Summer is far from New England’s best season – but at least there are farmers markets
What’s so great about farmers markets? Look no further than the fresh produce on display last weekend in Presque Isle, Maine. (Courtesy of Stephanie White Ferland)
If pressed to list the seasons in order of preference, summer would land at the bottom of my list. Fall and winter are nearly tied for first place, and spring isn’t far behind. Maybe if summer was a steady 76 degrees with a breeze, I might reconsider. But those sweltering days really get me down.
I know I am in the minority. There are people who worship the sun, who wait all year for the chance to bust out their box of summer clothes and buy a new pair of flip-flops. I even know people who have moved to the southern climes on purpose. But I still don’t get it. Give me a chilly morning, some wool socks and a flannel shirt, a hot mug of coffee or tea wrapped in my hands, and I’m a happy girl.
Summer does arrive with one of my favorite things however – farmers markets. The most magnificent market I’ve ever experienced is probably the Norwich Farmers Market in Norwich, Vermont. If you live in, or are traveling through, the Upper Valley on a Saturday morning from May through October, that’s where you want to find yourself. Trust me on this.
The vendor booths are as unique as the vendors themselves. Tables are overflowing with produce and parcels of handmade cheese wrapped in wax paper. You will come face to face with quart boxes of berries, baked goods, and bottled syrups. There are heirloom tomatoes and early potatoes, alongside peonies in June and pumpkins in October. Decorative corn stalks stand next to mountains of wool yarn, its fiber the perfect combination of usefulness and beauty. Hand-turned wooden spoons and bowls made from salvaged burls cover a long plank table. Prepared foods range from warm croissants filled with chocolate to cheddar scones that melt in your mouth. You may have to decide whether to drop your dollars down for Woodlawn Farm’s famous pickles or Umpleby’s British hand pies in mouthwatering options like curried chicken or mushroom leek. When I find myself faced with that dilemma, I always get both. After all, I feel it is my civic duty to support the local agricultural economy as robustly as I can. It’s a sacrifice to be sure, but what can I say?
It’s not just treasures of the edible variety to be had at a farmers market. My kitchen shelves are filled with hand-thrown pottery plates and bowls, made by Jeff Pentland of North Hartland, Vermont. There are bars of goat’s milk soap ready and waiting in the pantry cupboard, and it must be said that I am a sucker for bouquets of fresh flowers, whether they come standing tall in a Mason jar or enveloped in tissue and tied up with a sturdy piece of twine.
It was at the Enfield, N.H., Farmers Market nearly 20 years ago that I learned to knit.
I would visit the market nearly every week, never leaving with much more than some fresh vegetables or frozen meat from a local farm. But, I would also wander up to a table covered in hanks of yarn, the warm hues of brown and oatmeal, cream and slate gray so pleasing to the eye. I would pause and gently run my fingers over the mounds of fiber, wishing I knew how to turn it into something other than one long piece of string.
The older woman who sat at the table every week told me that the yarn came from wool shorn from the flock of sheep raised by her and her sister. When she asked if I knew how to knit, I shamefully admitted that I didn’t.
After admiring the yarn for a few weeks in a row, the woman informed me that knitting was actually quite easy, and she was confident that she could teach me. All I had to do was bring some knitting needles with me the following week and she would set me on the path. She certainly gave it her best shot, and eventually I did learn how to knit. It was not, however, as easy as I had anticipated.
She started me off with a simple scarf – it really does not get any easier than that. After nearly an hour and a half of her gentle guidance, I was feeling pretty darn good about myself, and my 6-inch-wide scarf. I was instructed to take it home and continue, then come back next week to show her the finished product.
For three evenings in a row I worked diligently on my little piece of handiwork. But the strangest thing happened. That 6-inch scarf had slowly and surely expanded and ended up being nearly a foot wide. Clearly I had done something wrong.
I took the scarf to work the next day and asked my friend Cari to have a look. “I think I’ve done something wrong here,” I told her. Cari chuckled and replied, “You think?” before slowly pulling out several rows of wool and hours of labor. She watched me knit the next two rows and helped me to understand that I had been making a new stitch at the end of every row, hence the widening scarf. I should have felt completely stupid, but I actually felt a tiny bit of glee because that meant not only did I know how to make the knit and purl stitches, I could also make increases!
When learning something new, it’s good to remember that it’s all about perspective. Plus, looking on the bright side helps ease the sting of messing up.
The patience of that sheep farmer planted the seeds of a love of knitting, a productive pastime that has kept me happy even on the darkest of northern nights. That farmers market introduced me to a world of possibility, and has led to countless hats, scarves, socks, mittens, baby blankets, and even sweaters.
There’s not much that beats the feeling of making something with my own hands, knowing exactly where the ingredients came from – whether it’s a fisherman’s sweater made from local wool, or a hearty stew filled with meat and vegetables from small farms. Maple syrup poured over sourdough pancakes on a Sunday morning tastes sweeter when you have looked the sap collector in the eye, acknowledging the countless hours of labor that went into that liquid gold. The same goes for the evening tea in the handmade mug, and the stained-glass ornaments that hang from the Christmas tree every year.
I often feel as if the world just gets bigger and bigger, further out of reach and understanding. I believe that I bear some responsibility, as an inhabitant on this planet, to have some awareness and connection to the global picture. But I also believe that by bringing as much of my everyday life in as close as possible, by supporting and enjoying the fruits of local labors of love, I am in turn making the bigger world better, too.
And, farmers markets make that pretty easy to do, even if they do happen in the summer.
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