Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Falling in love at the farmers market

Four years ago, Jake and I drove up to Brattleboro VT for a long weekend. We poked around Brattleboro's independent bookstores, drank lots of coffee and stumbled upon a farmers market.
The farmers market changed my life.

The market was just off the main road out of town, past strip malls and chain drug stores.
The location was anything but charming. But once we pulled off the main drag into the market's gravel parking lot, everything was shady and green, tie-dyed and festive. Elderly musicians played fiddle and banjo; children filled buckets with sand in a sandbox; and everywhere, everywhere stood white EZ-up tents filled with flowers, raspberries, pottery, basil, maple syrup, bok choi, homemade soda, foccaccia...

And soap. The soapmaker was a dark-haired woman in her mid or late twenties who, like me, came from an art school background. She had fifteen, maybe eighteen varieties of soap, big slabs displayed in wooden crates, unwrapped, so you could see their colors. Handwritten signs said: Japanese Yuzu, Mocha Truffle, Lemon Poppy.

The soaps were the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I'm talking heart-stopping, stomach- crashing-through-floorboards beauty. I'd leave the soap booth for a few minutes to buy ginger beer or watch the musicians, but I kept coming back. And I knew, by the end of the day, that I would be a soapmaker, too, and that I would sell my soaps at farmers markets like this one.

I began making soap that next winter,and I've never looked back. But sometimes I wonder if it was the soap I fell in love with--or the soap display in the context of a great market. Maybe the same soaps would have left me cold if I'd seen them on a supermarket shelf.

This year I'm vending at three different farmers markets: Lyme Market at Ashlawn Farm, the Chester Sunday Market, and the New London Farmers Market in the parking lot of Fiddleheads Natural Foods Co-op.

I'm crazy about all of them--I'm crazy about farmers markets in general, the way I'm crazy about small town parades, giant puppets and the Blue Collar Happy Hour at the Bank Street Cafe. But lately I've been thinking about how different these markets are from each other, and how different they all are from the market in Brattleboro.

So in my coming posts over the next few weeks I'll be writing about my markets--what are the ingredients for a great market, and how do you achieve it in a rural, village or urban setting? And what's so special about farmers markets anyway?

And finally, no gratuitous bunny photos this post. How about a gratuitous music video instead?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Urban Foraging--or Why Are My Fingers Purple?

I've been living in New London, CT for nearly a decade now. But I grew up in the country, in upstate New York, in a town with more cows than people. It was a good place to forage. I picked a lot of wild blueberries and raspberries and blackcaps, and I chewed the sweet stems of timothy grass.

But it wasn't until a few years ago that I began scouring the roadsides and empty lots of New London, wondering what wild plants I could harvest. I learned the names of some common weeds when we began keeping house rabbits, because I wanted to know what they could eat that wouldn't cost me anything. Dock, red clover, chickweed, purslane...these common weeds are rabbit favorites and edible for people, too.

Besides the rabbits, an earlier experience prompted me to learn more about urban weeds. On vacation in Floyd, Virginia--where you can hear the best bluegrass jam every Friday night--a bee got stuck in my sandal and stung me. Ow. We went to Floyd's health food store to look for a salve. The woman working there said, "Why don't you just chew on some plantain?" Say what? "Plantain," she repeated. "There's some by the parking lot." She showed me what plantain was, then told me to chew it then use it as a poultice. I had never noticed plantain before. But when I got home, I saw that it was everywhere, maybe in every yard in New London. If you are stung or bit by a mosquito, there is almost certainly some plantain within sight to help.

So back to those purple fingers. Nope, it's not from raspberries. Or blueberries. Need a hint? See that yellow flower in the background? That's Saint John's wort, the same herb used to treat mild depression. It's also used topically in salves for skin irritations, nerve pain, mild burns and cuts.

Look familiar? This time of year, it's everywhere. I saw it on Bank Street near the Waterford line, along Howard Street in the lots made empty through eminent domain, in Bates Woods and all along I-95 as I drove to the farmers market in Lyme this morning. In fact it got its name because it blooms on June 24th, the birthday of John the Baptist.

But if you are harvesting Saint John's wort for medicinal purposes, you don't want the blossoms. The medicinal compounds are concentrated in the buds just before they open. These are what turned my fingers purple.

Here is a bud perfectly ready for harvesting.

I won't lie--it took me quite a while to pick enough buds to make a usable amount of infused oil. But it wasn't laborious, unless you consider standing in the June sun, closely examining flowers, to be labor.

Tonight I'm letting my buds wilt a little, because I don't want moisture to spoil my oil. But tomorrow I'll place them loosely in a glass container, fill the container with organic olive oil, cover my container with layers of cheesecloth held in place with a rubber band, then set it in the sun. In a few weeks time--ideally six weeks, if I can wait that long--I'll have a deep red Saint John's wort-infused oil, ready to use in an herbal salve.

And because this is my first blog post, and what is a blog without gratuitous pictures of pets?--here are some photos of our rabbits, Cleo and Yogi. They like it when I go on foraging walks. I always bring them clover.