Monday, August 30, 2010

RTM Acquiring Farmers' Markets Operator

Farm to City, which operates more than a dozen farmers’ markets in Philadelphia and its suburbs, plans a return to its roots at the Reading Terminal Market.

Farm to City's history with the RTM goes back to 1992 after Bob Pierson and a couple of friends started one of the city’s first contemporary farmers’ markets at South and Passyunk, a market which still flourishes under the auspices of Farm to City. That same year Duane Perry, then executive director of the Reading Terminal Market Merchants’ Association, hired Pierson to develop neighborhood markets for its newly-formed Reading Terminal Market Farmers’ Market Trust, which later evolved into today’s The Food Trust. Pierson left The Food Trust in 2002 to begin Farm to City.

If the negotiations are concluded successfully Pierson and the rest of his small staff will become employees of the Reading Terminal Market. The planned reconfiguration of vendor and office space at the RTM includes accommodations for Farm to City staff.

Both Pierson and Paul Steinke, general manager of the RTM, see two primary benefits to the merger: co-branding and funding. It would also provide a stable base under the wings of a larger organization for the farmers' markets.

“It's a co-branding that's attractive to Farm to City, aligning us with a well-known Philadelphia icon, a landmark known for its food. And the Reading Terminal Market is a non-profit corporation which would allow us to extend some of our programming by seeking and receiving grants,” said Pierson. Because Farm To City is structured as a for-profit limited liability company it does not benefit from foundation largesse.

“The acquisition of Farm to City by RTM is good match,” said Mike Holahan, president of the Reading Terminal Market Association. “We share similar values as to the importance of nurturing the local food system. But as in all mergers the devil is in the details.”

Those details include making sure the farmers’ markets continue to limit their vendor list to farmers and food producers, not middlemen. That’s the main concern of Jimmy Iovine of Iovine Brothers’ Produce, who otherwise is supportive of the acquisition. He sees the merger as contributing to public perception of the Reading Terminal Market as a great place to shop, which can only lead to more volume for his greengrocer’s business. Another purveyor, butcher Charles Giunta, expressed concern that by expanding outward the market would lose focus on growing the business of existing merchants.

Steinke sees an acquisition of Farm to City as a way to protect and build the market's existing business because it would “attach the Reading Terminal Market brand to the grower movement.”

Even though the RTM is technically a public market, not a farmers’ market, “most people think of us as a farmers’ market already, as a showcase for local food,” Steinke said. The RTM is one of the few public markets without an associated farmers’ market, he said. Among the public markets with farmers’ markets are Cincinnati’s Findlay Market, Milwaukee Public Market, North Market in Columbus, Ohio, Capital Market in Charlestown, West Virgiia, and Pike Place in Seattle.

Steinke said Farm to City’s markets in Philadelphia’s urban and suburban neighborhoods will be branded as an arm of the Reading Terminal, much like the Pike Place Express farmers markets in Seattle.

James Haydu, Pike Place’s Director of Communictions, said the two Seattle satellite markets were organized last year to provide additional selling opportunities for about a dozen farmers who sell at the main market once a week.

“We created Pike Place Express to offer our farmers another venue to sell. While Pike Place is located in the city’s downtown people may not have time to walk down here during lunch. We wanted to give them an opportunity to buy closer to where they are,” Haydu said. “By affording farmers additional venues, it creates a domino effect that’s good for the agricultural economy in the state of Washington.”

Steinke said that until a few years ago “farmers’ markets pretty much weren’t on the radar, but we’ve seen growth in markets like Headhouse. Acquiring Farm to City creates a ready-made pipeline to the farming community for us.”  When the market carves out additional vendor space through its proposed reconfiguration of Avenue D along the east side of the RTM, Steinke plans to take advantage of that pipeline.

Farm to City’s neighborhood markets, winter market and community supported agriculture (CSA) program “complement the products we have at the Reading Terminal Market” Steinke said.

The merger had its genesis this past spring when, in an attempt to replace the departing Livengood Family Farm Saturday stall and secure its reputation as a mecca for locally-produced foods, the Reading Terminal Market asked Pierson to organize an outdoor farmers' market across the street.

The results of that collaboration – a Saturday farmers’ market opposite the RTM on 12th Street – fizzled but it led to the current merger path. Steinke credited the idea of an RTM acquisition of Farm to City to Ann Karlen, executive director of Fair Food, which operates a stall at the market selling products from dozens of regional farmers.

According to its web site, farmers markets operated this season by Farm To City are located at Rittenhouse Square, South & Passyunk, Fountain Square in South Philly, Mount Airy, 36th & Walnut, Love Park, Girard & 27th, Oakmont in Havertown, Suburban Station, Jefferson Hospital (10th & Chestnut), Bala Cynwyd, East Falls, Chestnut Hill, Manayunk, Swarthmore, and Bryn Mawr.

Most of the city's other farmers' markets, including Headhouse, Fairmount, and Clark Park, are operated by The Food Trust. In all, that organization manages nearly 30 markets in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

I Love Lamb Fat

Warning: this post is not for those who insist on healthy eating at all times. But if you're adventurous, and enjoy an occasional indulgence with absolutely no redeeming qualities other than taste, read on.

First, you must like lamb. Because lamb fat is essence of lamb, just as chicken feet are essence of chicken. That's why I like both and, for the first time in more than a decade, feasted on lamb fat for dinner Saturday.

I've loved lamb fat since I was a kid, when my mom would make barely trimmed rib lamb chops only in the summer. Because she hated the smell of lamb she could cook them outside and not stink up her kitchen. My father and I devoured them; she ate chicken.

I rekindled my love of lamb fat in Jerusalem about ten years ago at a shashlik  joint called Shemesh Quick Bar on Ben Yehuda Street. They also served grilled goose fat along with more traditional kebab meats.

The lamb fat for Saturday's feast was procured from Martin's Quality Meats at the Reading Terminal Market. I intended only to get some double-thick lamb rib chops, asking the butcher not to supply me with one of the puny, bulemic Frenched chops displayed out front in the case but cut some afresh, leaving plenty of fat. What he brought me had some fat along the bone, but not nearly enough to my taste.

"I love lamb fat," I told him.

So he took out another set of ribs and cut off the fat in a sheet of about nine inches square and a few smaller pieces, wrapped them and handed to me gratis, noting that he left traces of meat within the fat slabs. (Normally these trimmings simply go into the discard bin.)

Once home I unwrapped the precious package and cut the fat into strips about an inch wide, discarding the ragged ends. How to cook?

I knew I wanted to use my grill, but worried about the strips falling through the grates. I didn't want to lose one delicious morsel. So I took out three banboo skewers, about eight inches long or so each, and threaded three strips onto each. I chopped some fresh rosemary, pulverized four or five garlic cloves with kosher salt, and mixed it all together with fresh ground black pepper, then smeared it wantonly over the skewers and chops.  I let it all sit for the 10 or 15 minutes it took to bring the grill to heat.

As anyone who has cooked lamb chops over direct grill heat knows, the more fat the higher the flames, raising the odds of winding up with pure carbon for dinner. Fortunate that my Weber gas grill has three burners, I put two of them to high heat and the third rear burner on low. If you have a charcoal grill, only put coals on one side.

Once everything heated up, and greasing the grates with a square of the excess fat, I started out with the skewers on the low back burner, hood closed so they would start cooking without calling in the fire department, moving them over the high heat three or four minutes later. Once under high heat, they needed near constant checking and turning. After they had reached the state of char I desired they returned to the back burner while I concentrated on cooking the actual chops.

When the chops were done I brought the meat and fat to the table, my only accompaniment being some celeriac remoulade I prepped earlier in the day. The side dish was an excellent choice, since its mustardy tang cut through the main course's richness.

Piping hot is the only way to eat lamb fat (unlike the chops which you want to rest to allow the juices to be reabsorbed) so I dug right in. Although I ate them straight, they'd also be good on pita (with a spread of hummus and a bit of raw onion) or small flour tortillas (cilantro, raw onion, radish; skip the salsa).

I ate it all and don't regret it. Although I won't be making them next week, I won't wait ten years for my next taste.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Headhouse Finds Solution

The problem:

Too few shoppers meander down to the Pine Street end of the Headhouse Farmers Market on Sundays.

When I spoke earlier this month with Katy Wich, who manages the market for the Food Trust, she was scratching her head trying to find ways to get more shoppers to walk the full length of The Shambles and patronize the vendors at the far end, rather than cluster at the Lombard Street entrance. When North Star Orchards, one of the more popular vendors, began its selling season a few weeks ago Katy placed them at the Pine Street end to help generate traffic That helped a little, but the crowds were always too thick at Lombard Street and too thin at Pine.

Now she's got a solution: Iron Chef Jose Garces.

Starting this Sunday, Garces Trading Company will be selling housemade chorizo and chicken liver mousse, pistachio and caramel macarons and other items from a spot at the Pine Street end of The Shambles. If that doesn't help spread out the crowd, I don't know what will. Free beer?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

New Item From Sweetzel's

As autumn approaches you can always count on seeing Sweetzels ginger snaps and spice cookies on store shelves.

Last Saturday I noticed a variety new to me stocked at the Pennsylvania General Store in the Reading Terminal Market: Spiced Mini Cremes. Basically, smaller versions of the spice cookies sandwiched around a creme filling. On line they're selling for $2.29 for a 12-ounce box; I'm guessing they're the same price at the store.
Diner Rebuild Begins

Constructed started in mid-August on Jack McDavid's Down Home Diner at the Reading Terminal Market.

The eatery hasn't seen significant physical change since 1995 when it moved from its original location, where Amy's Place now sells kitchen gadgets. McDavid started the Down Home Diner when he took over the old Market Diner at that spot in 1987. When he moved, he took many of the booths, much of the metal facing and some other appurtenances with him.

Back then, McDavid kept the diner open until 8 or 9 p.m. at least a few nights a week. Since the move it's shut down service at 7 p.m. Althought he RTM closes at 6 p.m. weeknights, entrance could be gained through the Filbert Street (Harry Ochs Way) doors.

When the rehabbed diner reopens it may see extended evening hours again. In addition to an expanded kitchen and a sparkling new dining room, McDavid pleans to feature house made treats including sticky buns and fruit pies. The remodeling also includes installation of its own resroom so patrons won't have to traipse through a darkened market.

With the high population of meeting attendees thanks to the Convention Center and three or four thousand hotel rooms within a two-block walk, McDavid should have a market for dinner.
Hot Summer Rushes Harvest

The paw paws are nearly a month early. The corn is rapidly fading, and some varieties of peaches and other stone fruit have gone kaput.

Blame it on the unusually frequent and intensive heat spells this summer.

Fair Food's newsletter last week touted the coming of paw paws, which usually don't appear until mid-September. Likewise, Sam Consylman was selling paw paws he gathered at Livengood's stall at South Street today. Sam's peach crop was short-lived and was gone by early August.

The heat took its toll on the corn crop, so much so that at last week's Fairmount market Livengood's posted the sign pictured here. While the corn I've had this season has been decent enough, none has made me sit up and take notice.

Since I posted a few weeks ago about the excellent quality (if not quantity) of this year's stone fruits, a few plums have disappointed, while others have have been perfect.

The higher than average temperatures might account for the apperance of some apples we normally don't see until September. Honey Crisp has been available for a couple weeks (at least at Beechwood Orchards' stalls in local farmers' markets) along with the normal crop of early Macs, Ginger Golds, etc. Bartlett pears are also available, but they usually are by mid to late August.

Despite the heat I found blueberries last week at the Fairmount market; they usually are gone by early August. Blackberries remain in profusion, along with second crop raspberries.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Dark Side of Farmers Markets

Can the wonderful farmers' markets of Philadelphia, like Rittenhouse and Headhouse Square, Clark Park and all the neighborhood markets, be undermining the availability of affordable, nutritious food to poorer residents of Lancaster County?

That's a hypothesis put forth in an article at Salon, an interview with Linda Alecia, one of the founding faculty of Franilin & Marshall College's Local Economy Center in Lancaster.

You can read it here.

Many thanks to Ben, a reader of this blog, for bringing it to my attention.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Pennsylvania Dutch Festival

The annual Pennsylvania Dutch Festival is underway at the Reading Terminal Market, celebrating the foodways of the Amish and their Mennonite colleagues. Center court is filled with lots of goodies to eat, and on Saturday there will be a small petting zoo and the chance to take a ride around the block in a horse-drawn wagon.

One decidedly un-Amish treat I found at the festival today was Bonomo's Turkish Taffy. Perhaps this is unknown to Philadelphians, but Bonomo's was my must-have candy as a kid growing up in the New York-New Jersey metro area. Bonomo's allure derived from its physical properties. You'd smack a stick against a flat, hard surface and it would shatter into bite-sized pieces. It comes in four flavors: chocolate, vanilla, banana and strawberry. The latter, like almost any strawberry treat, tastes highly artificial; so does the banana, but that's my favorite.

(Technically it's not a taffy at all, but a "short" nougat.)

Bonomo's hasn't been made for at least 20 years and has been much sought after by those like me who remember it fondly. Its connection to the Pennsylvania Dutch Festival: it's made in Pennsylvania under contract by Classic Caramel in Camp Hill near Harrisburg for Bonomo's owner. Production and distribution started last month.

They were being sold at the RTM for a pricey $1.50/stick, but I couldn't resist.
Stone Fruit Superb

Where melons may have sometimes disappointed, I've yet to come across any stone fruits that fail to amaze this season. Cherries, apricots, nectarines, plums, peaches, they have have been full of flavor and sweetness, whether local and shipped cross-country.

The late West Coast sweet cherries have surprised me. Both those I've purchased at Whole Foods and Iovine Brothers' Produce at the Reading Terminal Market have been delectable examples of cherry-ness: firm, juicy, flavorful. (I can't vouch for the local cherries, since I was in Norway when they were in season.)

The stone fruits available now are at least as good. Plums have been magnificent. So have the peaches, regardless of the variety. Same goes for the nectarines. Among the farmers I've bought them from have been Beechwood Orchards (Rittenhouse, South Street, Headhouse markets, among others), Bill Weller (Fairmount), and Kauffman's Lancaster County Produce (RTM), whose fruit is pictured above. I should bake with them, but these fruits are just so good when eaten out of hand!

Melons are always a cr-pshoot. I've had both the best melon I've ever had and some rather tasteless ones this season.

The best came from Bill Weller at the Fairmount Farmers' Market. His cantelope (muskmelon) was simply the best of that variety I've ever tasted: not merely sweet and juicy, but well-flavored. Likewise the tiny Minnesota Midget cantalopes raised by Sam Consylman and sold at Livengood's (South Street and Fairmount) were excellent.

It was looking forward to tasting some of the unusual melons sold this past Sunday by Tom Culton at Headhouse (photo at left). Alas, the two I've tried so far have been watery without flavor and barely sweet. Maybe it's my melon picking skill. These were priced at $5 for three melons, any size.
North Star Returns to Headhouse

Virtually every stall space at the Headhouse Square Farmers' Market was occupied last Sunday, and willl be for the next two months at least. Back at the market last Sunday as North Star Orchards, showcasing its pears, peaches, nectarines, apples and tomatoes. A sign boasted they offered 17 varieties of tomatoes, most of them heirlooms, all priced at $2.50/ pound. North Star's Shinsui variety of Asian pears were also $2.50, but all other fruit was $2.

North Star is at a different location under the shambles this year, placed near the north end not far from the Pine Street entrance.

Blooming Glen offered plenty of tomatoes, too, with heirlooms at $3, field tomatos $2, and all colors of cherry tomatoes $2.50/pint. Over at Savoie Farms, heirlooms were $4/pound, cherry tomatos $4/pint.
Watermelon, $1.25/pound!

That's the price of these round watermelons last weekend at the Fair Food Farmstand in the Reading Terminal Market. More than twice as expensive as at Iovine Brother's Produce at the RTM or at any supermarket.

Now, they may be wonderful watermelons, but that's a price I am unwilling to pay. Which brings us to the larger question: have we been spoiled by industrial food production?

While there's a lot to not like about today's industrialized agriculture, from overuse of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to trans-continental shipping, it does bring a wide variety of wholesome fruits and vegetables to the consumer.

Now, local farmers producing premium local produce deserve a profit, and I doubt whoever grew the $1.25/melon is a rapacious profiteer. Yet, one has to wonder how commercial watermelon growers who supply both supermarkets and Iovine's can bring their melons to market at such a tremendously lower price than the smaller scale farmers. Volume, of course, is one reason, and undoubtedly the use of chemical adjuncts improves yield.

We're blessed in this country with very low food prices. This summer I spent a month in Norway. While the costs of housing, education and medical care in that Nordic nation are considerably lower to the consumer than here, food costs are considerably higher. Chicken at the supermarket (not organic, small-farm chicken, mind you, but chicken from the same type of industrial poultry industry as here) is more than twice as costly as in the U.S. The same goes for produce.

Still, one has to wonder why there's such a huge price disparity between the watermelon at the Fair Food Farmstand and Iovine's. Won't a dime a pound cover the difference instead of six or seven dimes? And if it won't, why?

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Orchard Adds Veggies

Beechwood Orchards, heretofore a grower of tree fruit and berries (price list at today's Headhouse Market at left), has expanded into vegetables.

Beechwood's Dave Garretson said the veggies, which are selling well, are the work of his daughter, Melissa Allen. Dave added recent weeks have produce strong business at the farmers' markets he frequents. He had his best day ever at yesterday's Rittenhouse Square market and expects today's Headhouse market to do even better.

Below, photos of Melissa's veggies.

Bargain Mirai

Tom Culton was selling Mirai corn at the Headhouse Farmers' Market today at a bargain price: 15 ears for $6, according to his broken slate sign. Or just about any other price you wanted to buy it at. I walked away with 10 ears for $3. I think Tom would have accepted any deal in which didn't have to pay you to take it away.

Now, these were pretty small ears; because of their small circumference each ear probably containns only half the amount of a more normal ear. Still, a good deal.

Culton expects to have more mirai corn, a super sweet Japanese hybrid, for two more weeks. My guess is the ears will be more fully developed then.

Culton was featured in an article in the August issue of Bon Appetite magazine. The article looked at the relationships Lancaster County farmers like Culton have developed with restaurants. I'd provide a link to it, but Bon Appetite did not post that article online.