As a child, award-winning chef Steve Corry remembers marveling at the local markets in his father’s native Ireland, which carried whole rabbits and baskets of onions and potatoes with dirt still on them. Not surprisingly, today he prefers to use local growers and producers when buying ingredients for his restaurant, Five Fifty-Five, in Portland, Maine. “I like talking to the farmers…. I like seeing where my food has come from,” he says. “And smelling it too. I still prefer to pick up a cut of lamb and get that muttony scent.”
More and more people these days — not just chefs, but everyday home cooks and travelers, too — are developing an appreciation for farmers’ markets. In fact, some of these local spots for buying fruits, vegetables, dairy, seafood, and meat directly from the growers are even becoming tourist attractions.
As a result, weekly markets are flourishing across America. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these urban outposts for farmers have grown from 2,863 in 2000 to 5,274 in 2009.
And while part of the fun of shopping here is certainly sensory (sticking your nose in a bouquet of fresh dill, testing the snap of wax beans just off the vine, sampling 10 kinds of apple slices), community sustainability — small regional operations employing organic or eco-minded practices — is a big part of the draw, too. With the diversity of farmers’ market offerings these days, the chances to appreciate such agricultural bounty are, well, bountiful.
So which urban locales feature the best country flavor?
In Travel + Leisure’s annual America’s Favorite Cities Survey, we asked readers to rank 30 U.S. cities on their markets. The consensus? Seattle, Portland, Ore., and New Orleans offer the best farmer fare, while Phoenix, Miami, and Las Vegas fared less well. (Of course, most visitors to Sin City are probably more interested in finding cherries and watermelons on their slot machines.)
But a poorly ranked city doesn’t necessarily mean its markets are all bad. New York City finished 25th in our survey, but the Big Apple boasts one of America’s top markets: the sprawling Union Square Greenmarket . Here you’ll find springtime favorites like ramps, sunchokes, and fresh-milled buckwheat flour — all from farms just a couple hours north of Midtown Manhattan. And at Seattle’s University District market, foodies can try chanterelles, truffles, and fiddleheads foraged from the deep forests that surround the city.
Experiencing local products — learning their provenance, tasting them, developing an appreciation for them — makes cooking and eating more enjoyable, says Steve Corry. It also makes a delicious meal feel something like a communal project.
“When I plan my restaurant’s menu, it’s not just my choices going into the dishes, it’s the farmers’,” Corry says. “It’s their menu as much as mine.”