R ecently at the Upper State Farm Market (USFM), a newcomer debuted at the Bethany-based Simon’s Greenhouse table, creating quite a stir among market-goers and resulting in a sold-out appearance.
It turns out this warmly welcomed celebrity was no stranger to farmer/“jobber” (a term for one who shops local farms, picking out the best produce to sell at the market) Simon Donato, who introduced his old friend with an Italian name—pronounced “fen-nook” (spelled “finocchio”)—otherwise known as “fennel.”
“Fennel is a real harbinger of fall,” says Donato, “even more than apples. It’s a local tradition. The Italian farmers in my area had been raising it since before I was born.” Around Halloween time decades ago as a farmhand, the young Donato and his pals would sneak out at night to the farm and swipe a stalk of fresh fennel to snack on surreptitiously in the field.
The strong licorice taste of raw fennel was like candy to the boys. It grows even sweeter after the first frost hits, and once harvested, the hardy bulb keeps well into the winter.
“I remember eating it in February,” says Donato. “My grandmother would go downstairs [where it was stored] and bring it up as a treat on a Sunday. She’d break off two end pieces, quarter them, and we’d all get a piece.” Next to the fennel at the Simon’s table, you’ll also find apples, cider by the glass, gallon or half-gallon (from Wallingford’s Blue Hills Orchard—the sweetest I’ve tasted so far this season), pears, cauliflower, broccoli, greens, mums and more.
At Darling Farm (of Woodbridge) and their table at the Market, fall means greens: lettuces, micro greens, sunflower shoots, curly kale, rainbow chard and more—all grown using sustainable practices (like cover-cropping, composting, crop rotation and “love,” according to their sign). Greens like “kale and chard are really happy in the cooler weather—better now than they were in the summer,” says Darling’s Caitlin Taylor. At Darling, fall also brings radiant root veggies, like pink French breakfast radishes and Japanese Hakurei salad turnips—a sweet, juicy, cross between a radish and a turnip (which, sliced thin, are a delightfully crunchy addition to salads). Though they may seem “a little weird,” Darling’s Aaron Taylor encourages customers to try them raw. “They’re one of our favorite things—and they’re really good pickled, too.”
Like fennel and Hakurei turnips, “sometimes there are ‘mystery’ vegetables that people get really pumped about,” notes USFM organizer Natalie Peña. “People get excited about squash,” she says, her enthusiasm clearly identifying her as one of them. “There are so many variations of squash over there [at Smith’s Acres]! And people get excited about ‘hyper-sustainable’ and ‘hyper-local,’ which we strive for.”
Peña, a self-described “agricultural food junkie,” worked at Kansas-based nonprofit The Land Institute as well as Bodhichitta Farms (of Prospect, Conn.) and New Haven’s CitySeed before taking the reigns at USFM.
The USFM was started in 2009 by a handful of neighbors and merchants who saw a need to offer fresh, local, affordable produce to residents in the East Rock, Cedar Hill and Jocelyn Square neighborhoods, and to help to connect local farmers with residents. It’s run by a volunteer committee of locals, in coordination with the Upper State Street Association.
Originally held in the parking lot at 1010 State Street, the market relocated in August to the bustling corner of State and Humphrey Streets. Attendance was dwindling at the former location (due in part to the blocked-off State St. intersection). On the final Saturday there in mid-August, “it was a downpour,” recalls Peña. “At the end of day I was standing in six inches of water. I said, ‘That’s it, we’re leaving!’”
The move proved to be a beneficial one: at the new spot, attendance got an immediate boost and has maintained a steady flow of about 150 visitors per week, according to Peña. Some of that traffic is no doubt due to Peña’s passion and powers of persuasion—particularly when she has a megaphone in hand, calling out to passersby.
“I say the most outlandish things to people,” Peña admits. “It’s fun just to see people laugh.” She’ll call out things like, “There’s an apple over here you that just have to try;” or “What are you eating over there? I bet we have something better!”
State Street’s Chestnut Fine Foods has been an anchor vendor from the start. At their table, you’ll find hot coffee, their own breads and scones (even their own house-made butter!); a hot breakfast item (such as quiche, French toast or “Toad in a Hole”); locally-made tarragon mustard; and fabulous cheeses, including samples (like the recent goat’s milk cheddar from East Granby’s Butterfield Farm).
Chestnut’s treats are certainly part of what vendor Joel LaChance of Goatville Cyclesmith—who offers pedal-powered mobile bike repair and tune-ups on the spot—likes about the Upper State Farm Market. “This is my neighborhood,” says LaChance. “I like to come here and eat, and visit with people, hear the [live, local] music. It’s a nice thing to do on Saturday.”
Amongst the bountiful produce on display (including squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, beans, potatoes, garlic, greens, apples, New Haven-made salsa, local honey and more) from Niantic-based Smith’s Acres—which joined the USFM at this season’s kick off in June—vendor Doug Braun recommends one item in particular: the habanero pepper. “I have two every day. It will change your life. You’ll feel better and it’s very warming,” says Braun. “Just don’t eat the seeds, and try not to get it on your lips.”
Other things to look out for at the last remaining markets of this season (which runs through Oct. 27) are new vendor Truelove Farms, a sustainable farm in Morris, Conn., whose pasture-raised pork and grass-fed beef have already become a hit.
On Oct. 20, there will be a crafter selling recycled guitar string jewelry, and the final market of the season ends on a high note Oct. 27 with live music from Kristen Graves; a food demo from local macrobiotic chef Bill Klar (billklar.com); pumpkin carving; and the return of the “really, really free market” (in collaboration with giftflow.org) where visitors are invited to bring their own re-usable items (from housewares, to artwork, to computers, etc.) to swap and share for free—really!
Upper State Farm Market
895 State St., New Haven (map)
Saturdays through October 27, 10am-1pm
Written and photographed by Kathleen Cei.