Winter Market Tales

Ari LeVaux

Photo via Flickr by Edsel Little.
Photo via Flickr by Edsel Little.

After I bought all of Bob’s parsley, plus some eggs and onions, we stood there chatting, both of us sipping coffee. We were intrigued by Charlie’s supposed truffle trick. Neither one of us fully believed him, but we couldn’t afford not to try.
It felt odd that Bob wasn’t shooing me along to make room for the next customer, as is usually the case at the farmers market. But on this day there wasn’t a line of shoppers clamoring for fresh tomatoes and basil. It’s the middle of winter, and the juicy fruits of summer are sweet memories. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get our market on.
Like many towns that have fallen in love with their farmers markets, mine recently gave birth to a winter version. The winter market experience, while decidedly scaled down, is familiar. The game is the same, if a little slower--more like voting day at a suburban elementary school than the frenzied action of summer. But while the offerings are diminished, you can still pick up a nice little haul.
Here at the bottom of the growing season, the produce offerings have largely been whittled down to a core of classical winter storage crops, like carrots, cabbage, squash, potatoes, beets, parsnips, onions, garlic, celery root, rutabaga and the like. But you will find horticultural innovators pushing the boundaries of the seasons, growing thigs in heated greenhouses or other cold weather farming schemes. Whatever hints of green you can find around the edges of the market are cause for celebration, whether it’s those bunches of greenhouse parsley I scored, or a well-preserved stalk of Brussels sprouts. There are also animal products to be had, as well as local sweeteners like honey or maple syrup, and sometimes freshly mixed or tapped booze products too.
With fewer produce options, other parts of the farmers market get more attention. The soap and other personal hygiene products take on new appeal, after months of cramming together indoors. Houseplants suddenly seem healing and appealing. I stockpile bacon from the guy who feeds his pigs leftover beer. The guy who sharpens knives and the woman selling quilts are starting to seem less out of place.
The market assumes a rhythm that’s a cross between a Christmas art bazaar and winter in Alaska, as the homesteading, pioneering undercurrents of the farmers market are turned up by the collective, cooperative need to survive the winter.
The string band’s acoustics are better, because instead of a parking lot by the river, they are playing inside a boxy space that, at other times during the week, is home to a roller skating club. Instead of the rhubarb smoothies of summer, my kids’ spirited transgressions are powered by artisan hot cocoa with house-made marshmallows.
Summer or winter, a farmers market doesn’t need much in order to thrive. A safe, comfortable spot, bathrooms, parking, and not too many rules. The winter market in Portland, Maine, has grown so fast that, since being launched in 2011, it is already in its third home.
I learned about the truffle trick right after buying some dried apples from a smiling elderly Russian couple. Dried last summer from a neighbor’s tree, they managed to explain. She insisted on including a jar of strawberry apple jam, “for the children.”
On cue, the children pulled down a rack of mittens at a nearby stall. I bade a hurried farewell to the babushka and her man.
I headed them off before they got to the fudge samples, and they cruised toward Lavender Lori. I caught them near Charlie, a merchant of fungi, who beckoned me to his table with an up-nod.
The table was laden with dried morel, porcini and lobster mushrooms, and some wild harvested plants, and tinctures thereof. Charlie suggested I take a whiff of what was on a paper plate atop of some bags of osha root: several gnarled, dirty, flesh-colored orbs.
“Oregon white truffles,” he said. Freshly harvested.
When he has truffles, Charlie salespitched, he likes to play around with infusing rich foods with truffle fumes. If you put fresh truffles into close proximity to, say, olive oil, they will transfer their legendary odor and flavor.
Charlie leaned in conspiratorially.
“It even works on eggs.”
The truffle fragrance can pass across the shell, he said, and passes the white too, concentrating in the rich yolk.
I didn’t believe him. Not for a second. But I was hooked just the same. I bought a few ounces, four little nuggets, just in case it was true. Farmer Bob had bought some too, he confided.
Then we talked about garlic, and seed ordering, and other topics related to the growing season that’s already creeping up on us.
On the way out, I grabbed a loaf of bread and some sheep cheese. I got home and commenced to truffle.
Amazingly, everything worked exactly as Charlie had said it would, including the egg thing, which I did by wrapping a truffle in a paper towel and putting it in a Tupperware with some eggs.
The whites did not absorb much truffle flavor, but the yolk was a repository. Bread, butter and oil all absorbed truffle flavor as well.
The week that followed was a fungal blur of trufflized food. Truffled eggs on truffle buttered truffled toast with coffee, and truffled sausage and truffled cheese with wine. As many foods as I could expose to that powerful cloud of truffle stank, I did, until those fragrant knuckles eventually turned prohibitively slimy.
The following Saturday when I got to Bob’s table, I was bummed to learn he hadn’t brought parsley, and was out of eggs, to boot.
“I truffled my eggs,” he said, with a grin. “They disappeared quick.”
“Four dollars for a half dozen,” he added. A near-doubling of the usual price.
Charlie had had the same thought as Bob, and had truffled some eggs for market himself. He was getting $2 per egg, and had two left.
“Mine will have more truffle flavor than Bob’s,” Charlie assured me.
“I’ll just take some truffles,” I said. I had some research to do with a hunk of pork belly I intended to buy from a cooler across the room.
Lavender Lori ended up scoring Charlie’s truffled eggs. She was psyched.
“I heard about these from Bob,” she said.
As in summer, word travels fast at the winter market. And as is always the case, what happens at market does not stay at market.