Z: As we pulled into the crowded parking lot along Mariposa Street, we could hear the compelling sounds of a steel drum band, a group calling itself Pan-A-Cea. The Carribean calypso-style music was being delivered by Wendy Harrison and Clinton Crawford, both standing behind their steel drums, their mallets creating lilting sounds that encouraged people to move their feet in rhythm.
R: Instead of dancing, we focused on our first task, to seek the market manager, Tanja Castle, and introduce ourselves. We found her and assistant manager Shane Clark seated at a table in front of a banner that urged, "Support local business. Shop Sierra Madre." Tanja welcomed us and was eager to give us the story of the market that has been in operation for a year. In fact, you could say we were celebrating the first anniversary of the market launched on May 21, 2008.
Z: The market is a project of Sierra Madre Community Services Commission and Scholastic Gardens, a non-profit organization that promotes health and nutrition through farmers' markets. Their mission statement declares: "Our goal is to provide communities with traditional farmers markets, offering California-grown produce and healthy foods so you and your family can eat well and live long!" The organization also works with local schools to establish gardens on campus.
R: Tanja is partnered with Claire Headley in operating four farmers' markets in Los Angeles County with one more in the planning stage. In addition to Sierra Madre, their markets serve the communities of Toluca Lake, Monterey Park, and Duarte. Both women began their farmers' market journey with the debut of the Toluca Lake venture in the fall of 2006.
Z: Comparing it to other markets we have visited, I would categorize this one as mid-size with 13 growers and 17 food vendors. There are no crafts. The growers participating that afternoon presented a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, especially since the stone fruit season was just beginning.
R: Speaking of stone fruits, R &L Farms from Kingsburg covered that category quite well. They offered yellow and white nectarines, yellow and white peaches, donut peaches, apricots, Bing cherries, and Royal Anne cherries. Not only was this a colorful display, but it was also amazingly fragrant. Also on their table were lemons, limes, Hass avocados, and cherimoyas.
Z: Strawberry fans could sample and buy three varieties from four different vendors. Castellanos Farm from Riverside sold plump Camarosas. R & L Produce from Santa Paula had a beautiful display of both Albion and Gaviota while Santiago Produce from Nipomo featured Albion. Gaytan Farms from Mira Loma had giant Albion. It's interesting to note that all three varieties were developed by the University of California.
R: In addition to their strawberries, Santiago offered blackberries. But R & L provided a lavish berry display with multiple rows of cartons filled with red and yellow raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and mixed berries. Their table also included cantaloupes, zucchini, broccoli, romaine and red leaf lettuce, cabbage, cilantro, dill, parsley, and gigantic cucumbers. I picked up one cucumber that was a foot long.
Z: Castellanos and Gaytan Farms provided the answer to a vegetable lover's dream. Castellanos displayed many shades of green in the form of green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, red and green cabbage, celery, carrots, radishes, brown and red onions, and garlic. Gaytan's table was overflowing with onions: giant white, red, and brown. They also showed plenty of green with Brussels sprouts, green cabbage, zucchini, asparagus, cauliflower, Mexican squash, artichokes, red beets, and three varieties of lettuce: romaine, green leaf, and red leaf.
R: Even in May apple aficionados could still find their favorite fruit from Johna's Orchard from Tehachapi. Seue Tho was happy to give us a taste of both Pink Lady and Fuji apples. She also told us that the orchard has been producing for 38 years, and proudly announced their crop is all certified organic. Her table also featured Asian pears, apple cider, and cider vinegar.
Z: That afternoon we spent some pleasant moments talking to Tito Rivadeneira of Rivadeneira Farms in two locations: Val Verde and Tehachapi. He's only been farming for two years since his retirement from a paralegal career and finding this new experience very satisfying. His table displayed four varieties of mushrooms: shiitake, oyster, portobello, and cremini. He also had a great selection of potatoes that included Red Rose, Russet, Peruvian, and Yukon as well as a basket of apricots and a carton of California grown garlic. All of his produce is labeled pesticide free. Before leaving Tito's table, we asked why California garlic does not show up in local supermarkets. "It's too expensive to grow garlic," he told us. He went on to say local growers can't compete with the cheap garlic imported from China.
R: Citrus seekers found satisfaction at Athens Nursery from Fallbrook with a table filled with voluptuous Minneola tangerines, mandarins, blood oranges, Valencia oranges, sweet lemons, oro blancos, pomelos, and pink grapefruit as well as Fuji apples.
Z: Aroma Orchids from Rowland Heights added to the visual experience of the market with their beautiful orchids priced very reasonably. We were tempted by Phalaenopsis orchids that were marked as low as $5. Aroma won a trophy award in 2005 for the best white Phalaenopsis orchid in the Fascination of Orchids International Show. In addition to Phalaenopsis, Aroma also grows Oncidiums, Cattleyas, and Cymbidiums.
R: With so much public comment on the Obama family garden at the White House, we were not surprised when we encountered The Happy Gardener at this market. So many people are planting gardens and Marc Vertoch wants to help them. Marc left the mortgage loan industry to begin his new career as an "independent garden consultant." Joined by his wife Lynette, he was displaying products that would help anyone start an organic garden.
Z: Everything they sold was organic, including products like Earth Juice Seaweed, Seeds of Change, Happy Naturals Soil Conditioner, and kits to grow herbs like chives, thyme, and basil. Marc called our attention to a coir planter made from the fibers found between the husk and outer shell of the coconut. Coir fiber is waterproof.
R: You were so carried away with orchids and The Happy Gardener, you didn't mention the unique prepared foods at this market. Normally, there aren't too many interesting food choices for vegans at most farmers' markets. Barbecues seem to predominate at the afternoon markets. In some cases there is roasted corn on the cob or an occasional vegan tamale. But this market was different, thanks to Vegan Heights -- Daniel's Choice from Corona and Cobblermania. We had met Chef Jeroen Ashton at a potluck where he gave us the details about Daniel's Choice vegan foods he's selling at farmers' markets. His company has only been in operation since January 2009, but has quickly grown because of his presence at farmers' markets.
Z: We had a vegan feast that afternoon as we stood in front of Jeroen's table oohing and ahing as he plied us with samples of his products. His Lasagne was quite cheesy without real cheese. He told us that some people felt he put too much cheese into it, not realizing that it really was cheese-less. The Eggplant Parmesan was Reuben's favorite. He likes eggplant in every conceivable form and savored every bit of his sample. I was ecstatic about Chef Jeroen's Stedda' Feta Spinach "Cheese" Pie.
R: We both enjoyed his Creamy Garlic Spread - Original Aioli, but the highlight of our tasting was the Stedda' Chicken Salad. We liked it so much we decided to purchase a container and share it as a mini dinner before leaving the market. Our tasting session ended with the deliciously smooth and creamy Pineapple Banana Parfait.
Z: Curious about the name Daniel's Choice, we asked Jeroen about its origin. He told us about Chapter 1 of the Book of Daniel. Going to his website at http://veganheights.com, we found the complete chapter and verse.
R: Along with his food, Jeroen also distributes leaflets extolling the virtues of vegan eating and showing how it contributes to good health and benefits the environment. He also quotes from the book The China Study showing the health benefits of a vegan diet. His mantra is "Daniel's Choice takes American Comfort food to its Vegan Heights."
Z: And when it comes to vegan desserts, there's Cobblermania. We first met Shae Seward at the Leimart Park Farmers' Market in May 2007 where we had an opportunity to taste her delicious cobblers. She is now in 20 markets in Southern California convincing people that a delicious vegan dessert doesn't need milk or eggs. That afternoon she was sold out of Mango Strawberry, White Peach Blackberry, and Sweet Potato but had a few left of Peach, Strawberry Peach, Apple, and Blackberry Apple for the cobbler lovers.
R: At every farmers' market we always manage to learn something that adds to our knowledge of plants. Our lesson that day came from Zia Sun Salsa that had bottled their own recipe in two flavors: Medium-ish and Hot-err. Teresa Armstrong informed us that our Anaheim pepper really originated in New Mexico in the 1920's before traveling to California. She also told us the name of the Guinness World Record holder of the hottest pepper in the world: Bhut Jolokia from India. It's also known as Naga Jolokia or King Cobra Chili. Bhut Jolokia is now also grown in Southern New Mexico.
Z: Before we left the market, we joined Tanja who offered us chairs as we dined on our Stedda Chicken Salad and heard her story of coming to the US from the UK and her experiences in Scholastic Gardens. We said our goodbyes and once more paused to listen to Pan-A-Cea and watch Carmen Walters and John Schlener dancing to the Caribbean rhythms.
Sierra Madre Certified Farmers' Market
Reviewed June 2009