjoy a drink and socialize, and services such as purchasing transit passes, ATM’s and activities for children are offered.
A few even have gardens, arts and crafts exhibits or food education classes. One of my favorites was teaching children how to taste test raw pasteurized eggs at the farmer’s market in Penang, Malaysia (it’s ok, all hens are required to be vaccinated against salmonellosis, and fresh eggs are not washed or refrigerated so no worries about contamination.)
What makes a farmer’s market special?
There are five specific elements that the best markets possess:
- Unique products – The farmer’s market is the place to find artisanal products you might not find in retail stores or online. From fresh fish (and by fresh, I mean “caught this morning and still swimming”) to seasonal flavors, the best local markets offer products you won’t find anywhere else. I know this will be hard for American readers to hear, but in many foreign countries, live animals (mostly poultry and fish) are readily available at open-air markets to ensure authenticity and freshness. I do hope the cute baby goats for sale at Lyon’s Marché Saint-Antoine were meant to be sold as pets, but you really can’t be sure.
- Curated selection – While they may not offer the widest selection, the most popular markets have a carefully selected group of local products that showcase the best of the season. Where else can you find dozens of flavors of soft, creamy nougat studded with fruit and nuts than at a charming market in the south of France? And if the goods are “slightly imperfect”, you can often negotiate a better price for that oddly-shaped vegetable or crushed bread loaf. Be sure to ask vendors what else they sell or if you can order items in-between market days.
- Freshness factor – Food at the farmer’s market hasn’t been sitting on the shelf for months, packed away in a warehouse or hauled hundreds of miles on a refrigerated truck, to reach your neighborhood. Sure, there are some items that hold up but in general, buying fresh food in season is still the best way to eat healthy and support local vendors as they do at the market in Girona, Spain.
- Knowledgeable vendors – Who better to answer your questions than the person who “tended the garden” so to speak? The vendors at the farmer’s market know exactly what ingredients were used, how and when the product was made, how it should be stored and can suggest lots of ways to prepare it as this chef explains at a fish market in coastal Barcelona. They can often recommend ideal food and beverage pairings and help you plan an entire menu or gift assortment. Now that’s worth a few extra pennies, right?
- Tactile experience – You can see, smell, taste and feel their products. You’ll often hear our chefs say “we eat with our eyes” which is true, but we buy with our nose. When you’re at the open-air market in Bucharest, it’s the smell of juicy rotisserie chicken, roasted potatoes dripping in chicken fat and piping hot meat stews that close the sale. Go ahead – ask for a free sample. They’ll be happy to have you taste their product before you buy it. Just be respectful – ask first, eat a small amount (it’s not a free meal) and be gracious with your feedback. You’re under no obligation to buy, but you are obliged to be kind.
Do you have a favorite farmer’s market or want to share an experience about the local markets in your town? I’d love to hear about it – just leave me a note in the Comments section.
There’s still time left to join us at the Lincoln Square Farmer’s Market for The Chopping Block’s weekly cooking demonstration, every Thursday at 6pm. Come watch our chefs prepare a different dish every week and sample some delicious food using items from the market!
Or, sign up for our Farmer’s Market Tour and Cooking Class. You’ll accompany our chef on a tour through the Lincoln Square farmer’s market, where they will be your insider guide to selecting and purchasing the best produce of the day. You'll then return to our kitchen, where the chef will use the market-fresh ingredients to improvise a delicious meal including an appetizer, an entrée and dessert. Choose one of our upcoming sessions now: