Z: That "city of pumpkins" phrase refers to the name "Calabasas" derived from the Spanish word calabaza meaning pumpkin, squash, or gourd. In fact, the city celebrates its name with a pumpkin festival each October.
R: I don't think the residents would take kindly to anyone referring to their community as "old pumpkin town." Old Town Calabasas has much more charm. Their bustling farmers' market is on the edge of Old Town along Calabasas Road just west of El Canon Avenue across from the popular Sagebrush Cantina and down the street from the historic Leonis Adobe. The Leonis Adobe traces its history back to 1844 and is now a museum and cultural monument.
Z: Our historical connection to the Calabasas Old Town Farmers' Market goes back to July 1999 when we visited and reported on it in our inaugural year.
R: I remember saying, "This is one of those farmers' markets that has a charming, small-town feeling. Instead of closing down the main street, the market is quite visible from the busy, two-lane main street right off the Mulholland freeway exit. The locals call this area Old Town at Calabasas Junction."
Z: From our 1999 article this was my first impression as we walked across the street: "We noticed attractive wood-frame shops surrounded by chinaberry and eucalyptus trees. Honeysuckle vines climbed up the railings of the shops that resembled New England-style houses. The farmers' tables were set up in a horseshoe configuration around the houses, lending quaintness to this market. It's not as large as some of the others we've visited, but there was certainly variety."
R: The locale is much the same, but the market has mushroomed into a much larger venue with twice the number of farmers in addition to food vendors and craft items. The quaintness and the European feeling is still evident. This market is one of a string in Los Angeles County operated by Raw Inspirations headed by Jennifer McColm.
Z: Jurguen Nunez has been moonlighting as manager of this market for the last three years, but he hasn't given up his day job as a bank teller. Jurguen was eager to tell us how the community has embraced the market, but that was obvious by the throng of people swarming around the farmstands.
R: Since it was December and the Saturday before the Christmas, we were not sure if there would be a wide variety of produce for sale. WRONG. Of course, the stone fruit season was long gone, but we were surprised that vendors like Etheridge Farms from the Fresno area still offered black plums and Nicholas Family Farms from Orange Cove had Angelino plums.
Z: And grapes were still available. Mark Boujoukian of Raisin City sported Autumn King, Malaga, Black Fantasy, Thompson, and Crimson with $1.50 per pound mix and match that was hard to resist. But the grapes that were pure nirvana for me were from Fife Farms of Visalia. His Thompson seedless were tasty, but the seldom seen Muscat Alexandras were positively heavenly. They were so sugary sweet I didn't mind the seeds.
R: We lingered awhile talking to Ryan Fife, a third-generation grower, while sampling his wares. His two friends, Sharon and Karen were cutting up pomelos and oro blancos and shoveling samples into my mouth as I was scribbling notes on my clipboard pad. The pomelo gold look like grapefruit but are sweeter than many oranges I've tasted. It has the distinction of being the largest of all citrus fruit.
Z: People all around couldn't help hearing Reuben's oohs and aahs as Karen and Sharon kept egging him on, or should I say pomeloing him. Fife's citrus display also included navel oranges and Marsh white grapefruit. He promised to have blood red oranges in the next few weeks. His dried fruits featured raisins, peaches, nectarines, and a special bin of chocolate dipped nectarines. Unfortunately, those contained milk chocolate, not suitable for vegans. But I was especially drawn to the deep reddish black pomegranates, a unique variety that offered quite a color contrast to the pomelos.
R: Excuse the pun, but market goers that day had a berry good time. It seemed like every few steps brought another farmer offering blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries. In that group were R and L Farms from Santa Paula, Cortez Farm from Santa Maria, and Santiago Produce from Nipomo.
Z: Our friends back east would envy our local strawberries available in winter. The three types displayed were Albion, Galinda, and Camarosa. Medrano Farm from Santa Maria and Santiago Produce from Nipomo sold the Albion variety. Cortez Farm from Santa Maria offered Galinda while Juan Uriostegui of Redlands sold Camarosa. From our research we learned that Albion are darker in color and sweeter than most strawberries. Camorosa are large, can be picked when fully red, and have a long shelf life. Almost half the strawberries grown in California are Camorosas. Galinda is a sweet strawberry not as popular as the other two.
R: Anna's Farm in Filmore had some standout items. Their celery stalks had to be the largest I've ever seen. They were over two feet long. Not quite as large were what Zel labeled as "lusty leeks." They also showed our favorite kohlrabi and sweet anise bulbs. Adding color to their table were bunches of tricolor Swiss chard in yellow, red, and green.
Z: Speaking of tricolor chard, McGrath from Oxnard also displayed some. Among their novel items were baby sweet corn and pea tendrils. I had to take some home to add to our dinner salad. The tendrils are young leaves and shoots of the snow pea plant and taste like a cross between peas and spinach. They can be eaten raw or cooked.
R: McGrath showed three colors of carrots: orange, yellow, and red. They also displayed golden and Chioggia beets. Chioggia beets are a pre-1840 Italian heirloom type commonly called Candystripe Beet or Bull's Eye Beet. We were surprised they didn't have any red beets.
Z: Added to our list of unexpected finds were honeydew melons and white corn on the table of Z Ranch from Imperial Valley. They were the only ones to offer small round Indian eggplant. We had our first encounter with Rosso Bruno, a tomato that has only been available in this country a few years. It was unique among the tomatoes offered by Houweling's from Camarillo. Rosso Bruno is at its peak flavor when the tomato is a reddish-brown color with hints of green most notable around the top where it was attached to the vine. Once the tomato is completely red, it's overripe and the flavor starts to fade.
R: Rancho Santa Cecilia can be counted on to offer unusual tropical fruits at some of our local farmers' markets. Along with Hass and Bacon avocados and Hachiya persimmons, they sold sapote, Thai guava, cherimoya, and pepino melon. We had experienced the sapote, guava, and cherimoya, but couldn't remember tasting pepino--so we did. It's a marriage of cantaloupe and honeydew with a teardrop shape and smooth skin striped with yellow and deep purple.
Z: Xiong Produce from Fresno had some appealing and unique offerings. Raw peanuts and sugar cane were at the top of the list. Not found in many supermarkets or farmers' markets are the two types of sweet potatoes we saw here: Japanese white and Okinawan purple. The Japanese variety has a beautiful pink skin and reveals a chestnut- sweet flavor. Okinawan has a light beige skin. Cut open, it displays pink to lavender to purple meat. The purple color intensifies when cooked. Near the sweet potatoes was a pile of jicama. We joked about one special jicama that was shaped like a kangaroo with its pouch hiding a small baby.
R: The only vendor selling kiwis was Etheridge Farms who was also one of many displaying persimmons. They sold both Hachiya and Fuyus. The crunchy Fuyus are more popular these days. Many people don't care for the Hachiyas that have to be super ripe to taste good. The slippery gelatinous texture is off-putting to some fruit lovers.
Z: Flower lovers like me had so many visually appealing choices at this market. Liquid Landscapes from Chatsworth featured gorgeous cataleya orchids and some knockout bright bromeliads. Raglin's Botanical in Woodland Hills also displayed orchids and an abundance of dazzling bromeliads.
R: Zel had an opportunity to show off her quiz show contestant flower identification skill at Cho's Flower Farms from Somis. She was able to call out the names of Bells of Ireland, Asiatic and Oriental lilies, hydrangea, gerbera daisies, alstroemeria, and, of course, poinsettias. She failed to identify the asters and spider mums.
Z: When we looked back at our 1999 story, we found a few growers who had continued with this market over the years. Ha's Apple Farm in Tehachapi was here with their Fuji apples, Asian pears, dried apples, and apple syrups and jams. Underwood Farms brought its wide variety of vegetables to this and other markets. Their tables included every lettuce variety you can think of. Especially alluring was Lollo Rosso, a compact lettuce with heavily frilled pinky bronze leaf ends. They had the most beautiful arugula I have ever seen and the only green cauliflower at the market. Raglin's Botanicals has also displayed at this market over the years.
R: There was so much to this market we were barely able to survey it in the three hours we were there. Even in this story we can't possibly detail the wide array of choices. We wondered if there were possibly too many choices that worked against some of the growers who found their products duplicated by others and their sales somewhat diminished.
Z: Still, this market retains its first-impression charm and has the engaging feel of a European marketplace. It's obvious that the community wants and supports this market. For West Valley and Southeastern Conejo Valley dwellers, it's the place to be on Saturday mornings.
Calabasas Old Town Certified Farmers' Market
Reviewed January 2009