WEEKEND WARRIOR: Produce Peddler

produce_peddler

With two wheels and two days, a visit to three East End farmers markets.

The first time I visited East Hampton was over a rainy October weekend during my freshman year at Sarah Lawrence. Against all odds, my roommate and I had formed a bond while lying awake at night, the lights out, talking about things we missed from home.

Our senses of humor could not have been more opposite, but we shared a common sense of what it meant to grow up on the water—she was from Springs and I was from mid-coast Maine. Talk would drift from seafood, to the restaurants where she worked summer jobs and the seasonal bed and breakfast where I had grown up. We’d eventually fall asleep, after swapping tales about different menu items. By October she invited me out to her neck of the woods to show me how high the hedges really grew around celebrity summer estates, but what I remember most vividly were the pit stops for snacks along her tour. There were the dosas from Hampton Chutney Company (I’d heard plenty about these as we tried to overlook the lackluster options at our school’s dining hall), dinner at Sen (where she’d spent several summers as a hostess) and her stepmother’s veal meatballs. We ate enough to tide us over until Thanksgiving.

All of this ran through my mind as the LIRR shot off to the East End from Atlantic Terminal in Downtown Brooklyn on my first return trip to the Hamptons since I was 18. With my creative writing degree and my earliest memories set in the kitchen of my parents’ inn, I’ve spent the last few years making my way writing stories about the local food scene in New York City. When the opportunity to escape the early summer heat on a weekend bike trip around the East End’s farmers markets presented itself, I didn’t bat an eye. I bought a $5 bike pass from the train conductor (good for life!), and I propped my trusty old Raleigh 10-speed against the door, then plunked down in a seat with the latest issue of Edible Brooklyn. As we sped out past Jamaica and farther east, I stopped reading about backyard borough-grown hops and let my eyes drift out the window to the sun as it set over Long Island’s passing vineyards. I shook the city off me, and relaxed into vacation. By the time I reached Bridgehampton and mounted my bike, the fields may as well have been strewn with honey. I typed the address of where I would be staying into my iPhone and took off into the sunset, headed for Sag Harbor.

I spend most Saturdays peddling between the Greenmarkets at Grand Army Plaza and Fort Greene, my bike basket laden with eggs, bundles of dill and bouquets of lilies. This method of grocery transport is so popular in my neighborhood in Brooklyn that it’s difficult to find a spot to lock up my wheels when I hop off to go shopping. In Sag Harbor, on the morning I was to set out for the East Hampton farmers market, my hosts’ nanny looked at me with as much skepticism as my freshman-year roommate did when I told her I liked to set my alarm clock for five a.m. Bikes aren’t even allowed to roll down Sag Harbor’s Main Street, but after I walked through town, I found that Route 114 boasts a comfortable bike lane nearly all the way to East Hampton.

From Sag Harbor, the East Hampton farmers market is only about an eight-and-a-half-mile ride away, with a few mild hills along the route. I arrive at the parking lot of Nick and Toni’s, where the vibrant collection of 23 vendors sets up each Friday to find a loyal following of shoppers who have come to depend on this market to stock their larder with freshly caught fish, produce grown on nearby farms, and cheese made from the milk of cows who are raised within a shorter distance than my first leg of the bike journey. The market was started four years ago with just a handful of farmers as a means for the restaurant’s chefs to source local products without having to travel far themselves to pick up orders. Like agricultural communities across the country, the East End is peppered with roadside farm stands, but a marketplace allows for the convergence of multiple producers and a centralized place for neighbors to gather and shop each week. In step with the national trend toward eating locally, the popularity of the East Hampton market has grown, and its success has sparked the entrepreneurial minds of residents and farmers alike. In addition to squash blossoms and greens, you would be remiss to pass up a jar of Balsam Farms’ strawberry jam or a batch of pesto made from the farm’s just-harvested garlic scapes. Sang Lee Farms, a pioneer from across the bay in Peconic, whose reputation for the quality and variety of stuff they grow spans both Forks, offers tatsoi, snow pea greens and butter lettuce as well as a number of homemade marinades, salad dressings and hot pepper jelly. Goat cheese from Catapano, a farm down the road from Sang Lee, is displayed on the counter next to the cash box. Down the way at the A. Sisters Food Co. table, two teenage girls keep an unending line moving while colorful strands of their fresh fettuccini and linguine hang from the rafters. This is their second season making a summer job of selling their product at the market. The fresh pasta is made with duck eggs from the North Fork and spinach, mushrooms or fresh lemon zest (admittedly not a local ingredient, albeit a bright addition). Next door to their stand, Wölffer Estate has set up an outpost of their tasting room with everyone from first-time tipplers to farmers and loyal customers nipping over to sample some of this year’s rosé.

“I’m baffled by the number of people who pass by,” notes Christina Zapel, who sells at the market stand and also works in the vineyard’s tasting room. “As a marketing device, it’s extremely effective.” Visitors to East Hampton note their presence here on Fridays and then are convinced to make the trip to the vineyard itself, which is just about six miles down Montauk Highway.

The longest line leads up to Fish Hampton, a stand manned by Erik Braun, who sells his fresh catch from a dinghy that’s found a second life as a display case. As I wait my turn for a pass at the fluke, day boat scallops (“just fancy clams”), and northern oysters brought in from the waters off Montauk, the customer in front of me urges me to peek in the cooler off to the side. A chalkboard sign reads “10 cents a peep.” I tentatively lift the lid to find a 50-pound bass the size of a small child.

“I told you about their eyes, right?” he asks a regular. The woman shakes her head, and Braun launches into a science lesson about the squid’s endocrine system while simultaneously extracting a feather-like piece of cartilage. “Here you go,” he says, handing the specimen to her. “They call it a quill—to go with the squid’s ink.”

Braun insists that his stand at the market is just a “feel-good thing.” He keeps a bound picture book on hand as a visual aid to show customers the process of pond net fishing that brought in his catch. Unlike many of the other vendors, this is the only market he sells at, and it’s easy to see that he’s in it for the benefit of telling stories more than for the hope of making a profit. For his fellow farmers, though, the opportunity to make direct sales has been a boon to business.

“Wholesale was a heartbreak,” says Caryll Batterman, who sells at the Sang Lee stand, and surviving on profits from a roadside stand alone was impossible. “Retail is saving family farms. And look at the clientele you reach,” she says, looking out on the bustling parking lot. “The people on the East End are used to good food and they want to make healthy choices for their children.”

The ride from East Hampton to Bridgehampton (just over nine miles) is decidedly the toughest leg of the route if you’re on two wheels. The shoulder doesn’t feel quite as comfortable with delivery trucks and SUVs whizzing by, but it’s doable, and since you’re not rolling along at 75 miles an hour, it’s that much easier to pull off the road to duck into Breadzilla in Wainscott for lunch or Wölffer Estate’s tasting room. The market in Bridgehampton sprawls across the lawn of the Hayground School, and doesn’t get going until three p.m., just when school or day camp is letting out, depending on the season. Several years ago the local Slow Food chapter donated a greenhouse to the school, enabling their culinary center to source about 70 percent of their ingredients on-site, year-round. The greenhouse and gardens, as well as the quail and heritage chickens that are being raised, are fully incorporated into the curriculum. Each day the entire school sits down together for lunch that is prepared and served by students of all ages.

“I want to wax poetic about the transformation of eating together,” an art teacher, and one of the school’s founders, Jon Snow, tells me. “There is no arranged seating, and we talk about food. We get to work together to make it. When (the students) see people they know and trust engaging that way in the kitchen and around the table, it’s very encouraging.” Snow has students observe the gardens and their progression through every season, letting carrots flower and go to seed just to see their full life cycle. The market is yet another experiential opportunity rife with lessons. A colorful chalkboard lists the school farm stand’s offerings: tomato and nasturtium plants, mixed greens, peas and broccoli. A young student carefully transfers a box of peas into a paper bag for me, then folds over the top and secures the contents with a sharp crease. He can’t be more than eight years old, and I see the completely focused intent with which he takes my money to an older student who mans the cash box. The responsibility to return the correct amount of change to the customer weighs heavily on him.

Kids who grew up on farms, these are not, but everyone eats three times a day, and being mindful of the decisions and effort that are inherent in the creation of each meal is a practice that applies to eaters everywhere. That mindfulness permeates this market.

Next to the school’s stand, a wood-fired oven has been fashioned over the back of a pickup truck. The Carmelo’s Brick Oven rig is co-operated by one of the school’s parents, and the oven, which reaches 900 degrees, lends a perfect char to Neopolitan pizzas that are topped with offerings from neighboring vendors. A nasturtium pizza goes over big, as does one with hot pickled peppers. At another stand, David Falkowski of Open Minded Organics sells locally grown blue and yellow oyster mushrooms and dried varieties of fungi like candy caps, porcini and lobster mushrooms organically grown on the West Coast. Like the pizza guys, he constantly offers customers suggestions of how to cook with what is available at this market, and frequently takes to the grill to do an impromptu demonstration. Of his unique selection of mushrooms, he says they “help diversify people’s palates. When people experience new flavors it sparks their curiosity and gives them the confidence to experiment with cooking.” Among the mushrooms he is also selling a few stray garlic scapes. Every customer who passes by asks what the curly green stems are, and he explains their flavor profile, different uses, and offers recipe suggestions. “In Thailand they are eaten by women to produce more milk.” He gives out just as much advice on how to grill fish, which people are buying from Merken Fisheries at the stand next to his. Across the way, shoppers can purchase olive oil from Arlotta, a local company that boasts organic oils infused with garlic, rosemary and basil and balsamic vinegar. To the left of the Arlotta tent, agricultural lessons are being tested by Karin Bellemare of Sunset Beach Farm who recently graduated with a concentration in agricultural studies from Green Mountain College in Vermont. Along with her boyfriend they are in their first year of farming several acres of his parents’ property. With the average American farmer approaching retirement age, Bellemare is the face of the next generation of American agrarians. In addition to direct sales at this market, she and her boyfriend are supporting themselves with the help of investors in their community-supported agriculture (CSA) program.

“We’re learning by diving in,” she says, standing behind a table laden with the beets, mesclun mix, and peas she has harvested. Hopefully her presence at the market will enforce the message to some of Hayground’s students that determination and innovative thinking make it viable to earn a living by growing food.

Innovative thinking was at the crux of this movement of farmers markets on the East End, which began six years ago in Sag Harbor where a lively Saturday morning market was started by Brian Halweil (the editor of this publication) and his wife, Sarah. While there are farm stands on the North Fork just about every hundred feet, here on the South Fork where the agricultural community is just as vibrant, there seemed to be a lack of outlets for farmers to make sales. This is the flagship operation that inspired the markets that have since cropped up in Westhampton, Montauk and Southampton. Mecox Bay Dairy, Open Minded Organics and Horman’s Best Pickles all have stands here as well as at a number of other markets in the area, including East Hampton and the Hayground School. The Peconic Land Trust’s market stand offers a bounty of spring onions, squash blossoms and greens. Taste of the North Fork brings in rhubarb relish, mint jelly, homemade mustard and pickled asparagus. Marilee Foster has gained a loyal following of customers who pine for her Tiger Spuds, potato chips made from her potato harvest on Foster Farm in Sagaponack. The chips are “a ton of work,” so their appearances are rare (note: make weekly trips to the market and keep your eyes peeled for their occasional guest appearance). Children run by recklessly with a pickle on a stick from Horman’s Best, which always has a line at least five customers deep who are waiting for sours, half sours, mustard chips or red flannels—sweet and sour chips with slices of hot red peppers added to the mix. Everything from lobster to scallops, mussels, black sea bass and local Blue Point oysters are available from either of two fishmongers—the Seafood Shop in Wainscott and the more recent addition of the quarry from a Montauk fisherman. Blue Duck Bakery has outposts at a number of markets in addition to their ever-popular brick and mortar shop in Southampton, but the lines in the market are (mildly) more manageable. Have a blueberry muffin while you cruise the market and stock up on sunflower bread for sandwiches while you’re at it.

When you’re ready to cool your heels and chat for a while, visit Mary Woltz of the Bees’ Needs, who will take you through the seasons with a honey tasting that explains flavor by flavor the progression of the bees’ diet through the year. “They’re seasonally separated by foraging on different nectars at different times of year,” she explains as she squirts a taste of spring honey on a customer’s finger. “This one’s like bottled sunshine,” she says of the early variety. From black locus in the earliest harvest, to linden in high summer, and finally fall wildflower, the honey becomes progressively darker and richer in flavor. Late-harvest honey is dark with goldenrod and buckwheat, and yields a flavor near that of molasses.

Woltz began selling honey at the Sag Harbor market for another apiary, the Hamptons Honey Company, then broke out on her own in 2007. She keeps bees on others’ property, and lets them sell her product in their shops. In addition, she has a honey CSA (community-supported apiaries in this case), where investors can pay upfront at the beginning of the season for the promise of 12 half-pound jars of honey over the course of the year.

For Art Ludlow of Mecox Bay Dairy, who started making artisanal cheese from his herd of 12 Jersey cows seven years ago, his business has grown as the number of markets on the South Fork has increased. This year he is selling his Shawondasee, Mecox Sunrise, Atlantic Mist, Sigit and cheddar at six markets in the region. “I’m a small producer, so it’s counterproductive to travel. If I’m producing here, I might as well produce (the cheese) for the people here.”

The market’s founding farm, Dale and Bette’s Organic Produce, has a nice spot in the shade where their colorful bundles of French breakfast, pink lady, Annabelle, ping pong and amethyst radishes reign supreme. Bright nasturtiums pepper the basket of mixed greens and the first of the gooseberries have just arrived. The duo has been farming since 1978, and have sold directly from their farm stand on the Sag Harbor Turnpike for years. The problems with this method were exactly what one would expect: It was tough for folks to pull off the road to shop, there was no parking, produce couldn’t hold up to a summer day’s heat without refrigeration, and the unmanned cash box was there for trustworthy customers to drop their money in, or for untrustworthy ones to run off with, depending on the day. They had all but given up on the stand, and then, urged by the popularity of the farmers market, they refocused their energy on it three years ago. Since then, Bay Burger has moved in next door providing ample parking and another restaurant to sell their produce to. They’ve been able to purchase a refrigerator to keep the produce fresh, and they have yet to miss a Saturday market in Sag Harbor (and have been known to dress up like raggedy clowns when the market falls on Halloween). They also sell to a number of local restaurants and at several additional farmers markets. Each outlet is an opportunity to do direct sales with customers, allowing them to keep their small family farm in production.

As I ride back to the Bridgehampton train station (the last four miles of my trip), I pass Dale and Bette’s farm stand on the way. They’ve just pulled in from closing down shop at the market, and I wave across the street as I go by. For me, the greatest benefit of shopping at the farmers market is getting to know the community of vendors who supply it. After a mere 36 hours, and about as many miles, my bike basket is heavy with Wölffer Estate’s rosé, a loaf of Blue Duck bread, Horman’s pickles, Dale and Bette’s radishes and a nice hunk of Mecox Bay Dairy cheddar—all the fixings for a picnic lunch on the train station platform. I have a name and a story associated with each item, which leaves a deep impression, and a meal that sticks to my bones.

Jeanne Hodesh writes about local food in Brooklyn, where she pens the weekly e-newsletter Local Gourmands.

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