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San Francisco’s Culinary Scene Begins at City-Wide Farmers Markets

San Francisco’s farmers markets offer the fresh ingredients that are the foundation of the city’s exciting dining scene.

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A typical farmers market begins hours before the yoke of the sun rises beyond the eastern horizon. At a nearby Bay Area farm, hands are pulling silky ears of corn by headlights so that the produce will arrive in San Francisco early enough for the many farmers markets that take place each week throughout the city.

According to Gayle Hayden, director of the California Farmers Market Association, corn tastes best when it’s 12 hours off the stalk, before the starch has affected the flavor. It’s that fresh flavor that makes corn, tomatoes, strawberries and melons from farmers markets so addictive.

Throughout San Francisco, culinary enthusiasts will forgo big chain supermarkets in search of a farmers market to find local seasonal produce, eggs, chicken, fruits and nuts.

"At the farmers market - they’re growing for the consumer, not the grocery store," says food concierge Lisa Rogovin, who owns "In the Kitchen With Lisa.” "You’ll find six to seven kinds of plums versus two to three types of stone fruit offered in the grocery store. I support farmers markets because I know the food is fresh and I enjoy supporting local farmers. I still learn something new every time I visit the farmers market and am introduced to a new fruit or vegetable - like amber apricots!"

Hayden adds, "Grocery stores use preservatives on produce so they will survive the shipping and storing time. It’s rubbery and tasteless, but it looks great. Once you’ve had a real sugar-ripened strawberry, you’re hooked." Hayden claims that it can take two weeks for supermarket produce to arrive at a family’s table from the time it leaves the farm. Farmers pick these fruits and vegetables when they’re green, so they ripen on trucks and change "title" six times before they become part of a meal.

Dave Stockdale, executive director of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), concurs. "The peeled uniform carrots you buy at a major grocery chain are crunchy, pretty and void of taste - they’re groomed for their beauty, but not sold for its taste or nutritional value."

Farmers markets became popular in the 1980s, after California legislation deregulated the "uniform" size law so farmers could sell crops that fell outside of the bell curve of shipping standards.

Although American farmers markets have grown by more than 50 percent over the past decade, San Francisco’s proximity to the bounty of fresh varieties of California farms has made its markets some of the best in the nation. More than one million people shop at more than 450 farmers markets in California according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It’s a popular misconception that all farmers markets are organic. While many of the farms represented at the markets use organic practices, they may not be certified as organic. "Some farmers feel the organic standards for certification have become diluted, and certification costs extra money and a lot of paperwork, so they have let their certificates lapse because of time or money," says Stockdale. According to Hayden, only 18 to 25 percent of farms are certified organic because it’s difficult to receive certification, and it can deplete the farmer’s profit margin.

Stockdale continues that while the Ferry Building Farmers Market may not have all certified organic farms represented, CUESA is strict when it comes to making sure that the farms are sustainable. "Nobody sells here without receiving regular visits to their farms," he confirms. Sustainability is measured on how the farm manages pests, the source of irrigation, the technology used for irrigation, and the benefits the farms provide their employees.

The San Francisco Ferry Building hosts up to 80 farmers who are certified producers, who grow the products they sell at the markets. For the consumer, this means the produce they buy is fresh.

The Saturday and Tuesday farmers market at the San Francisco Ferry Building also supports non-certified market sellers - vendors who have prepared jams and jellies, baked goods and coffee with ingredients from local farms. CUESA makes sure that these vendors adhere to sustainable practices as well.

"It makes for a fuller market experience," says Stockdale. "We want consumers to come here and buy everything they need for the week - including jams, nuts and cheeses."

Different from many farmers markets, the Ferry Building also focuses on education. The Saturday market has programs where a local farmer is interviewed, and a local chef conducts a cooking demonstration using in-season ingredients found at the market. Sometimes CUESA features a visiting food writer or chef.

There are evening programs as well, and all on-site programs are free to the public and available on Saturdays and Tuesdays during the summer. For schedules and topics, visit www.cuesa.org.

In addition to the farmers market educational programs, CUESA hosts out-of-market educational forays (the only fee-based program). For $25 participants may tour a local farm for a day and have a meal with the farm family. Sometimes participants may help with the harvest. "It helps connect urban dwellers with the people who grow their food," says Stockdale.

By enrolling in a specialized tour, farmers market enthusiasts may also learn about what restaurants do with the farm-fresh produce found at the markets. Rogovin organizes "Parties That Cook" market-to-table tours so that visitors can make the connection from the market to the restaurant and see it in action.

"They are able to learn how local chefs use the ingredients in recipes," Rogovin says. Her shop, cook, eat and dine program gives visitors an inside look into a restaurant’s kitchen. Participants shop for ingredients at the farmers market, return to the restaurant, prep the food, cook with the ingredients and then enjoy their creation.

"Farmers markets also instill a sense of community - a connection with people," Rogovin adds. "You get to meet other foodies. You can ask questions and get answers. It’s very rare when you’re at a super market where they will slice open an orange or apple and let you taste it."

To experience the fresh bounty from local farmers, food enthusiasts may visit any number of markets in San Francisco:

Alemany Farmers Market (Mission/Bernal Heights) Saturdays: 6 a.m –3 p.m. 100 Alemany Blvd. 415-647-2043

Bayview Hunters Point Farmers Market (SOMA/Potrero Hill) Wednesdays, May through October, 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Bayview Third St. and Oakdale Ave. 415-355-3723

Crocker Galleria Farmers Market (Union Square/Financial District) Thursdays: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Crocker Galleria, 50 Post St. 925-465-4690

Divisadero Farmers Market (Alamo Square) Sundays: 10 am. to 2 p.m. Grove St., at Divisadero

Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (Embarcadero) Tuesdays and Thursdays: 10 a.m-2 p.m. Saturdays: 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Ferry Building 1, Ferry Plaza, 415-291-3276

Fillmore Farmers Market (Fillmore District) Saturdays: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. O’Farrell at Fillmore, and Fillmore Center Plaza

Fort Mason Center Farmers' Market (Marina) Sundays: 9:30 a.m. - 1:30 p.m. through October Fort Mason Center 415-345-7500

Heart of the City Farmers Market (Civic Center) Wednesdays: 7:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sundays: 7:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. Market St. (between Seventh and Eighth streets) 415-558-9455

Kaiser Permanente Farmers Market (Richmond District) Wednesdays: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Geary at St. Joseph’s Street. Parking is available at the Kaiser Hospital Garage at 2190 O’Farrell St. 800-949-3276

Mission Community Market Thursdays: 4-8 p.m. Bartlett St. 21st and 22nd streets

Noe Valley Farmers Market (Noe Valley) Saturdays: 8 a.m -1 p.m. 3861 24th St. between Vicksburg and Sanchez Streets. Live music at 10 a.m. 415-248-1332

Stonestown Farmers Market (Outer Sunset District) Sundays: 9 a.m.-1 p.m. West Side parking lot near Macy’s off Buckingham Way at Stonestown Galleria. 3251 20th Ave. 415-564-8848.

Mission Bay Farmers Market (UCSF Farmers Market) (Sunset District) Wednesdays, 10 a.m-2 p.m. Gene Friend Way between 3rd and 4th.

Contacts: Gail A.L. Hayden, MBA Director California Farmers’ Markets Association 925-465-4690 www.cafarmersmkts.com

Lisa Rogovin Epicurean Concierge In the Kitchen With Lisa 415-806-5970 www.inthekitchenwithlisa.com

Dave Stockdale Executive Director The Center for Urban Education (CUESA) 415-291-3276, ext. 107 www.cuesa.org

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