Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Farmers' Market Relativism

I went to the Union Square Greenmarket last wednesday, the day that Keith Stewart opens his vegetable stand. Why Keith Stewart? Because of the nature of the press and maybe the quality of his garlic, his is the one most often reviewed as the go-to garlic, much like Tim Stark's heirloom tomatoes next door. Entering his stand I expected to see a variety of garlic available, but there was only one -a rocambole. The sign on the basket said 'large rocambole -$1.75 each." I would buy just one to taste how different, how much better, it was than the others. Buying only one -that was my mistake.

About a month ago I placed an order for 3 lbs of rocambole and porcelain garlic from a Pennsylvania grower. The price was table, but I was expecting seed. The website processed my order and I sent the check, but three weeks later I received my check back with a note: "order in July next time." Oh. Normally I would, but your site processed my order and never mentioned that you were sold out. I will not go back to them, but I am also out 3 lbs of seed garlic with rows at the ready.

Stewart's rocambole was starting to look more like seed and less like a taste test. Except Stewart's stand is only there once a week, and I knew waiting a week would be risky. He had plenty large rocambole last week at a price that was more than competitive with seed farmers' prices. A typical seed pound costs $19, on average, and then there is the shipping cost -usually $10.95 for 1-4 lbs. For twenty bucks, I could get eleven of Stewart's large heads with fifty cents change to jangle my jaunt. That same eleven would cost me $38 dollars (2lbs) from a seed farmer, plus shipping, without knowing at all how large they would be.

So I impatiently waited till this windy, rain-soaking day to head over to Union Square. I was tempted to go first thing in the morning, but studio work took priority, and I arrived around 1 pm. I bee-lined for Stewart's stand, half fearing that he would not be there due to the weather. This week's basket sign proclaimed "Colossal Rocambole -$2 each." Argh, what else comes in colossal? Shrimp.

Large on the left and colossal on the right

Now two dollars each and decidedly smaller than last week, I learn the ropes of produce marketing. The passing of one week means smaller, more expensive produce. I buy ten, digging deep to grab the largest of the rocamboles. When I make it to the young lady at the scale, I ask her what cultivar this rocambole might be. She says she doesn't know, beyond rocambole, so I offer German Red or Spanish Roja, voice upturning suggestively. She then says it is Italian. At which prompt I offer Italian Purple (incidentally, two of the missing 3lbs). She then blurts "purple, they are purple!" I thank her, walking away somewhat convinced that these rocambole's are Italian Purple.

Genetic testing has laid bare the DNA of many of the common culitvars and guess what -most are exactly alike. In other words, rocambole 'German Red' is 'Spanish Roja' is 'Italian Purple'. Variation in physical traits amongst distinct varieties are explained as environmentally influenced, not indications of genetic distinction. It is also likely that many of the same garlic cultivars have been continually renamed by different growers in different regions. In fact, the garlic I grew last season has been renamed by yours truly because the seed I bought was sold to me un-named. After determining it to be a Porcelain variety, based on the size and number of cloves, I needed a cultivar. Now it's 'Breezy Point.'

I went to all the stands to check on their garlic. Nothing was competing with Stewart's rocambole, but I asked one farmer what his large, but open-cloved variety was. He commanded "German stiffneck." But I belabored, what variety -porcelain, rocambole? He asserted that he knew nothing of those names -just German stiffneck. I was left to wonder why the varieties and or cultivars are not so important amongst many farmers. Is garlic just garlic to most consumers, so it must be to farmers?

I left his stand while he looked on disappointedly that I did not buy after wasting his time. I was off to buy cameo apples -large, sweet-tart and almost fifty percent cheaper than Honeycrisps. Apples are the one fruit that I will only buy in-season, usually direct from growers. I cannot stand the waxy finish on long haul apples and I hate stickers. Also on sale are two kinds of pears for eighty cents a pound. I bought two (last week I bought too many).

I then stopped to buy some elongated purple shallots a farmer had labeled Tropea Shallots. They are not shallots at all, but red onions, Allium cepa, Cipolle di Tropea, Red Long, Red Torpedo, etc. etc. The Calabrian Cipolle di Tropea is D.O.P., and given their climate, I am sure those taste far better than what I will grow here. But that won't stop me from trying.

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