By Tim Fetter, CEC, Executive Chef at Highmark Pittsburgh
Here in the Pittsburgh region, chefs, farmers, and the general public can rejoice that our growing season has finally arrived. After what always seems like a long winter and now what as been a very wet spring, we are seeing some nicer weather that should produce some great crops for all of us to enjoy.
Although we don’t have the greatest climate for year round growing, when our season is here, we are very lucky. Pittsburgh has been ranked as the number one city in farmers markets and community gardens per capita. They may range from Sarver’s Hill Farm in Greensburg, a small family farm that offers all certified organic produce and a few meats from neighboring farms to Farmers at Firehouse, in the Strip District, a mostly organic farmers market offering items such as produce, cheeses, meats, fish, breads, jellies and anything else in between.
Another great option to find high quality, local food is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Many farmers offer CSA’s where you pay up front for a share in the harvest throughout the season, the cost is anywhere from $20-$28 a week. You can find one near you at www.localharvest.org. At Highmark, I’m the site host for the CSA through Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance, which is a farmer-owned group of around 30 farmers and producers, most of which offer organic or certified naturally grown items. Each week they drop off the boxes and the shareholders take there bounty with them, without ever having to go out of their way to get it. In the early stages of the season they enjoy a variety of items such as eggs, apple cider, apples, potatoes, greens, and one of the true signs that spring is upon us – wild foraged ramps!
In other parts of the country, they are even luckier as the climate allows them to grow for a larger portion of the year, if not year round. Last year I had a chance to take a continuing education class at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Campus in St. Helena, California, in the heart of the Napa valley. I had an amazing time and I think I learned an equal amount both in and out of the classroom. On the last day of class we took a trip to the local farmers market which was a site to behold. All in all, it was probably at least 100 yards long on both sides and started with a very interesting cheesemonger, who was happy to give a group of chefs a taste of his cheese. Next up was a food truck serving pupusas, thick corn tortilla filled with chicken and cheese, and served with cortido, a lightly fermented cabbage slaw. The market continued on through a fishmonger, a producer of smoked olive oils, hand-crafted items and just about any type of produce you could think of. Just to see the freshness and quality of these items was unbelievable. You can see from some of the photos below what a sight this truly was. We were also told about what some call the “greatest farmers market in the world” at the Ferry Plaza in San Francisco, but unfortunately we did not have time for a visit.
If nothing else, I hope that from this you can take the inspiration to find a great farmers market or CSA program near you. Not only are you supporting your local economy, but you can find out about your food, how it is grown and how much work and love goes into it. On top of that, you’re probably supporting your health by getting high-quality foods that actually taste like food!