In one of Manhattan’s few green and open spaces lies the world-famous Union Square Market. Established 36 years ago, the farmer’s market runs four times a week and is a must for local shoppers and foodies. Open on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, there’s ample time for a visit in even the briefest of schedules. It’s open all day, but jet-lagged Europeans can head there early to see the stallholders setting up – it’s the perfect way to start your day. It’s also just one of dozens of markets run in the city by the non-profit New York Greenmarket initiative.
When the market opened in 1976 there were just seven suppliers, and the market was sold out of everything by noon. Now, during the peak season, it serves over 250,000 customers a week, and has over 140 traders and artisanal food makers of all kinds. From the smallest stalls offering homemade preserves, to huge stalls sourcing the best vegetables straight from the farm, suppliers aim to provide over a thousand varieties of fruit and vegetables during the height of the season. Even better, much of the unsold produce is donated to local soup kitchens and charities like City Harvest for redistribution among the hungry and homeless.
On the day that I visited the market there were sixty-one producers listed on the market’s website. Updated for each market day, the list lets you know who will be selling that day, and gives you an idea of their range. It also details the many food demonstrations that will be taking part within the market. That day the range included everything from herbal tinctures, to hydroponic tomatoes – there was even a stallholder selling emu and ostrich eggs.
I spoke to the bakers at Bread Alone Bakers – they make their bread by hand and it is baked in a wood-fired oven. Established in 1983 in the Catskill Mountains, they were one of the first suppliers to send goods to the market when it was formed. They stock a large range of bread made with organic grains, as well as pastries, muffins and cakes. All of their grains are sourced locally and many are grown specifically for them. As a result they are able to minimise their food miles to produce sustainable bread.
Another huge and founding stall-holder, the S & S O Produce Farms, come from Goshen, sixty miles to the North of Manhattan. Goshen is in the “black dirt” region formed at the end of the ice age, when glaciers melted to form a shallow lake. The resulting soil is peaty, rich and perfect for growing vegetables. Their stall is packed high with spring onions, radishes, red and golden beetroot, turnips carrots, and herbs of every kind. On display were at least six varieties of tomato, and several of spring-onion. They also sell their own pickles and sauces.
Wandering down the stalls I come across the Bullich Mushroom Farm. A third-generation farm, they specialize in a variety of exotic and regular mushrooms. The only cultivated mushroom farm in New York, they grow their fungi in 700 acres of temperature-controlled barns. Founded by a Yugoslavian immigrant, the family-run Bullich Farm is the last remaining mushroom farmer in the Hudson Valley, from a peak of around forty in the 1950’s. This success is due partly to their early adoption of the Union Square Greenmarket, where they can sell mushrooms picked within the last twenty-four hours directly to the public. Mushrooms are delicately placed in paper bags, and handed with over with care. Nearly three months of intense work has gone into these fungi, and they want you to have them in perfect condition.
The boys from McEnroe Organic Farm laugh at my accent, but happily pointed me in the direction of the farm’s website and Facebook page. Farmers in the market are happy to engage with their customers on all manner of levels, and the McEnroe Farm has over a thousand followers on Facebook. It also regularly Tweets pictures of its produce to its followers. Fresh tomatoes were carefully laid out on the stall to avoid bruising, and they had little tasting samples to allow the public to taste their wares.
I also met Heather Graves of Berkshire Berries. Based out in Massachusetts, Heather sells her family’s jellies, jams and maple syrup at the Union Square market twice a week. Her parents established Berkshire Berries in the late seventies, and they still make their produce from fruit grown either on their land, or locally. Heather also sells her father’s famous New York City Honey from hives based in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. With hundreds of thousands of bees producing around 350lbs of heavily scented honey a year, David Graves is looking to increase the number of hives he has dotting the skyscrapers and roof-gardens of New York.
Throughout the market there is a real sense of dedication and pride in the produce. From the tiniest to the largest, vendors were answering questions about the provenance of their goods. The Union Street market is a testament to consumer’s engagement with the food they eat, and the producers who deliver it. Even this early in the season there were the first of the peaches, young cherries, a huge abundance of root vegetables and salads. The Square also provides the backdrop for a vibrant café scene, and the garden within the Square saw people happily eating lunch bought moments before in the market.
Walking around the stalls I buy a sourdough roll, lambs lettuce, a young peach, a fine sliver of raw-milk baby Swiss cheese, and head into the small but verdant park. From farm to lunch in around twenty-four hours, sitting in one of the busiest cities in the world, you can’t help thinking New Yorkers are onto something.
For a list of the Greenmarkets in New York City, and a breakdown of the day’s supplies, go to www.grownyc.org/
Further Information about the author
Jacqueline Roe’s website: www.jaxroe
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