Saturday’s farmers market here in Athens was a nearly perfect experience of the diversity that is possible in local agriculture and food producers.
The weather, which was a cool seventy-six degrees F. and sunny, the harvest, which was at its peak for early autumn, showing the best of both summer and fall produce, and the people, who came in droves, both to sell and buy, combined to create a scene which is quintessential Athens. Farmers chatted with customers, friends gathered in small clumps to catch up on gossip, musicians gifted the community with their tunes, and kids dodged and played among the crowd.
Diversity came not only in amount and types of foods available, but was also apparent in the faces of the people throughout the market. An older Mennonite woman sold her amazing yeast donuts fried in lard and glazed with honey and sugar, while down the row, a conservative Islamic man from Pakistan and his American-born wife sold potato and pea samosas, baklava and other treats from India and the Middle East. An international award-winning local pizza place sold European hearth breads baked to a chewy crusty finish in a variety of flavors and shapes, while a native Appalachian farmer sold bitter melon gourds he had grown to a variety of students and faculty from China, India and Thailand. I heard at least three different languages besides English being spoken, and saw foodstuffs which had their origins on at least five continents represented among the offerings.
Our Appalachian heritage was well represented by the offerings of Integration Acres, which includes black walnuts and a variety of products made from pawpaws–a native fruit that tastes like a combination of banana, mango and papaya. Chris, the owner of Integration Acres, also sells other products native to the forested hills of Appalachia, such as spicebush berries (I like to think of it as native allspice–that is what the dried, round berries taste like, and it was used to substitute for the expensive spice by settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries), and hen of the woods–a meaty, delicious mushroom which grows on dead or dying oak trees, though it can also be found around maples. Here in Athens County, they can be deep orange in color with a white interior, but I have seen photographs of them ranging in color from cream to deep, chocolate brown.
Chris also produces the first commercially available local cheese in Athens County–he has goats on his farm to help manage undergrowth in this woods. Goats are browsers and help keep his stands of pawpaws from having a lot of competition for water from underbrush. Now he uses their milk to make the most delicious chevre you can imagine–creamy, tangy and tart with a smooth, nutty finish. It was amazingly wonderful–so wonderful that Casa Nueva, our local worker-owned local foods restaurant, has decided to feature a salad made from Chris’s chevre and walnuts scattered over a bed of greens and radish sprouts from Green Edge Gardens on their seasonal autumn menu. Locally grown apples add tart sweetness, and the whole dish is tied together with a dressing that features pawpaw puree. It is amazingly good–so good that I wish all of my readers could come to Athens just to taste it.
The types and amount of food available in Athens is actually quite amazing, and is in fact, getting better all the time. I know that I talk a lot about the bounty of our local food economy here in Athens and the surrounding counties, but in late September, when everywhere you look you see box after box of tomatoes, zucchini, onions, garlic, green beans, apples, pears, grapes, plums, peaches, sweet and hot peppers in a rainbow of colors, winter squashes, carrots, beets, turnips, greens of every type and description, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cucumbers and herbs, it is just hard to fathom how lucky we are here. Once your eyes have taken in the usual vegetables one expects to find in any American farmers market, you begin to notice the more extraordinary offerings. Fenugreek greens in bundles as big as a wedding bouquet. The afformentioned bitter melon. Tomatillos. Chinese long beans. Shiitake, chantarelle and lion’s mane mushrooms. Tatsoi. Bok Choi. Daikon radish. Horticultural beans. Christmas limas. Chestnuts. Hazelnuts. The list goes on and on–if you can grow it in the rich mountain soil of Athens, and if the farmer can get the seeds, someone will grow it.
I haven’t even really expressed the diversity of meat, eggs and processed foods available here.
First of all, about five or six different folks make salsa around here, can it and sell it at the farmers market. You can also find applesauce, apple butter, cider and jams, jellies and preserves to suit any taste. There is local wildflower honey which not only tastes good, but can help you survive local pollen allergies with a less runny nose. There are sauce makers, and juice pressers, bakers, and noodle makers here. Heck, we even have a local winery which makes an elderberry wine to die for–talk about an Appalachian tradition.
And our meat farmers are fantastic. Most of them feed their animals on grass and locally produced hay–all of them pasture their animals and their meat shows the difference such care makes for animals. Not only are the animals healthier and happier in their lives–their flesh is not only tastier but healthier for humans to eat. We have several beef producers, folks who raise heirloom breeds of chicken which give firm, flavorful meat, a hog producer whose pork tastes like the nuts the pigs dig up from the forest floor, a rabbitry and several folks selling lamb and goat meat. Eggs here have rich nearly orange colored yolks from the chickens being raised on grass and a diet of bugs in addition to grain–many farmers here use their chickens for natural pest control and for fertilizing their fields. The eggs are the best you will ever eat–always fresh and always full of omega 3 fatty acids.
Oh, and did I mention that in the fall, you can get live shrimp here? Fresh, live shrimp. Yes, your eyes do not deceive you–those are live shrimp, harvested from the aquaculture program at a local college. More about the shrimp later- let me just say right now that not only were they live, and thus fresh–they were excellent! (I sure hope these folks come back to the market next week, because if they do–I am buying several pounds of the shrimp and making etouffee and Thai chili basil shrimp. Because, dammit–they are just that good. And if these folks don’t come back–I am going to hunt them down at their college and refuse to leave until they sell me some shrimp.)
I am sad to say I didn’t see many folks buying much of the shrimp–but well, I guess that just leaves more to myself, Zak and Dan to eat.
This is what it is like to live in Athens–there is always a food adventure around the corner. Yes, it is a small town, and as such, there are not a lot of places to eat out–not like New York or San Francisco.
But, really, what we lack in opportunities to eat out, is made up for with the raw materials we have to work with, and the lower cost of living.
It is really, truly a beautiful place to live, especially on sunny Saturday mornings in September, when the market is rocking, and the world is alive with laughter, music and fresh food.
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