Consider the Hollywood Farmers Market in Los Angeles. Four blocks long and two blocks wide, it is an eater's dream come true.
Fresh cheese, all sorts of bakers and baked goods, freshly cut flowers, grains, sprouts (it is California), jams and jellies, and best of all, fruits and vegetables in abundance.
There are farmers markets in Phoenix. I've been to nine in the last couple of weeks. But there's nothing like Hollywood's, not even a stunt double.
The best local offering is The Farmers Market at Vincent's on Camelback, 3930 East Camelback Road, open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Make it 50 times bigger and you're almost in Los Angeles.
Vincent's is almost too small to be called a farmers market. It's really all about Vincent. You'll eat his baked goods and his snacks. His staff serves the cheese and wine. I'm not really preoccupied with size. It's the variety that comes with market sprawl that intrigues me.
The best thing about the market at Vincent's is the baked goods. First-class desserts and breads are part of the reason Chef Vincent Guerithault has such a good local reputation.
The open-air bakeshop is a poor man's visit to the trendy -- and pricey -- restaurant. The pastries and savory goodies are over the top by any standard. By farmers market standards, they're in a league of their own. They even beat out L.A.
I want Vincent's brioche, plain or coconut, with my morning coffee. Every day for the rest of my life. The apple pizza is a slab of everything that makes apple pie and French apple tarts irresistible.
The selection of artisanal French cheeses is commendable. They're a little bit of Provence. The Brie was ripe but not yet sweat-sock smelly. The Parmesan-like manchego combines with sweet, mildly tart quince paste in a way that defines cheese as dessert.
Wine, by the glass or bottle, is available. Buy a small selection and sit down under one of the umbrellas. Have a little al fresco cheese and wine fest.
Barbecue beef sandwiches are only $2.50. They're a little sweet, but if the kids are in tow it's a classy alternative to McDonald's. A variety of grown-up tamales is kept warm in steaming stainless chafing dishes, not badly priced at $1.50 each. Pork or beef mole and duck are among the tamale choices. Unfortunately, the pork mole I tried was overcooked, so the masa was dried out.
I wouldn't even think of giving Vincent's a nod of approval or a second visit if the produce didn't pan out. What's a farmers market without a little green?
Vincent's veggies are photo-op beautiful. Mostly from California, these beauties don't come cheap. A tiny bunch of white carrots was $2.50, a bundle of asparagus was $6, and the specialty greens, such as tangy, curly-leafed Japanese mizuna, were $2.50 for a little nosegay that would make a medium-size salad for one, or two side salads.
Despite the enthralling beauty of the produce, most people seemed to stop at Vincent's to eat breakfast or lunch rather than to buy their evening's salad fixings.
Often, the problem with local markets isn't too little, but too much. There are too many artsy-craftsy things, especially when compared to the stuff the farmers are selling. At some venues, the edibles seem like an afterthought.
Ironically, the worst offender is the most popular market. The Borgata Farmers Market draws a crowd, and has at least three times more merchandise than any other market, but it leaves me feeling almost jilted.
I have nothing against most of the vendors. Much of the stuff on sale is pretty good. Some of it, like the Bernard Callebaut chocolate, is wonderful.
So, what's my complaint? For one thing, I can get Bernard C. chocolates across the street from The Borgata any day of the week.
But my biggest gripe is with the produce.
It's fresh, and the displays are neat and even a bit dramatic. But both of the produce vendors have their wares in boxes with logos like "Dole," "Berry Land," "Empire" and "Del Monte." What do these icons of agribusiness have to do with a neighborhood farmers market? I can get those brands in any grocery store.
These products have been around the block a few too many times. They're picked, packaged, shipped to a warehouse, and then they somehow get to The Borgata.
When local farmers are part of the formula, the produce is often only 24 or 36 hours removed from the plant. Now, that's fresh, and that's what it takes to make a really good farmers market.
Contact Andy Broder at his online address: [email protected]