Go for the Food and Crafts but Meet the People
By Sherry Weissman Schweitzer
It’s surprisingly quiet when you enter Ben Brenman Park in Alexandria, Virginia, where the West End Market http://www.westendfarmersmarket.org sets up shop every Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.. The farmers and vendors start much earlier, some coming from as far away as Peach Bottom, Pennsylvania, or southern New Jersey or Montross, Virginia. The small farm market has around 22 vendors including the artisans, but prepare yourself for some nice surprises. There’s ample parking and an eclectic array of fresh produce and hand-made goods to buy. It was early in the season—opening day — when I ventured out there last weekend, but the weather mostly cooperated until late morning when gusts of wind threatened some of the tents and small handicrafts set up on tables that couldn’t withstand it.
Fresh Pressed OJ and Old Fashioned Scones
Years ago, before Catie Couric became famous, she bought freshly squeezed orange juice from Joseph at Fresh Joseph’s. The garrulous man could barely stop moving while he spoke to me about his memories and how he got into the business, simultaneously multi-tasking by squeezing the sweetest oranges he can find from Florida or California, selling freshly baked scones, and peddling small and large cups of OJ to paying customers. He and his partner, Cheryl Wenzl, go to four markets a week here and at neighboring markets in Virginia. They rent a professional kitchen when they drive into the area on Friday nights to squeeze, bake, and pack. During a busy summer weekend, they go through 2,000 – 3,000 oranges in a weekend, half of them squeezed by hand, the other half by a machine. Another item he sells is mozzarella cheese that is also made by hand. The consistency and taste are wonderful beneath a slice of tomato, topped with fresh basil and drizzled with olive oil. Originally from Bari, Italy, his family immigrated to Brooklyn, but Joseph learned to make the cheese, and explained the process of cutting the curd, plunging it into hot water where the chemical reaction occurs, and then moving it to ice water to form into balls he can handle before it is packed to sell. While his stall is in the middle of one of the market’s long rows, I think it’s the starting place for many and it should be: get the luscious juice and scone, and start walking around for the rest.
It’s All About the Cheeses that Please
I couldn’t resist Tom’s Amish Cheese Store. I was drawn in by the wonderful scent of cheese. “I’ve only had one complaint in 11 years,” Tompkins recalled, and that was from a couple that put the cheese in the trunk and forgot about it for a few days.” The strong odor surely made them remember it. Tough customers, they took it out, put it in the freezer, and brought it back the next season. After a little probing Tommy figured out they were just trying to pull a fast one. Tompkins created the cheese company, Wakefield Dairy, in 1999, and ten Amish men help him make the cheeses that he brings to West End. The Dairy is named for the Vicar of Wakefield, a Victorian novel that professes belief in the innate goodness of mankind. He sells a variety of cheese, everything from soft goat cheeses, hard sharp cheddars, farm fresh butter, mozzarella, two varieties of artisanal cheese – knows as Bouche and Smethe — and the best selling yogurts. I purchased the Bouche – it was like a smoky cheddar with a tasty bite, semi-soft with a rind I could eat. Tompkins uses milk that is gathered from grass-fed local cows. His milk is not pasteurized, and they do not use growth hormones. All the cheeses are non-pasteurized, heat treated only. Why is this important? According to his website, www.amishcheesestore.com, cheese made from raw milk or whole milk is superior in taste to those made from pasteurized milk. Most pasteurized milk is from a collection of dairies and is generally tainted with chemicals. The heating process used to pasteurize milk destroys many natural enzymes in the milk that affects the cheese making process. Pasteurization also results in the loss of many delicate flavors and retards the ripening of the cheese.
Great Bread at the Great Harvest
Giving out free offerings of pumpkin spice bread or oatmeal raisin cookies, I could not resist a taste from Natalie who kindly cut me a whole slice of the bread, and I was not disappointed. I had no idea I would enjoy the moist taste of cinnamon and cloves as much as I did. The stand carries a variety of breads that are freshly baked in their Alexandria bakery. Great Harvest mills their own flour, using the whole parts of the wheat berry. So the wheat base bread is 100 % whole grain. They carry honey whole wheat, white, a variety of CD-sized cookies like snicker doodles, molasses cookies, chocolate chip, as well as scones and muffins. They also had a challah that I couldn’t leave behind. I have baked my own challah and eaten quite a few over the years, and I’ll admit, Great Harvest braided challah was very good. One thing I learned there was that they give tours of the entire operation, so anyone can find out how they mill the flour and bake the bread. To learn more visit www.alexandria-greatharvest.com or better yet, buy some at West End Farmers Market on Sunday.
Terrific Tea Too Good To Miss
A tall man and a much smaller woman stood next to a plain-looking table covered with 2 X 2 gold boxes that gleamed in the sun and caught my eye. The top of each box was clear plastic so I could see that inside was a variety of dried herbs, seeds, flowers, fruits and leaves – many different blends of tea. Each box had a special name on it that sounded like it was a remedy for an ailment. One of the proprietors, a knowledgeable woman from Beijing, opened one of the boxes like it contained a treasure – I sniffed. Oh the wonderful aroma! It was called “Immunity Boost,” and I quickly pulled out my money and bought it. At home, my husband and I brewed the tea according to the directions on the bottom of the gold box – it is as good as it smells. Take it from me, a coffee addict, this tea is worth the price. They told me that their day-business is www.wholehealthmedicalcenter.com in Alexandria where they offer massage, acupuncture, facials and more.
Market Flowers Grown by the Amish
You can’t miss the buckets of multi-colored flowers and sweet scented bouquets at Bill Schlorb’s flower stand. Billie says he gets some of his flowers at wholesale houses, but the Amish cultivate a variety of them in Maryland’s St. Mary’s County. He works with 4 or 5 farms and visits two area markets where he sells flowers. The flowers he brings vary, but on Sunday he had purple heather, peonies, a variety of mums, roses and daisies. He offered me a lesson in flower cutting and preserving. Once you have clipped off about a half inch from the bottom of the flower stalks, put them into a vase filled with warm water. Every few days, repeat the process, but here’s the important part: with your thumb down, using your left hand (if you’re right handed) lift the flowers out of the vase; with your right hand and clippers, snip off a little more stalk, rinse the vase and replace the warm water, and return the flowers to the vase. I tried it at home, and my flowers are still going strong after almost a week. Remember: thumb down. Thumbs up for Billie’s.
Try Fresh Fruits and Vegetables – It’s Real Food
Karla and her helper spoke quickly in Spanish, not my first language, so I could only catch a bit of what they were saying, but their concentration was on getting all the vegetables on to the wooden platforms making up their stand. Francisco, Karla’s husband, learned to farm from his father, where they grow 100% of the food themselves in Westmorland County, Virginia. Between them they go to 8 markets a week, driving up to 2 hours from their farm with 3 trucks going to each of 2 markets on Saturday and Sunday. They farm 30 acres and have 5 greenhouses where they start all of their produce from seed. This winter has been difficult for them because once the seeds grow to a certain height, they are supposed to be planted outdoors, but this year, cold forced them to keep growing the produce inside, not leaving much room for the next seeds and plants rotating behind them. The greens were remarkable – a couple of kinds of Asian greens, spinach, several kinds of lettuce, kale, cucumbers, beets, rhubarb, radishes, onions, and more. I took home the kale, washed it and tore it into pieces, drizzled it with some olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt, put it on a cookie sheets (you can layer it and it doesn’t have to be neat) and baked it in a 350 degree oven for about 15 minutes. Squirt some fresh lime juice on it. So delicious. Not to be missed: fj medina and sons farm stand. www.facebook.com/fjmedinandsonsfarm
Also not to be missed is just walking around and finding your own treasures: a mix of crafts, food, baked goods, jewelry, knitted baby booties, and more. And don’t forget to have a chat with Susan who runs the market or her new market manager Hannah. Both will be eager to help you.