Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Lately Portland’s Winter Farmer's Market seems down in the dumps. Lighter attendance, difficult parking, a dwindling roster of vendors and its dour basement setting at the Irish Heritage Center are definite detractions.
Compared to last year’s bustling marketplace one farmer sums it up candidly.
“It’s like a morgue here. What happened?”
Ever since Fisbowl Farm left, there’s been a big gap. There’s still plenty of produce to buy from other popular farmers like Goranson Farm, Alewive, Thirty Acre, Buckwheat Blossom and others. And there are lots of providers selling artisanal cheeses, canned goods, meats, poultry, dairy and eggs.
Then what’s the problem?
A quiet morning at the Portland Saturday market
Busier times at the market a few months ago
The market needs to reinvent itself, creating an exciting environment that includes an expanded marketplace of farm-related products beyond what comes from the field. More variety would fill in when the natural demise of produce finally takes a rest for the winter. More baked goods, prepared foods, seafood, crafts and the like would be vital additions.
An occasional food find at Portland market: spinach and ham quiche from Swallowtail Creamery
Delicious lavender and honey focaccia from Tourmalaine Hill Farm at Portland market
But there’s a faction of farm vendors who want to keep it strictly farm grown. The City of Portland also maintains a similar ideology. Prepared foods are not on the city agenda, for example, and the rest of its rules and regulations are mired in dogma governed by ridiculously arcane provisions.
Witness this tidbit from the city charter.
“…does not allow for the sale of such items as rice crispy squares, chocolate chip cookies, chocolate fudge, or brownies, to name a few...
“…cream fillings in pies, cakes or pastries, custard products, meringue topped bakery products, or butter cream type fillings in bakery products, will not be allowed. “
Those sneaky meringues and lethal rice krispy squares are like arsenic throttling the necks of old lace. I can only imagine that sometime in the past an erstwhile lawmaker was nearly felled by a chocolate kiss.
In comparison the other markets in such nearby towns as Saco and Brunswick are vibrant food halls. Witness the vast space at the Fort Andross complex in which the Brunswick Winter Market operates. With over 50 vendors they offer a staggering array of goods.
Hustle and bustle at Brunswick winter market in Ft. Andross
A fixture at the Topsham market, Paula C has joined Brunswick with an ever-changing array of baked goods
One of several fishmongers at the Brunswick market
At the Saco Riverfront Market in the historic old mill complex, its cavernous post and beam space is a dramatic setting for some 40 vendors who offer products that go beyond the typical farmer’s market fare.
Both markets attract a crowd as diverse as local shoppers in LL Bean to trendies sporting Ralph Lauren Purple Label. In either case, it’s shoppers out for some Saturday entertainment while stocking up on local food and wares.
Good and plenty at the Saco riverfront market
Los Tapatios at Saco market
Prepared foods and produce from Highland Ave. greenhouse, farm and market in Scarborough at the Saco market
Popular vendor at Saco market, Dayton's Harris Farm known for its prized veal, ultra sweet corn in season and dairy
Portland, however, is not beyond redemption. The summer market, for instance, is one of the busiest in the state. But if Whitefield farmer, Portland vendor and market organizer, Lauren Pignatello (Swallowtail Farm and Creamery), gets her way big changes are in store for Portland’s winter markets.
One project includes creating a Wednesday evening farmer’s market, which would take place in the burgeoning East Bayside neighborhood where it's still a blank slate. In conjunction with Urban Farm Fermentary, who produces local kombucha, the two factions would join forces.
First in the works is the project, Brush with Love, a fundraiser dinner to be held February 16, at 200 Anderson Street, Bay One, to build a community kitchen. It would be Portland’s first integrated prep kitchen, workshop space and community food hub.
Pignatello sees this as a possible future home for Portland’s farmer’s market--a wide open, easily accessible food center with plenty of parking that could accommodate the growth of Maine’s vital locally sourced economy and its coveted farmers' markets.
Time will tell.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.