Fresh Finds From Baltimore’s Farmers’ Markets
The notion that these markets function not only as bazaars but as instrumental gathering places is no less true for being a sentimental commonplace. Vendors who work at markets in Washington, D.C., in addition to ones here tell me that scene down there is much more businesslike—folks come to buy, and do so perfunctorily, without much lingering or gossiping. But in Baltimore, marketers and shoppers alike tend to display a different attitude. Of the two city markets, the Baltimore Farmers’ Market, with its oval alignment, works better as a social spot than the T-shaped Waverly market, simply because it has better flow. (I’m relying here on a singles-bar model: The oval functions better there, too.) The oval might also facilitate better shopping. Downtown marketers like to take a preview turn among the vendors before committing to purchases, a strategy made unattractive at the 32nd Street Market. But regardless of whether you’re there to rub elbows or to thump melons, the two open-air markets are eminently comparable, with a great deal of vendor overlap, at least among the major players.
Gardener’s Gourmet, of Uniontown, anchors both markets with its herbs (sorrel, chive flowers, flat-leaf parsley) and heaping bowls of arugula, spinach, and signature mesclun mix ($6 for a large bowl, $4 for small), as does the long-running Reid Orchards, with its impressive late-summer display of varietal apples and pears.
There’s considerable similarity, too, in the prepared-food category. Neither market began with much available in the way of ready-made food, but vendors of savory pies, sausage sandwiches, and mango sticky rice have become inextricable fixtures of both markets, in and among all the produce, flowers, and baked goods. If there’s one prepared food I associate with Baltimore’s farmers markets most, though, it’s the grilled portobello sandwich—a giant soy-balsamic-marinated mushroom, served on pita with grilled onions, feta cheese, and hot sauce—introduced by the famously dour Stan Edminster. Edminster has moved away since inventing this concoction, having sold his business to Jan Danforth—who by the way tipped me off to an incipient rush of rare morel mushrooms that’s headed this way.
The Curry Shack, operated by Didi and Brian Johnson, visits both city locations, too. At the very least, it’s worth stopping by for a top-flight West Indian patty ($1.75) or Caribbean-style samosa ($1.75); new this year are pockets stuffed with jerk beef and mushrooms ($1.75). All of them are delicious and fresh-tasting, but if I’ve set aside some time and some scratch, I’ll sometimes indulge myself in a Curry Shack platter—they change weekly, with next week’s menu posted—featuring such fare as coconut-laced African curry chicken, or Moroccan lamb, brimming with black olives, squash, zucchini, lime, and cilantro.
Harmony Foods, operated by Renée and Don Gorman, now operates only out of the 32nd Street Market. Devoted to healthful cuisine, the Gormans do wondrous things with spelt, stuffing spelt tortillas or layering spelt crusts with such expressive ingredients as butternut squash, figs, Gorgonzola, pesto, and eggplant. And always ahead of the game, they’ve begun this spring to sweeten their toothsome baked treats with agave nectar—try the rhubarb-strawberry compote. The gorgeous smoked food from Neopol Savory Smokery of Belvedere Market shows up at both markets—rainbow trout; Amish chicken breasts; or salmon topped with ginger, dill, and pepper or garlic and blue cheese—notably pricey, but perfect solutions for weekend entertainers or indulgent brunchers.
Only the downtown market showcases the fortifying pleasures of Beef Barons, the south-end vendor of beef sandwiches ($4.50) and homemade Italian sandwiches (served on soft whole wheat or white bread), and Humpty Dumpty Omelettes, where Jack Dawson makes enormous $5 omelets filled with just-bought ingredients from neighboring stalls and sets up tables for marketers to enjoy them.
The folks who sell Thai treats at the downtown market, meanwhile—unrelated to the Malay folks that vend nearly identical foods on 32nd Street—have added to their spring rolls, fried bananas, and sticky rice an arousing new concoction this year: tapioca balls with fresh coconut milk, sesame seeds, and ripe bananas.
And before you head out to enjoy either (or both) of Baltimore’s markets, bear in mind these items to watch out for in the weeks leading into summer: Uptown Market’s tea cakes; Cat’s Paw Organic muffins and cookies (downtown only), including the Nantucket, best low-fat muffin I’ve ever had; cave-aged cheddar from Hawks Hill Creamery; and, for only the next week or two at the most—very big, very cheerful, very Baltimore, who can resist them?—peonies!
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Baltimore, MD 21201