Do you live near a landmark attraction that you’ve never explored? The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco has been one of those places for me. Frankly, I’ve never felt the need to drive into the city to shop for produce since I have a wealth of farm-fresh options right here in the East Bay. I subscribe to a weekly CSA box, frequently shop at Berkeley Bowl and can drop in on other area farmers markets nearly every day of the week. But I’ve always been curious about the highly touted market outside the Ferry Building. So I was thrilled to have Oakland-based interior designer Michelle Wempe, a terrific cook and farmers market enthusiast, offer to tour me around some of her favorite vendors there.
“Cooking is just another avenue to design,” said Michelle as we talked about the intersection of her work and play. “It’s about melding a lot of different flavors just as we combine colors and textiles and furnishings in a residential design.” She assured me that the vendors at this market were the best of the bunch and that even if it meant getting up early on a Saturday morning and driving into the city, I wouldn’t be disappointed. She was right. Come see what I saw.
Michelle and her partner Harris arrive early to meet friends for coffee and do their shopping before the crowds show up around 9:00. The Market is held outside the Ferry Building on the San Francisco Embarcadero and waterfront sides of the building which is part of its appeal. I mean look at this view.
And check out the well-fed regulars.
Inside the Ferry Building you’ll find upscale food vendors like Acme Bread and Cowgirl Creamery along with housewares purveyors like Sur La Table and The Gardener. Outside, September’s bounty includes some of my favorite fruits – plums and pomegranates.
The last of the corn and tomatoes.
And the beginning of the winter squashes. Such a cheery sight as the days grow shorter.
It also brings a new crop of heirloom apples. Here are some of the varieties sold by Stan DeVoto of DeVoto Farms. Part of the fun of touring with Michelle was having her introduce me to the farmers.
After all, I grew up on a potato farm in southeastern Idaho and know how much farmers like my dad and brother care about their crops and love to talk about them. I just wish my dad was still alive to see all the varieties of potatoes available today.
We were hosting friends for dinner and though I had my main course in place I asked Michelle for some ideas for easy produce-inspired appetizers. “I usually opt for something simple like seasonal fruit and cheese or some sautéed peppers,” she said, leading me over to Happy Quail Farms where she introduced me to owner David Winsberg in his pepper-printed shirt.
He showed me some gorgeous Piment d’Anglet—long red peppers also known as Basque fryers that are cousins to the Jimmy Nardellos sitting at home on my countertop. They would make an excellent side dish for a main course sometime, but for an appetizer both Winsberg and Michelle agreed that the Padron peppers sauteed until they were subtly charred and then finished off with a good salt would be a good bet. “They’re mostly sweet though every tenth pepper can be as hot as a cayenne, which is part of the fun,” said Winsberg. Ok, so Russian roulette pepper appetizers it would be.
Then Michelle helped me pick the perfect figs at Knoll Farms as a second starter.
Fun fact—Michelle and Harris actually met at the Farmers Market when he was helping Rick Knoll out on busy Saturdays. “Harris waited on me every week which eventually led to a dinner invitation with some other market friends, and the rest, as they say is history.”
Along with all the beautiful produce and fresh flower vendors, there are a fair number of prepared food purveyors. Bottled products like jams or pepper sauces would be great for gifts as the holiday approaches.
There are also a number of bakers selling bread and pastries. I picked up a few pie slices from Three Babes Bakeshop to take home to M.J.before heading into the Ferry Building to grab some pain epi from Acme to serve with dinner.
Laden with my bags of treasures (Michelle says she often brings a little rolling cart if she’s doing serious shopping) I made my way to my car in the small Ferry Building Parking Lot across the street. Alas, I didn’t realize I needed to have my ticket validated by a vendor and almost paid a hefty sum for parking. Fortunately, the toll taker gave me the benefit of the doubt —“this time only”—when he saw all my bags of produce.
So, if you live in the Bay Area or are visiting here on a weekend and want to make the most of the celebrated Ferry Plaza Farmers Market remember to get your parking ticket validated and follow designer Michelle Wempe’s top three tips for navigating the market:
1. Come early. The market officially opens at 8:00 but you can often start shopping at 7:30. That’s also the best time to spot the professional chefs doing their shopping.
2. Be Flexible. This isn’t a supermarket that will have everything available in all seasons. Some people love the summer market best, but there are always interesting and tasty options here. Let the market inspire you.
3. Get to know the farmers. They know their produce better than anyone and can educate you about how best to use what you see at the market.
Thanks for a terrific tour, Michelle. I loved seeing the bounty laid out on my kitchen counter.
And that night the figs and roasted peppers were outstanding.