Z: Shaded by large trees, the Civic Center Plaza corridor nestled between a number of civic buildings, provides an ideal location for a farmers' market. Surrounding buildings include the city hall, the courthouse, the regional library, and a senior center. Adjacent to the corridor is a band shell and stage facing an area of picnic tables and benches.
R: According to Danny Meyer, market co-manager, the outdoor stage and surrounding area were dilapidated until two years ago. "The stage was here, but it was in total disarray," he says. The West Los Angeles Cultural Association worked with Chris Alexander of the Plaza Revitalization Alliance to improve the outdoor area. Chris, who had received his Master's Degree in Architecture from UCLA, renovated the 1956 bandshell with a $10,000 matching grant for neighborhood development. Concerts were held to raise funds to refurbish the stage and help renew this downtown area.
Z: At the same time, the association was anxious to develop a farmers' market for the neighborhood. Last December Nathalie Deschartres joined with Danny to co-manage the project. Nathalie lived within walking distance of the plaza and had long recognized the need for a farmers' market in the community.
R: Danny and Nathalie are a perfect co-manager combination. She coordinates with the the produce and food vendors and arranges cooking demonstrations while he functions as arts and community manager organizing the entertainment program and recruiting the crafters. It's a non-profit experience for both of them because they are volunteering their services to make this enterprise a success.
Z: And in just two months of operation the market shows all the signs of success, judging by the bustling crowd of people milling around the tables and making purchases from the vendors. We've visited markets that have been in operation longer and have nowhere near the number of patrons and the amount of participation and activities as this one.
R: Part of the success could be attributed to Danny's lively program schedule. On that day he featured a martial arts demonstration, a mariachi band, and a bagpiper. Danny, who is involved in the music field, has assembled a number of performers who have agreed to go on stage in the coming weeks. A schedule of performers is posted on the market's website at http://www.westlafarmersmarket.com
Z: Nathalie has done her homework by consulting with a number of successful farmers' market managers and developing a good mix of farmers, food vendors, and crafters. Crafters must live in the area and produce handmade items. The one criticism she has faced is that there is no organic produce at the market.
R: She was quick to explain that many farmers find the organic certification process too costly. Small farms are placed at a disadvantage, even if they avoid spraying with pesticides and do follow organic standards. Some of her farmers follow organic standards but don't have the funds to go through the certification process.
Z: Nathalie's personal story is set in two continents, Europe and North America. She was born in Brittany, France, and lived there until 11 years ago. Her parents were involved in agriculture, and she says, " I grew up with healthy food. We even ate dandelion salads."
R: For this market the co-managers assembled 15 agricultural vendors, 10 food purveyors, and a half-dozen crafters. They also provide space for local groups like the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council and the Westside Residents Association to set up tables and distribute literature.
Z: But the main event for us was the fresh produce. And there were many interesting choices. Pachoua Vang of Vang Farms near Fresno helped us through the confusing maze of Asian greens. Her parents, who come from Thailand, gave her the name Pachoua that means "flower in the wind" in their language.
R: Pachoua not only told us about water spinach, sometimes called on choy, but also handed us a bunch to take home and stir fry. In our later investigation we learned that water spinach (Ipomoea aquatica) can be eaten raw or cooked. It is a semi-aquatic perennial that roots very easily at stem nodes and has a milky white sap on the cut part of the stem.
Z: Her table included items like Chinese broccoli, Shanghai and baby bok choy, snow pea leaves, dandelion greens, Asian long beans, bittermelon, mustard greens, and sin qua, all a puzzle to many Americans.
R: Sin qua is a squash in the cucurbit family along with bittermelon, wintermelon, moqua, opo, kabocha, and snake melon, all commonly grown in Asia and now gracing many American dinner tables. The two we brought home are sometimes called angled luffa (Luffa actuangula) and smooth luffa. Sin qua is supposed to be sweeter and more flavorful than zucchini. Pachoua forgot to tell us that the angled one should be peeled because of the longitudinal ridges that make for rather tough chewing. The smooth luffa is also edible, but when left to mature on the plant, it becomes hard and dry and turns into the loofah sponge or back scrubber.
Z: Castellanos Farm in Riverside offered chili peppers for every taste. Patrons could choose from jalapenos, serrano, pasilla, Fresno, habaneros, or just plain yellows to spice up their lives. Their table had gorgeous large heads of red leaf lettuce and a surprising orange- flesh watermelon.
R: Although we're at the end of September, stone fruits were still prevalent. Tenerelli Orchards and Scattaglia Farms, both from Littlerock, were offering peaches, plums, pluots, and nectarines. They assured us that they would have stone fruits until November. Scattaglia's white peaches and pluots were in their last run, but the Last Chance peaches and their Howard Sun black plums will be around through Halloween. Tenerelli will have Fair Time and September Sun peaches the rest of this month. Their pear season is just beginning with Yali and Asian varieties. OK Farms from Lucerne Valley was also marketing white and yellow peaches and white and yellow nectarines along with Asian pears and red and green grapes.
Z: Ha's Apple Farm in Tehachapi, present at so many markets, was in their glory with some new apple varieties. I had to taste and buy one of my favorites, Winesap, with that special tartness I love. One that we had never seen before was the Mutsu apple that looked like a Granny Smith, but tasted much sweeter. Rounding out their apple selection were Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and Gala.
R: They also offered two varieties of sweet, juicy Asian pears labeled Sinsakey and Singo, but their standout item was French prunes. The fresh prune plums were slightly larger than black grapes, but their flavor was unbelievably sweet. We've been snacking on our bag full all week long. You'll never find them in stores because the season is so short, only one month, and they don't hold up very long.
Z: Gloria's Fruits and Vegetables from Oxnard provided the special tomato stop for the market that day. Their heirlooms included the delicious pineapple tomatoes and the tasty Cherokees. They also sold Japanese, beefsteak, and cherry tomatoes. Because I love trying new vegetables, I filled a bag with their Italian Romano broad beans.
R: Flower fanciers could take home bouquets presented by three growers: Cho's Flowers from Somis, Seaside Farms from Cardiff, and Bender Farms from Santa Paula. The big line was in front of Seaside offering bunches of sunflowers, gerbera daisies, alstroemeria, tuberoses, and Asiatic lilies for only $3.
Z: Their flowers were attractive, but the other two growers displayed some exceptional bouquets. Bender Farms blew me away with their dahlias, especially the fiery red ones with the yellow centers. But I was taken by the striking, long cylindrical spikes of brilliant lavender liatres. One of the most striking bouquets they displayed combined them with giant yellow sunflowers. Highlights at Cho's included giant gerbera daisies in a myriad of colors, and gorgeous white-tipped red mums.
R: One of the pleasures of visiting farmers' markets is finding the opportunity to learn the stories of individual growers. Speaking to Matthew Moessner of Moessner Orchards in Tehachapi was one of those special moments. He told us about his grandfather who came to this country from Germany and worked in many restaurants, saved his earnings, and eventually opened several of his own restaurants. He eventually bought 70 acres of land in Tehachapi, started farming, and also opened a restaurant in the area.
Z: Now the family grows and cans about 60 different items like jams, jellies, marmalades and chutneys. Some of the jams and jellies are sugarless. Looking at the bottles on the table, we found such unique items as tomato jalapeno marmalade, garlic salsa, spiced pickled peaches, pear butter, sauerkraut, and many more.
R: We paused in our produce investigation to watch Anna Maria Volpi and her husband Pietro demonstrate three easy recipes: orange salad, basil pesto, caprese (tomato and mozarella salad). Anna Maria, the author of the Timeless Art of Italian Cuisine, demonstrates and offers cooking classes for Williams Sonoma.
Z: As we looked at our watches and realized that we had spent almost three hours at the market, our stomachs reminded us it was time to eat. We approached Me Gusta to see if they had any vegan tamales. They had almost sold out but as could be expected Juan Guzman found they had two vegetarian ones left. We sat at a picnic table and devoured those delicious carrot, zucchini, and pea tamales as we were serenaded by the mariachi band.
R: Carrying our purchases back to the car, we paused to compliment the lone bagpiper George Graham Allan who assured us that playing the bagpipes was "child's play. It's an incredibly easy instrument." We weren't convinced.
Z: We have nothing but praise for Danny and Nathalie and all of the participants in putting this market together. They should be commended for creating a positive weekly experience and a definite asset for the neighborhood and the community.
West Los Angeles Certified Farmers' Market and Community Fair
Reviewed October 2004