Juicy heirloom tomatoes and just-picked strawberries. Super-sweet peaches shaped like mini UFOs. Artisan cheeses, emerald-green olive oils, local wildflower honey—California’s farmers’ markets are culinary adventures, a chance to see, taste and learn about the incredible variety of California’s farm-fresh produce and food products. They are also a chance to hang out with the farmers who grow the produce, and get their tips on how to use these ultra-fresh foods. And these weekly, often year-round events function as local gathering places, with young children dancing to local musicians, mums cradling babies and fresh bouquets, and chefs leading walking tours to their favourite stalls. Also be on the lookout for speciality foods and handmade crafts too—great for gifts.
While outstanding markets pop up all over California, here’s a hand-picked selection to add to your travels.
Local shoppers, ferry commuters, savvy chefs and tourists flock to the lively market that pops up outside the historic Ferry Building, along the Embarcadero. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, market tents cast their shade across an extraordinary variety of fruits and vegetables as well as prepared foods—and there’s a Garden Market selling plants and flowers on Sundays too. And every day, step inside the handsome 1898 building (still a working ferry terminal) to stroll through a dazzling food hall and market, and home to The Slanted Door and other appealing eateries.
For a less urban setting, venture north across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Farmers Market in San Rafael, where farmers, ranchers, cheese makers, bakers, bee-keepers and shellfish harvesters from Marin and Sonoma counties present their goods next to the Marin Civic Center building, a striking pink and blue building (it looks better than it sounds) designed by master architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Markets take place on Thursdays and Sundays year-round. On Thursdays, join the street-fair scene of Downtown San Rafael Farmers’ Market, Thursdays April to September, with live music and pop-up food booths.
Venture further north, through rolling ranch land, to this friendly market in Sonoma County. This Sunday morning year-round affair, always jazzed up with live music and plenty of prepared foods for noshing, attracts some of the best growers and food producers presenting beautiful fruits, vegetables, flowers and artisan foods. There are fresh pies and loaves; Woodleaf Farm has peaches like you remember them; and Middleton Farm's strawberries are so sweet, you'll swear they were dipped first in jam.
Markets in the centre of the state are about as close to the source as you can get. This is the heart of California’s rich agricultural history, and continues today not just with big farms, but an increasing number of boutique, family-owned and -run farms growing diverse crops in innovative, eco-conscious new ways. And farmers’ markets are a great way to sample the results.
A long-standing favourite is Davis Farmers’ Market, held on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings in this friendly university town. It seems like everyone in town pedals their bikes to be part of this lively community event in leafy Central Park. The scene gets even more festive on Wednesday evenings, mid-March to October, when Picnic in the Park unfurls, with wine and beer tastings, ethnic food booths, local bands, pony rides and other kids’ activities.
The state capital has an appealing collection of farmers’ markets. Sunday morning’s Farmers' Market—cleverly using the cool shade provided by a motorway overpass—is filled with multicultural farmers offering familiar and unusual produce. Think of it as an international taste experience, with fresh lemongrass at Thao Fresh Produce, as well as plenty of fat tomatoes and juicy berries, and takeaway foods like fresh potpies and golden waffles.
Plan to visit this sunny Central Coast college town on a Thursday—stick around until evening and you’ll see why that’s the best day of the week. More than 120 farmers and food purveyors, plus artists, musicians and singers, fill a five-block area downtown—closed to cars during the event—so you can stroll, sample, relax and take in the lively scene. Anchored by a collection of barbecue grills serving pulled pork, artichokes and everything in between, the market is a sensory treasure trove, with amazing sights, smells, sounds and of course tastes.
If you like a little stargazing while you shop, the assorted farmers’ markets held in this coastal city are a good bet for spotting celebs loading up on fresh organic fruit and veg. On Saturday and Wednesday mornings, several blocks of Arizona Avenue in town are blocked off for a massive market, jammed with impossibly attractive locals. This market is known as a showcase for local chefs, who do weekly cooking demos using ingredients from that day’s market.
For a farmers’ market feel without the once-a-week schedule, this friendly destination in Rancho Santa Fe is the perfect find—it’s open every day but Monday. About a half-hour drive north of the city bustle, this is the place to discover new varieties of familiar produce, including multiple kinds of tomatoes, beans, melons and squash, plus white corn so sweet and delicious you might just move here. Try unusual offerings—strawberry figs, salsify, Jerusalem artichokes, red carrots and candy lime mint. Keep your eyes peeled too; the shop is a favourite haunt of leading chefs and is on the radar of Alice Waters, considered the leading force behind California’s focus on fresh, seasonal, local ingredients.
Abundant sunshine, a moderate climate and a healthy amount of rain make this part of the Central Coast ripe for a year-round cornucopia of fresh produce, much of it grown organically. The locavore and slow food movements are big here, and chefs source food mostly within a 100-mile radius. The area hosts farmers' markets every day of the week except Mondays, and while they are all worth a visit, the signature event is that one on Tuesday afternoons, when downtown’s State Street morphs into the ultimate place to be, with food, music and beautiful people. White-jacketed chefs snap up thick bunches of fresh herbs to use that night on just-caught local sea bass or black cod. Kids say “thank you” to farmers offering samples of juicy peaches and guitar-strumming folk singers gather clusters of listeners. Really—does it get any more ‘California’ than this?
Can’t make it on Tuesday? Try La Cumbre Plaza (Wednesdays), Carpinteria (Thursdays), Montecito (Fridays), Town Centre (Saturdays) and Camino Real Marketplace (Sundays). Consider this your chance to try something new like funky looking cherimoya, nicknamed ‘custard apple’ for its creamy white inner fruit. From avocados and aubergines to figs and fennel, melons and squash, pears and persimmons, the food—and the people—make for an unforgettable day.
Outside Toby's Feed Barn in Point Reyes Station, it's all about straw hats, local gossip and live bluegrass in this back-of-beyond hamlet north of San Francisco. This low-key, all-organic market has only a handful of booths, but in this teeny, never-too-touristy town, it's a prime example of how quality trumps quantity. Look for a simple white banner in back that says GBD. That stands for Golden, Brown, Delicious—three words that perfectly describe what’s sold here, incredible grilled cheese sandwiches: fresh bread from Osteria Stellina (one of the town’s quietly amazing restaurants), oozing with local Cowgirl Creamery cheese. Settle down on a bale of hay and enjoy—perfect for fuelling up before a hike in nearby Point Reyes National Seashore.