The sun is out and you're surrounded by sweet, earthy scents and vibrant colours. Start with ripe, red tomatoes, deep blue grapes, the lush green and yellow of summer squash, and all manner of other mouthwatering, just-picked fare. Then add some texture with the aromas of fresh-baked bread, artisanal cheeses and spicy snacks.
These are the sights and scents of farmers’ market season in Canada. And while the ambience is reason enough to take a stroll through the stalls, savvy shopping can help you make the most of your visit. Use these tips to score the freshest produce and the best deals, and store your haul so you can enjoy that goodness all year-round.
What to do while you’re at the market
Arrive early or come late to get the best choice and deals. The early birds will scoop up the best produce, but vendors often discount their wares towards the end of the day. Better to sell at a cut-rate than go to the trouble and expense of transporting it back to the farm.
Know your seasons. Find a list of seasonally available produce in your province online and keep it handy when you go shopping. In-season produce tends to be fresher, sweeter, more nutritious and often cheaper than out-of-season produce.
Ask about origins. Not all farmers’ markets are created equal. Not all produce is locally grown, and not all vendors are even farmers. Some vendors are actually resellers who pick up produce at food terminals and mark up the price before selling it to you. Ask the vendors where the produce came from; some may be locally grown, but some may have come from hundreds of kilometres away. Remember that generally speaking, the shorter the distance your food travels from farm to table, the fresher and more nutritious it is and the smaller the carbon footprint it makes.
Carry cash and BYOB (bring your own bags). Farmers’ markets tend to set up in public spaces that may not have Internet access, so cash is king. Also, bring your own bags to keep that environmentally friendly vibe going.
Don’t buy too much in the beginning. Most farmers’ markets are on a weekly schedule during the summer, which means you’ve got six to eight weeks of shopping. That gives you time to sample each vendor’s wares and be sure you like the product before purchasing in bulk. If you do buy more than you need, share it with a friend or neighbour. But don’t put off your purchase too long, or the season may be over. The farmer can tell you how much longer a particular fruit or vegetable will be available.
Plan your meals ahead. It’s no different from supermarket shopping: Decide what you’re going to cook so you only buy and use what you need, with no waste. Your budget and the planet will thank you.
What to do when you get back home
Batch cook your meals. Why spend summer nights in a hot kitchen when you could be outside enjoying yourself? Cooking in large batches not only gives you meals for the week, but also lets you use up all those gorgeous veggies you couldn’t resist bringing home.
Freeze what you won't use. Some fruits and vegetables are great for freezing raw, while others are better cooked first, then frozen. Whichever approach you choose, freezing means you can use that lovely, local produce as you need it throughout the year. Want to mix things up? Trying canning some of your favourite fruits and vegetables. Try your hand at chutneys, jams, sauces or even pickles. Just make sure you follow the directions and sterilize everything!
Don't store some fruits and vegetables together. As some fruits mature – apples, bananas and apricots, for example – they release ethylene gas, which can cause other produce nearby to ripen prematurely or even spoil. Keep those fruits separate from other produce.
Farmers’ markets let you enjoy fresh, healthy food that you may not get the rest of the year. So put on your hat, sunscreen and some comfortable walking shoes, and head out to stock up on fabulous fruit and vegetables.
More tips for summer eating: