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Taste of Summer: Baltimore’s Downtown Farmers Market

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It’s sunny and breezy when we arrive at the Baltimore Farmers’ Market on Sunday morning just before eight. The crowds are still sparse in the market’s first hour, but I spot a group gathered around their car enjoying something delicious enough to suspend them in hushed delight. I feel my face stretch into a grin of anticipation as we cross the temporary threshold and enter the market.

The morning humidity slows down time and reminds me of some of my favorite summer treats, summer blueberries, ripe juicy peaches, and tomatoes. Though available year round in grocery stores, the flavor and vibrancy of freshly picked and locally grown fruits of midsummer will make you wonder why we’d settle for a less delicious version. 

“Coffee?” I ask and head toward the smell without waiting for an answer. Sunlight cuts through the iron beam canopy of the Jones Falls Expressway (JFX) and slices golden cages of light into the shadows. Stuart of Babe Beans, new to the market this year, is pulling shots from an espresso machine shoved into the back of his hatchback. I order an espresso and he calls me a purist. We chat about coffee as I admire his ambitious setup. The espresso machine runs on propane instead of a gas generator and makes for a quieter and more energy-efficient rig. I offer him a toast as I naturally gravitate toward the rest of the vendors. 

The flow of the market pulls us in its invisible current downstream toward tables lined with perfectly ripened vegetables. At the height of summer, the tables are an edible rainbow, indigo aubergines, squat scallop squash (aka pattypan) shimmer green and yellow, blueberries and violet jewel blackberries glisten next to rows of heirloom tomatoes that beam red and orange.

 

The Baltimore Farmers’ Market operates every Sunday from 7am to 12pm April through December. Now in its 46th year, the market boasts an eclectic selection of Maryland produce, fish and oysters from the Chesapeake Bay, dairy and meats from pasture-raised animals and features some of Baltimore City’s most beloved makers and artisans. You can grab a laser-cut journal from Drama Mama Bookshop, browse vintage clothing on a converted school bus from  B’More Vintage, shop produce from local farms, and stock up on soap from Mt. Royal Soaps. The market offers something for everyone and the best part is that you’ll likely meet the person who made the food or product at the booth.

The market is starting to get busy. All the sound mixes into an endless hum, its random distribution of frequencies creates a blanket of white noise. We stop at Cat’s Paw Organic Farm for bags of chocolate chip cookies and big fluffy blueberry muffins. The husband and wife team have been doing farmer’s markets since 1989. For over twenty years they have made the drive from Carroll County to Baltimore for the Sunday market to sell their organic produce. The homemade pastries are a recent addition.

Compared to a grocery store, farmers’ markets are inefficient and it’s their best feature. Multiple checkouts require shoppers to slow down. Decentralized booths all operating autonomously offer a glimpse into a world where efficiency and globalization are not the markers of success. Farmers’ markets are intimate. They offer real people behind real products that we can touch and squeeze and smell. It’s tactile and it’s human. In a world where we can have groceries delivered without any human interaction, the farmers’ market taps us on the shoulder and asks us to turn around and engage with the world and its bounty – including all its people. Farmers’ markets build bridges between urban and rural communities – they bring together people from all classes and backgrounds. Everyone eats, and food, good food especially, is the greatest equalizer among humankind. 

We swim past another coffee vendor, winemakers, distilled spirits and meads, dairy, eggs, fish, and meats before pausing at an olive oil booth. Olives aren’t grown locally and I’m curious what brings these makers to Baltimore. I meet Dimitri who explains that he imports all his olive oils directly from his family’s farm in southern Greece. He’s proud of his family’s 200-year-old heritage but he lights up when he shares that he’s created his own line of olive oil infusions. Dmitri Olive Oil offers a discounted refill program at the market every week for returning customers. I snag a bottle and plan to use it for a weeknight gazpacho on a sweltering summer night when it’s too hot to cook.

 

A smoky smell drifts past my nose and I inhale the deep savory breath. Plumes of smoke drift upward into the steel superstructure of the overpass and snake around the taper of roller beams. Tucked away at the end of the aisle pit beef sears over an open flame. Hardwood coals burn hot as pit masters of the long-running Beef Barons tend to the grill.

A line forms in the queue as one happy customer stands eating the Baltimore classic, slices of coal-fired roast beef piled high on a kaiser roll with horseradish and mayonnaise. “Is it good?” I ask but already know the answer based on the joy on his face. “Oh yeah,” he says as if it’s obvious.

The Mushroom Stand offers an equally joyous mushroom fritter for the vegetarian crowd and it’s just adjacent to the barons. Affectionately referred to as the Mushroom Lady around town, the proprietress has employed many MICA students over the past 20 years. The famed mushroom fritters sell out fast. Beer-battered oyster mushrooms are fried and served on a bed of greens with sheep cheese.

The longtime vendor sells a variety of hard-to-find mushrooms, including my favorite, Lion’s Mane or Pom Pom. These fluffy white-bearded fungi have an uncanny likeness to lump crab meat when pulled apart and can be used to make a vegan version of the beloved Maryland crabcake. If you’re not ambitious enough to make them at home you can always try a version at Foraged in Station North.

We bounce between the rows of tables like we’re in a game of Pong and admire clusters of sunflowers and summer flowers. I grab a mini canelé from La Bohemia Bakery for under $1 and enjoy the small bite as I saunter through the shaded market. We stop at Doppio Pasticceria, a Sicilian Bakery, for an arancini fried rice ball. The Palermo slow-fried arancini are filled with aromatic saffron rice, pungent taleggio cheese, and beef and pork ragu. They have a version without meat, too. The bakers mill their own flour from organically grown grains and sell bags alongside a plethora of sweet and savory Sicilian treats.  

I make a pit stop at The Urban Oyster, the first Black and woman-owned oyster bar in Maryland, and chat with owner Jasmine Norton about her soon-to-launch Hampden restaurant. She’s hoping for a September opening for her grilled oyster concept. 

I find my friend talking to a former neighbor who’s in line for coffee, sunflowers sticking out of her backpack. My hands are full of boxed arancini, and bags of mushrooms, and pastries but I greet her old friend with a smile. It’s inevitable to see a familiar face out at the farmers’ market, a comfort and amenity unique to Baltimore. 

As we head back to the car we pass a hula hooper, a guitarist blowing up a balloon, and swarms of new market-goers. The lively scene continues behind us as the sun heats up the summer day. It’s gonna be another hot Sunday in Baltimore and we’re expecting a severe heat wave in the coming week. I start to plan in my head an upcoming week of meals that don’t use the stove, including summer salads and a delicious Spanish inspired Weeknight Gazpacho with the season’s tomatoes and Dmitri Olive Oil.

 

Weeknight Gazpacho

2lbs ripe tomatoes – cored and quartered
1 cucumber – peeled and cut
1 small onion – yellow or red – peeled and cut
1 clove of garlic
2 shishito peppers – seeded and sliced
1 tablespoon of Sherry vinegar
Salt to taste
½ cup first press olive oil 

* Blend everything in a blender or in a deep bowl with an immersion blender (I used a stock pot and immersion blender)
* Once combined and smooth, drizzle ½ cup of olive oil slowly into running blender and create an emulsion
* Strain and store in the refrigerator 
* Serve chilled in a cup or bowl
* Drizzle with olive oil. Add a sprinkle of smoked paprika for an added Andulsian Spanish flavor.
(Optional)
* Garnish with Frico – Lacey Parmesan Crisp
* ½ cup of fresh grated parmegianno reggiano
* Heat a nonstick skillet and scatter cheese evenly 
* Cook for 3 minutes or until golden brown
* Remove from heat and let cool
* Use an offset spatula to gently remove the crisp
* Break into large pieces and serve on top

 

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