Z: This year Southern Californians have almost experienced all four seasons during the month of May: spring overcast gloom, pouring rain, and an unusual heat wave. The only thing missing was snow. When we arrived at the Pasadena Victory Park market, the sky was threatening to dump showers on this bustling venue. Fortunately, for the shoppers and farmers the weather turned out to be mostly bluster with an occasional sprinkle.
R: After 25 years of providing fresh produce to the community, farmers' markets are alive and well in Pasadena that sponsors these events two days during the week, Tuesdays and Saturdays. There was no doubt the Saturday market was a raging success as we noticed crowds of shoppers examining the offerings along rows of tables that filled the parking lot of Victory Park.
Z: When we first visited the Saturday market in the summer of 2000, it radiated success. It had about 40 growers and a shopping crowd anxious to help the farmers return home with empty trucks. The community wanted this market and was eager to show its support.
R: Fast forward five years to find a market that is even more successful. Added to the mix is a new non-certified section that offers everything from soaps to sauerkraut.
Z: Shepherding this lavish production is Gretchen Sterling, the doyenne of Southern California market managers.
Z: Check that one out in your Webster's. It's from the French and means senior member of a group. Gretchen has the distinction of being the longest-tenured market manager in Los Angeles County. She opened the Tuesday market in 1980, and this one followed in 1984.
R: And she hasn't slowed down. Dressed in blue jeans and sneakers and her wide brim straw hat that was enhanced with a hatband of macadamia nuts wrapped in netting, Gretchen only managed to stay in one place for a few minutes to answer our questions. As we explored the market, we could see her moving about performing the many detailed tasks that go with the market manager's job.
Z: Gretchen describes the market as a "weekly habit" for people in the community. "They come to shop and see their friends and neighbor," she says. The only time the market is closed is Christmas and New Year's Day and when the Rose Parade floats are on display at this park.
R: Gretchen is especially proud of the Arthur Noble Award presented to the market in 1997 for enhancing life in Pasadena. She and her able assistant Celena Harrington are responsible for the smooth operation of both markets. The Pasadena market was initially launched by the Interfaith Hunger Coalition and the Neighborhood Improvement Association. In 1995 it was turned over to the City of Pasadena and is now under the auspices of the city's Parks and Recreation Department.
Z: Cruising the aisles, we soon discovered that cherry season was just beginning. Walker Farms from Exeter offered cups of cherries along with some unique citrus items. Their tangerine assortment included Mercot, Pixie, and Paige varieties. Our taste test confirmed that the Paige tangerines were sugary sweet. They also sold Mellow Gold and pink pomelos, and Meyer lemons as well as those plump and deliciously sweet Cara Cara oranges.
R: Don't forget the kumquats that one book describes as miniature oval oranges that are the "pygmies of the citrus family." Zel likes to slice slightly tart kumquats into a salad, skin and all. Many people cook them into marmalades or preserves, or they candy or pickle them. Walker also had a selection of nuts including walnuts, pecans, almonds, and pistachios.
Z: I was surprised to find an avocado variety we don't encounter very often--the Gwen. Holy Guacamole from Fallbrook and Sunny Heights Ranch in Redlands sold the Gwen that looks something like a Hass but the skin remains green instead of turning black. It has a smaller seed than the Hass and does not turn black when it is cut and exposed to the air. Bob Knight of Sunny Heights grows avocados, navel oranges, and kiwis on his 13-acre ranch that he has farmed since he left the navy in 1946. Bob claims the Gwen avocado was named for his late wife Gwendolyn.
R: Strawberries were in abundance that day with Camarosa and Gaviota types the most common. Jaime Farms of Ontario had the only Chandler strawberries. Leoncio Jaime exclaimed, "Chandler's are 100 % sweeter than Camarosas." He did not need any persuasion to show us the great veggie assortment on his tables that were loaded with cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, lettuce varieties, green and yellow squashes, carrots, onions, leeks, and even daikon radish.
Z: Underwood Farms from Moorpark had their usual huge display of produce. We enjoy their bunches of multicolor radishes and their orange beets, the sugar snap peas, kohlrabi, Texas sweet onions, and blueberries loaded with antioxidants.
R: When we last encountered ABC Rhubarb, their principal crop was not ready for market. This time they had bunches of rhubarb, but by the time we came back to make our purchases at the end of the morning, the rhubarb was sold out. They did have their usual great assortment of herbs, leeks, watercress, arugula, and chard.
Z: For me, one of the highlights of farmers' markets is finding and talking to what I call "backyard growers." These entrepreneurial people plant crops on the lots surrounding their homes. At this market we met Mike Taylor of West Covina. Mike has a total of 2000 square feet of edible plants and flowers. He grows lemons, oranges, grapefruit, tomatoes, and, of course, edible flowers. He generously handed me a bouquet of nasturtiums to grace my dinner table that evening.
R: Speaking of flowers, there were many beautiful choices of bouquets and potted plants to purchase. Pansy of Pansy Corporation in Arcadia was eager to show us her orchid selection that featured spider orchids, oncidiums, and phalaenopsis in various colors.
Z: We were a bit confused about the separation between Calscape Growers and M & G Gallo Nursery in Pasadena. They were once the same company, but now they are two separate organizations. At the market it was difficult to tell where one ended and the other began. Displayed were some striking potted plants like double-flowering calla lilies, giant red and white amaryllis, salmon-colored alstroemeria, as well as guava. I was really surprised to see blueberry plants. I didn't think they could grow in Southern California.
R: I'm surprised you haven't mentioned the grower who displayed your favorite cactus and succulents. Liz's Succulent Plants from Montclair had a wide selection of cacti and succulents, but the most striking was the plectanthrus from East Africa. It's a purple-blossomed, low-growing plant that creates an attractive ground cover.
Z: Anyone interested in purchasing dates had numerous choices from Dates by Da Vall from Indio. This family has quite a history that goes back to 1913 when their uncle started planting trees. In fact, Da Vall Street in Rancho Mirage is named for him. That morning the family was offering Medjools, Barhis, Empress, and Honey Dates.
R: As we strolled around the market listening to the chatter of the farmers and patrons, we noticed unique musical sounds in the background. Prince Bernard was coaxing Caribbean rhythms from his steel drums. Farther down the line Aric Leavitt was strumming on his octagonal wooden banjo and singing bluegrass melodies. And I mustn't forget to mention Pepe, a blind musician, singing Spanish melodies and accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar.
Pasadena Victory Park Certified Farmers' Market
Pasadena Villa Park Certified Farmers' Market
Reviewed June 2005