It’s hard to imagine a farmers market prettier than Occidental’s, nestled as it is in the heart of downtown, encircled by trees reaching skyward and surrounded by local stores, restaurants and pubs. Stalls stretch along the parking area on the east side of Bohemian Highway; Howard’s Station, located towards the south end of the market, sets up an outside dining area where customers can linger over a glass of wine after shopping.
The market, in its 10th season, opened on June 3 and continues through the end of October; it begins at 4 p.m. and wraps up at dusk. The community has embraced its market since its earliest days, support that is reflected in the market’s steady growth. After beginning with just a handful of vendors in the parking lot of what is currently Barley and Hops tavern, it moved across the street and today stretches for about 2 1/2 blocks; there are plans to expand for another half block or so, possibly this year.
Unlike some community markets, which can feel more like street fairs or carnivals than destinations for locally grown and produced foods, the Occidental farmers market is all about farmers, ranchers and other hands-on producers. Some, such as Armstrong Valley Farm, Wild Rose Ranch, Oh Tommy Boy’s Organic Farm and First Light Farm, attend many local market while others, including Vine Hill Farm, Swallow Valley Farms and Hands Full Farm, are less visible county-wide.
Bohemian Well-Being Farm, which sells wild and cultivated mushrooms, is at home here in Occidental, though they attend several other markets, too.
Bloomfield Farms has beautiful spinach right now, along with lettuces, artichokes, herbs, sweet strawberries and more. Rainbow’s End Farms has its first currants of the season, tart scarlet berries that will sweeten as the weather warms. Bohemian Farmers Collective has plump bok choy, tender lettuces, broccoli and beautiful bouquets of unusual flowers and grasses.
Armstrong Valley Farms is in the midst of its garlic harvest and it is a great crop, each clove juicy and full of good true garlic flavor. They also have plenty of eggs, summer squash, red and yellow onions, kale and kohlrabi, although the kohlrabi had sold out by the time I got to the market. Vine Hill Farm has spectacular bouquets with some of the most beautiful canterbury bells–both pink and deep blueish purple–I’ve seen in years, along with sweet pea bouquets, ruffly peonies, salad mix and lettuce. Hands Full Farm has eggs, garlic and blackberry jam.
The French Garden Restaurant Farm, which appears at markets throughout the county, has a remarkably diverse harvest right now, with the last of the year’s Mandarins and artichokes overlapping with cherries, favas, yellow and orange carrots, feathery bulbs of fennel, broccolini, lettuces, arugula and herbs. Twin Peaks has citrus, stone fruit, jams and two fruit syrups, pomegranate and peach.
Bloomfield Bees offers a selection of honeys, which you can taste before buying, and First Light Farm has plenty of fresh shoots. While some farmers are already harvesting fairly large zucchini and other summer squashes, there are still plenty of seedlings if you’re late getting your garden going. Several vendors have good selections of plant and flower starts, including perennials. One farmer has a bucketful of dried safflowers full of seeds ready to be planted.
There are two meat vendors at this market, Victorian Farmstead of Sebastopol, with lamb, pork and whole chicken, and Swallow Valley Farms, with lamb, pork, beef and beautiful blue-green eggs from happy hens. Cheese is from Valley Ford Cheese Co., Wild Rose Ranch offers their delicate fermented foods, including sauerkraut, apple kraut, kimchi and cortido, Casa La Belle Breads of Monte Rio has a great selection of baked goods and chocolate lovers satisfy their jones with bonbons from Salt Side Down Chocolates. Capay Extra Virgin Olive Oil of Sonoma offers its awarding-winning olive oil and if your food processor is broken, The Hummus Guy is a good alternative for hummus and other Middle Eastern dips, along with salads and appetizers. Paul’s Smoked Salmon is popular here, as it is at every market vendor Paul Thornton attends.
When it comes to food to enjoy on the spot, it’s popular and plentiful in Occidental. Lata’s Indian Cuisine does brisk business, including with its delicious coconut tapioca and pineapple. My favorite of Mommy’s Yammys Mediterranean foods is a grilled sausage wrapped in a tender warm pita, topped with greens and slathered with tangy yogurt sauce. The paella here is popular, too, but what I am most pleased to find is Kashaya’s Brick Oven Pizza. Of all the wood-burning-ovens-on-wheels, Kashaya’s is my favorite. I love her flavor combinations and find her pizza crust, which is both tender and chewy, as good as it gets.
A booth of master gardeners drew a lot of attention, as shoppers pulled out their iphones and cameras to take pictures of a live gopher in a large bucket of soil, near a sign that said “Know Your Enemy,” a classic Occidental moment. I laughed when I saw it and thought of “Gopher Soup for Six,” a collection of west Sonoma County tales written by Amie Hill in 1999.
KOWS, the local public radio station, has a booth in the heart of the market. Last Friday evening, Michel Saga stood nearby, playing an antique French music box and singing old Parisian tunes in his evocatively gravely voice, lending a pleasing French atmosphere to the evening and inspiring a little girl to dance tirelessly alongside. As the sun sank down below the trees and vendors packed up their wares, I walked to my car, sorry that I had missed the opportunity to buy a “draft dragon,” a stuffed snake-like creature perfect for keeping both draft and dust from blowing through gaps in cottage doors. I’ll get one next time, I promised myself, as this is a market that beckons shoppers to return.
The Occidental Certified Farmers Market takes place each Friday from 4 p.m. until dusk in the main block of downtown. For more information, visit occidentalfarmersmarket.com.