R: Busted! In the four years we have been visiting and reporting on farmers' markets, we had never witnessed a farmer caught selling vegetables that he had not grown. There we were listening to market manager Cynthia Ojeda telling a county inspector she had seen the vendor removing carrots from a plastic bag that bore the name of a commercial grower.
Z: The inspector was taking pictures for evidence to be used to cite the farmer who, to make matters worse, did not display his certificate listing the crops he grows and is permitted to sell at the market. The carrots taken in evidence had the chopped off bottoms you sometimes see in the supermarkets.
R: We were both impressed when Cynthia told us, " I'm enforcing the integrity of this market." We know that there are managers who either don't know or care if a farmer violates the rules. In this case the farmer will be booted from the market.
Z: As we were witnessing the veggie bust, we couldn't help noticing how busy the market was. We arrived at the 3:00 p.m. opening time to find a bustling scene. We learned later that buyers show up as early as 2:00 p.m. to survey the offerings.
R: The L-shaped market is on the northeast edge of the La Cienega Plaza Shopping Center, with one row of vendors along La Cienega Boulevard and the other along 18th Street. At the apex of the L you could hear the sounds of Billy Harris and Teddy Taylor with sax and keyboard grooving on jazz standards. We were fortunate. Their gig is every other week.
Z: The public is not always aware of some of the events occurring behind the scenes like inspectors or farmer's vehicle breakdowns. At this market we noticed one empty spot in the middle of the many vendors tables. After being at the market for awhile, just as we were about to ask, the farmer's truck arrived. Because of a flat tire, they had to be towed to a repair shop. In spite of the flat, Atkins' Farm from Fallbrook arrived with their citrus and a few bonus items.
R: By citrus you mean their Valencia oranges, Ruby Red grapefruit, Eureka lemons, sweet limes, and Bearss Limes (seedless with thin skins). Yes, that's not an error. There are two s's in Bearss. They had Reed and Hass avocados as well as the first persimmons we've seen this season. Their wares also included mangos, passion fruit, and Suebell sapotes. There's a bit of confusion about sapotes. What they were selling was zapota blanco or white sapota sometimes called Mexican apple. This small, pale yellow fruit has the flavor of a ripe pear. It is not a member of the sapotaceae family but is distantly related to citrus fruits.
Z: It's very confusing because so many fruits seem to carry the name sapote or sapota. When we were in Hawaii we did taste the sapodilla, also called sapote. It has brown skin with a pinkish-brown flesh that's to die for. It was like eating butterscotch custard. Yum! Passion fruit, a native plant of Brazil also known as granadilla (which means passion fruit in Spanish), has its own unique story. It received its name fruit from Spanish missionaries who discovered it growing in South America. To them parts of the plant's flowers represented instruments of the Passion and crucifixion of Christ, such as the crown of thorns, hammers, and nails. The inside of the fruit has a gelatinous texture with colors ranging from pinkish green to shades of orange and yellow. It may also be white or colorless. The small black seeds are crisp and edible.
R: We should also mention the Atkins people were selling a variety of herbs in small containers that included chives, oregano, thyme, rue, and epazote. Epazote is supposed to be one of the three secrets of Latin American cooking. The other two are cumin and cilantro. Even though epazote has that reputation, American and European cooks are reluctant to use it because of its smell.
Z: I understand that epazote has some interesting medicinal uses. It's sometimes referred to as worm weed because it's supposed to be used to treat people for hookworm. It's also known as bean herb and is used for anti-flatulence.
R: Atkins Farm was not the only vendor with citrus. The Polito Family Farms from Valley Center also had red grapefruit, Valencia oranges, and Bearss limes. They also displayed bottles of fresh-squeezed orange juice in sizes from pints to gallons.
Z: Even though it was well into September, there were many stone fruits in evidence. The Garcia Family Farms from Kingsburg had both white and yellow peaches and white and yellow nectarines. They rounded out their display with purple pluots, black figs and red and green grapes.
R: Jess Swope from Selma also featured stone fruits with yellow peaches and yellow nectarines and La Dora plums. The farmer also offered cantaloupes, Asian pears, Gala apples, walnuts, almonds, and a delicious raisin mix. On the tables were red and green grapes, both seedless and with seeds.
Z: Kosmo Ranch from Cuyama Valley seemed to be completing one season and starting another. Their stone fruit production was concluding with white peaches and nectarines and yellow peaches while their new apple crop featured Royal Galas, Braeburns, Granny Smiths, and Golden Delicious.
R: Apple lovers did not have a problem at this market. The ubiquitous Sherrill Farms of Acton marketed its apple and pomegranate juice blends along with pomegranates and Granny Smith apples.
Z: Before Reuben gets carried away with all those fruits, I want to mention the great variety of vegetables from Tomai Farms in Oxnard, Gama Farms in Arvin, and McKay Smith of Trabuco Canyon. McKay Smith seems to be a cooperative of four farmers: two from Fountain Valley, one from Irvine, and one from Huntington Beach. One whole section of their display was devoted to organic produce that included green and red leaf lettuce, three kinds of eggplant, cucumbers, white corn, and watermelon.
R: The non-organic section featured giant red, green, and yellow bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, tomatillos, zucchini, string beans, onions, pickling cucumbers, white corn, okra, and cantaloupes. Gama Farms had a great selection of potatoes, both baby Yukons, reds, and Peruvian purple and regular sized Russets, White Rose, and reds. They had both cantaloupes and watermelons and nopales cactus pads and prickly pears for their Latino customers.
Z: Tomai displayed their great selection of onions (Maui, Mexican, and red), tomatoes, and cabbages. In addition to the large beefsteak tomatoes, they sold vine-ripened Japanese tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, and two kinds of heirlooms, a yellow and a Brandywine. They had what Reuben calls bisexual corn, with both yellow and white kernels, and sweet white corn
R: Tomai's table also had all of Zel's favorite salad fixings: romaine, spinach, radishes, scallions, and Savoy and green cabbage. For that fruit dessert they offered strawberries and Honey Loaf melons. But no market report would be complete without Zel extolling the beauty of the flowers being sold.
Z: Casitas Floral Farm from Carpinteria always manages to bring gorgeous cut flower bouquets to the markets they attend. That afternoon I couldn't stop looking at the purple dahlias, but one bouquet was especially appealing. These dahlias were bright yellow with coral tips. In close competition were the intensely colored gladiolas, the deep magenta cosmos, and the scabiosa, red with white flecks. The alstroemeria were artistic creations. Some were variegated red and white; others were a mix of coral and yellow.
R: Ramos Nursery from Whittier had a hydrangea plant that reminded us of the one in our front yard and society garlic plants like the ones in our backyard. They had numerous vegetable and herb plants in containers and a plumeria tree with a sweet aroma that reminded us of one we saw on our last visit to Hawaii.
Z: Because market managers are busy doing the many tasks that need to be done and often don't have much help, we found ourselves interviewing Cynthia in segments as we surveyed the market. After a crash course given to her by the Southland Farmers' Market Association, she has enthusiastically worked to make the market a success.
R: The La Cienega market was one of three markets created through the efforts of former mayor Richard Riordan's Model Neighborhood Program. The other two were Chinatown and Silverlake. The purpose of the program was to mobilize and educate the targeted geographic community to counter-act crime and revitalize the neighborhood through self-help activities supported by city agencies and community based organizations.
Z: The Model Neighborhood Program in this area began in 1989 under the financial sponsorship of Kaiser Hospital, West Los Angeles. The farmers' market received initial seed money from the mayor's Fresh Food Access Progam and was able to open in May 2000. It is now completely self-sustaining.
R: The market has a few food vendors that include a peanut roaster, Ma and Pa Kettlekorn, a dried fruit packager, a bakery, and a handcrafted soap and cosmetic vendor. There are no crafters at this market. The emphasis is on the farmers.
Z: As Cynthia Ojeda says, " Our motivation is to provide a service to the community. It's not about making money. We put money back into the community."
La Cienega Certified Farmers' Market
Reviewed October 2002