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FOOD & TRAVEL

What bounty here by the bay

By M.E. Malone
Globe Correspondent / May 27, 2009
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SAN FRANCISCO - Fog hovers, shrouding the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge just over the shoulders of local shoppers who are crisscrossing the Ferry Pier at a determined pace in search of Noe Valley bread, Far West fungi, Point Reyes blue cheese, Petaluma eggs, and mountains of just-picked organic produce. Dirty Girl Produce's bright strawberries beckon, as do Tokyo turnips, breakfast radishes, and red Russian kale.

East Coast visitors might find the temptations of this bountiful outdoor market at the Ferry Building a bit hard to take. Irrational thoughts flash through the mind. "Could I toss a salad of stinging nettles and other fresh greens in my hotel room?" "Maybe the Cherokee purple heirloom tomatoes won't smash in my carry-on."

Even the residents aren't blase about the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, which was renovated six years ago (the farmers' market has been in existence since 1993). "We are lucky, yes," says Lisa Meyer, attaching an overflowing bag onto a slick two-wheeled device designed to hold the morning's finds. She is one of hundreds of city dwellers who are nearly done with their shopping by 8:30 a.m., a half-hour after the market opens on Saturday. Others linger near the ready-to-eat food stands. Even at 9 o'clock, pork chops and fried eggs from Prather Ranch Meat Co. of Fall River Mills are popular. The scent of breakfast tamales, quesadillas, and chilaquiles Guanajuato at Primavera Cocina of Sonoma prompts the longest line.

The market is organized by the Center for Urban Education About Sustainable Agriculture, or CUESA. On a recent Saturday, more than 90 vendors from the Bay Area and beyond are set up on the sidewalk in front of the Ferry Building, as well as on plazas to the side and behind it. A smaller collection of vendors gather in the same spot on Tuesdays, attracting office workers who come for lunch and to buy fresh items for their evening meal. Inside the Ferry Building itself are more than 40 businesses, most with a food focus and open daily.

"Come early," says Christine Farren, administrative and events manager at CUESA. "The local shoppers are all here then, so come and enjoy it with them." CUESA also offers a host of programs in conjunction with the market that include Saturday morning cooking demonstrations, an artisanal cocktail class, tapas-making, and seasonal suppers.

Start the morning with a rhubarb tartlet from Frog Hollow Farm. Handheld food won't limit your mobility and there's much to see. Bring a lightweight bag and plan a picnic lunch from the abundance here: an Acme Bread olive roll, Cowgirl Creamery cheese, fresh artichoke spread from Bodega and Yerba Santa. Just-picked strawberries or a chocolate-filled bomboloni from Boriana's Cafe are among the myriad sweets. There are items you can take home: dried heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo of Napa are so fresh you needn't soak them overnight before cooking; bright kumquats from Paradez Farms of Exeter would surely survive a cross-continental flight.

David Wonsberg, who grew up on a pepper farm in South Florida, starts seedlings there each year, then ships them to California. They're ready for sale in May. Meantime, his Happy Quail Farms displays small vials of paprika made from the peppers they grow, from sweet to hot. Tuck a few of these small treasures into your roll-aboard for a year-round reminder of California's climate.

Allstar Organics offers jars of French sea salts flavored with dried herbs from their Marin County farm, alongside rose petal sugar, oils distilled from aromatic plants, and, if you have a conscientious pet, organic catnip. Happy Girl Kitchen Co. has pickled vegetables and Knoll Farms of Brentwood sells olives that the ambitious can cure at home. If your load gets too heavy, a "veggie valet" allows shoppers to check their purchases until the market closes at 2 p.m.

Save time, too, for one of the cooking demonstrations offered most weekends. Learn a new recipe from a local chef, who chooses ingredients from the farm stalls first thing in the morning. A recent session with Bay Area chef Charles Vollmar begins with a warm asparagus soup followed by a bright fava bean and vegetable saute topped with asparagus pesto. "Come here with ideas of what you might like to make, but not necessarily a specific recipe," he says. "Pick the best of what you see, go home, and make something fun with it."

Even if home is 2,700 miles away.

Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, along the Embarcadero at the foot of Market Street, open Tues 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sat 8-2, www.cuesa.org. On July 2, a Thursday farmers' market will open from 10-2.