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Season's Eatings

The winter's last farmers market offers great greens - and a localvore's dilemma


  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Orsini's BBQ

It’s the final Burlington Winter Farmers Market of the year, and vendors’ tables are topped with encouraging quantities of green stuff. There are bags of spinach here, fiddleheads and wild nettles there. Eaters wander the aisles, sampling bits of cheese and sips of local wine. Occasionally, there’s a flash of the other kind of green, as someone springs for a leg of just-slaughtered lamb or an odiferous bouquet of green garlic. The din of people chatting and laughing rises over the strains of music from a band on stage.

In just three weeks, the whole shindig will move outdoors and swell in size. With a bit of new territory in City Hall Park and 62 booths — about 10 more than last year — this summer’s market will be the largest ever. Most of the “new” sellers, including Naga Bakehouse and the Bakery at the Farmhouse Kitchen, will be familiar — many operated on “day passes” last year, which allowed them to fill in when regular vendors were away. A couple, including sauce maker It’s Arthur’s Fault, are newcomers. “We like to bring in a few new vendors each year to keep it fresh,” explains market manager Chris Wagner.

But even here, at the smaller, cold-season market, there’s plenty of good stuff to be had. I snag a round of silky La Fleurie cheese from Willow Hill Farm and a tub of chèvre from Does’ Leap. Then there’s tangy, squeaky sauerkraut from Arethusa Collective and apples from Champlain Orchards. A final coup: a few tingly slugs of Rookie’s Root Beer. Now it’s time for lunch.

Here’s an odd thing about the market, particularly the indoor one: It’s tough to find prepared foods that actually incorporate the myriad meats and vegetables farmers sell there. In several walks around the circuit, I locate just two savory items whose makers trumpet their local ingredients: a curried potato samosa from the Samosaman table, featuring Green Mountain tubers; and two kinds of gooey grilled-cheese sandwiches from Ploughgate Creamery.

The aroma of smoky meat from Orsini’s BBQ is almost too much to resist. But back in January, when I asked the owner where he gets his flesh, he admitted it’s conventional. The burly male incarnation of Tamale Girl, who took over when founder Monica Mead moved to New Zealand, said something similar when I questioned him about the meat in his tamales.

It’s enough to cause cognitive dissonance. How can a farmers market be stocked with food made of stuff from afar?

When asked about the issue, Wagner seems almost sheepish. He explains that prepared-food vendors have been “strongly encouraged” to use local sources, but that some require ingredients for various ethnic cuisines — such as rice — that aren’t locally available. Others simply can’t afford to buy local. According to Wagner, Angel “Sonny” Orsini hasn’t been able to find a local supplier that will sell him just the cuts he needs for his ’cue. “He said, ‘They want to sell me half a pig when all I need is a shoulder,’” Wagner says.

Members of the market’s steering committee recognize the mixed messages the “foreign-vore” fare sends. “We had our annual meeting in February, and we discussed it quite a bit,” says Wagner. The upshot? Over the next couple of years, vendors will need to start purchasing a quarter of their ingredients from local sources, preferably from their fellow sellers. The committee is creating signs to display the origins of ingredients.

Unable to find an empty seat, I settle on a staircase with my spicy potato samosa. My lunch may be low carbon, but it’s certainly not low carb: If Orsini’s BBQ ever provides a platter of smoked local meat, I’ll be the first in line.