Z: As we exited the freeway and drove down Rosecrans Boulevard, we noticed several sandwich-board signs announcing "Farmers' Market." What we didn't expect was a flashing construction sign in the middle of Aviation Boulevard that also signaled a farmers' market was straight ahead. Needless to say, we were impressed by this dramatic effort to let people know this was farmers' market day in the community. We later learned that the sign was made possible because of street construction in the area and would not be a permanent fixture.
R: I could tell our friends that we went to school at the Wiseburn Da Vinci Charter that morning, but instead of learning the 3 R's we received an education in how a farmers' market crashes and burns and then rises out of the ashes like a phoenix to be born anew.
Z: The drama began when the Del Aire market opened in Del Aire Park in an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County in May 2008. It was a project of the Del Aire Neighborhood Association headed by John Koppelman. Its Wednesday afternoon time slot proved problematic, and it had poor community visibility, or as Koppelman says, "It was hidden in the park." Attendance was poor, and many farmers left because of poor sales. The Del Aire group pulled the plug on the market in November 2008.
R: But Koppelman and the Del Aire association did not give up on the farmers' market project. They joined with the Hollyglen Homeowners' Association led by Sean Walsh and the city of Hawthorne to create this market. The group was fortunate because the city had wanted a market in the community for a long time and was willing to offer assistance in many ways.
Z: Switching to Saturday mornings and a new location in the parking lot of the Wiseburn Da Vinci Charter School, the market reopened on June 27, 2009. It is now a project of the Wiseburn Education Foundation that shares proceeds with both associations working to encourage its success.
R: Supervising the market is Susan Hillyer who received her training with Mary Lou Weiss at the successful Torrance Farmers' Market. Hillyer's extensive food background experience also includes working at Bristol Farms and Vons.
Z: What impressed me was Hillyer's commitment to making this market a success. "I make an effort to get to the farms of each farmer," she told us. "I see the farmers' commitment and passion.
R: Hillyer told us something she knew we would especially appreciate: "Walking through the greenhouse at Rancho de Trinidad was like walking through a salad bowl."
Z: When I told her about my book, The Nut Gourmet, and that Reuben and I teach cooking classes, she wondered if I would be willing to do a cooking demonstration at the market one Saturday morning.
R: As we visited during this eighth week of operation, the market appeared to be on its way to success. The community was there to shop, Alex Vargas had set up his DJ turntables to add festive music, and a salsa contest was scheduled in a few weeks.
Z: We definitely were in school that morning, but it was the farmers' market school where we always learn something we didn't know about fruits and vegetables. If some new variety appears, it usually shows up at a farmers' market before it debuts in a supermarket.
R: Absolutely correct. Over the years we have seen MB Farms from Raisin City in many farmers markets around the Southland. That morning we were introduced to Thomcord grapes, the most delicious grape I've ever tasted. Thomcord is one of seventeen varieties grown by Mark Boujoukian. It's a delectable cross between a Concord grape and a Thompson seedless.
Z: Not so easy as it sounds. Taking a purple Concord grape with seeds and melding it with a green Thompson seedIess took something like 17 years to create this tasty purple morsel. The credit goes to the Agricultural Research Service's grape breeders in California. Experiments began in the 1980's and the Thomcord was introduced at farmers' markets beginning in 2003.
R: Thomcord has the blue-black skin, whitish bloom and bold flesh color of the Concord, plus a pleasing Concord-like flavor that's lightened by the sweet, mild taste of its Thompson parent. The fruit is slightly firmer than Concord.
Z: Elmer was happy to lead us to a taste tour of the crop at the MB table that featured other grapes: Thompson seedless, Malaga, Red Flame, and Fantasy Black. The display included fresh nectarines and peaches as well as Black Mission and Calmyrna Figs. MB also offered their wide selection of dried fruits and nuts. I was especially impressed with their trail mix of walnuts, almonds, and raisins and jumbo mixed raisins. Surprisingly, that dark item that looked like a prune turned out to be a dried green plum.
R: My education is enhanced when I encounter the rich display of Asian greens that many Americans never put on their dinner tables. These greens are so damn healthy. That morning Pachoua Vang of Vang's Farm from Fresno added to our knowledge by explaining that Japanese broccoli is sweeter than Chinese broccoli.
Z: I knew about baby bok choy because I use it in salads all the time. I'm also familiar with bitter melon that Reuben hates because it's too bitter for him. The Chinese revere this vegetable and create a bitter melon soup that's quite nutritious. New to me were Chinese long squash, ribless sinqua, and Chinese water spinach. They'll definitely make appearances in my stirfries.
R: Vang's table also displayed three kinds of eggplant: Chinese, Japanese, and American, and three bell pepper varieties: green, red, and yellow. Included in their abundant display were kabocha, okra, yams, green beans, onions, grape tomatoes, daikon, and round summer squash.
Z: Stone fruit lovers had a blast tasting the offerings of Ken's Top Notch Produce from Reedley. Along with the low-acid nectarines with a mango flavor, they sold Dapple Danny and Flavor Queen pluots, Emerald plums, and Arctic Snow white peaches.
R: Valley Center Orchards can be counted on to bring citrus and avocados to a farmers' market. Their display included Valencia oranges, red grapefruit, Hass avocados, and Eureka lemons. It was there we learned the difference between the two most popular lemons. Lisbon lemons are smaller than Eurekas and have thick smooth almost pit less skin. Their unique feature is a nipple on the end opposite to the stem end. The Lisbon tree has more thorns than the Eureka and its lemons are juicy with few or no seeds.
Z: Market shoppers had another choice for citrus, Rancho de Trinidad from Piru. Trinidad, who uses no sprays on any of their crops, sold Valencia oranges, white grapefruit, honey tangerines, and lemons. They also had cluster and heirloom tomatoes.
R: Z Ranch, who sells in many markets in Southern California, had a great selection of melons that included cantaloupes, honeydews, and watermelons. Their table also featured green beans, carrots, white corn, Indian eggplant, okra, cucumbers, and plump zucchinis. Zel so marveled at those cute little plump eggplants that were no bigger than plums that she added them to her selections.
Z: Berry lovers could achieve ultimate satisfaction by making purchases from Berry Best from Oxnard and Cortez from Santa Maria. Both offered Albion strawberries, but Cortez's colorful display also included blueberries, blackberries, and red raspberries.
R: Potatoes are king at Gama Farm from Arvin. Their potatoes make an appearance in many markets in the county. That morning they sold Yukon Gold, Red Rose, and Russet. They also rounded out their display with onions, shallots, garlic, Roma tomatoes, cantaloupes, crimson grapes, Valencia oranges, and Cinderella squash (curcubita maxima).
Z: I had difficulty pronouncing their name but they had a diverse assortment of fresh produce they labeled "no spray." I'm talking about Uriostegui from Redlands that sold everything from seedless watermelons to white corn. That everything included Albion strawberries, bell peppers (red, green, and yellow), asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, carrots, green beans, tomatillos, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, and romaine and iceberg lettuce.
R: Zel did her usually swoon when she looked at the flowers of Aroma Orchards from Rowland Heights and Bender's from Santa Paula. Aroma showed cymbidiums, catalaya, and phalenopsis. I was surprised to see price tags as low as $5.
Z: Bender's had some knockout bouquets that would add joy and color to any household. The giant marigolds looked like they had a dose of vitamins. The unusual De Vita roses, white with pink tips and centers, were stunning.
R: Cesar Torres from Hawaiian Papaya in Compton looked familiar. We met him at the Watts Farmers' Market a few months earlier. He recognized our Vegetarians in Paradise tee shirts and was eager to tell us about his plants, including the Hawaiian papaya. Zel was tempted to say "yes" to his Arabian jasmine. She also focused on the black pepper tree with tiny edible black peppers. According to Torres, half of one of those babies could set anyone aflame as part of a chili sauce.
Z: Before we left the market, we stopped back at the information table where Hillyer introduced us to school principal, Nicole Tempel, who shook our hands and scurried off to perform management duties of the two schools she heads.
R: As we walked back to the car, our bags bulging with produce purchases, I turned to Zel and said, "I think they got it right this time."
Hawthorne Del Aire Certified Farmers' Market
Reviewed September 2009