Winter has always traumatized New Englanders, but because of the economy (thanks, rapacious mortgage-bundling douche bags!), this past season was particularly grim. If you're anything like us, you spent the hibernation months of '09 filling your discontented belly with cheap-ass comfort foods like ramen noodles and Taco Bell Crunchwraps. But it's summer now, and even though you're still broke, you have options beyond the quickie, in-out-of-the-cold fast-food garbage: there's cheap and healthy food brought almost to your doorstep, straight from Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms and the like. So snap out of your sodium coma and stop stuffing dollar bills into Mickey D's G-string for those "value meals." You can get real value by visiting the outdoor markets popping up on almost every corner through October. Follow our guide and you should be rolling in fresh produce and sustainably raised meat for months.
COPLEY SQUARE In order to reach this bustling market on my late-May trek, I had to first wade through a gauntlet of warm-weather-emboldened MASSPIRGers, panhandlers, and testy anti-war protesters. A mother lode of locally hewn goodies awaited me. On the carbohydrate front, Breadsong Bakery battled for my attention with Iggy's peddled crusty loaves, while the Danish Pastry House offered sweet-toothers cookies and crunchy almond clusters. As for bread spreads, I was torn between Crystal Brook Farm's herb-studded chevre (wrung from their own Saanen and Alpine goats), and Deborah's Kitchen jams (which, at $3 to $7 a jar, are worth the splurge; a broke-ass summer of PB&J is a hell of a lot better when the "J" comprises the berry ambrosia that is "Massachusetts Rubies"). At the stand for Siena Farms (Oleana chef Ana Sortun's CSA farm in Sudbury), the bins overflowed with rhubarb ($4/pound), green garlic ($1 each), Boston lettuce ($3/head), and bundles of irises. In addition to the greens — I ended up snagging a humongo bag of spinach for $4 — the stand's shelves were packed with goodies from Sortun's Sofra bakery, including pickles and Persian spice blends.
BEST FIND Cider donuts from the Apple Barn (New Salem, Massachusetts)
HARVARD SQUARE Situated next to the Charles Hotel, this modest outpost may boast only a few stalls, but it packs a wallop. In fact, you can actually smell this market long before you catch a glimpse of it. That's thanks to Q's Nuts, whose on-site open-flame nut roaster, on the day of my visit, kicked up an irresistible aroma of caramelizing sugar. "I'm all sweets over here," announced the guy manning Q's nut cauldron. At 11 am on Sunday, the market was abuzz with O.G. Cantabrigian earth muffins and sinewy yuppies clutching jogging strollers, dogs, and/or yoga-mat-sprouting tote bags. For them, Hi-Rise Bakery was selling the crunchiest granola the People's Republic has to offer ($6), in addition to boules of whole grain, raisin-pecan, and cheddar-pepper breads ($4 to $8) and a formidable array of preserves (raspberry, fig-chocolate, strawberry, cherry, and plum-orange; $7 to $12). Nearby, the horticulturally inclined swarmed Grateful Farm's booth for its seedlings and potted herbs ($3.50/each; $6/two); the less ambitious, meanwhile, were free to peruse freshly cut spearmint, rosemary, and sage ($2/bunch).
BEST FIND Purple Cherokee heirloom tomatoes from Grateful Farm (Franklin, Massachusetts)
SOWA OPEN MARKET This is less a farmer's market than an open-air bazaar where, in addition to the fruits and veggies, vendors hawk a little bit of everything — including ceramics, chi-chi handbags, art prints, and chair massages. On the breezy Sunday that marked the fair's third weekend of 2009, roughly 75 booths had set up shop, and that's not even counting the sprawl of dealers in the gutted trolley barn serving as an antiques warehouse. When the wind wasn't threatening to tip over vendor tents, it pleasantly wafted the scent of the CSA Dahlia Farm's lilac soap. (Curiously enough, this same booth also sold little artworks painted on teeny-tiny canvases.) Olio di Melli was handing out spoonfuls of their throat-tingling (that's a good thing) olive oil, while Spring Brook Farm peddled their own beef and bacon and Clear Flour Bakery bagged up ciabatta and focaccia. In addition to their herbal honeys infused with mint, lemon verbena, and the farm's famous lavender ($3 to $5), the Herb Lyceum at Gilson's carried such interesting potted oddities as Goodwin Creek Gardens lavender and mini-cypress plants. At Silverbrook Farm's booth, intriguingly blue-hued farm-fresh eggs stood out against the bushels of kale and pea tendrils.
BEST FIND "Remanufactured" Rolling Rock–bottle glassware by Riker Art Glass (East Providence, Rhode Island)
CITY HALL PLAZA Even though Government Center is the epitome of Brutalist architecture run amok, the spills of lilies from Stow Greenhouses and Silverbrook Farm's trays of blazing-bright marigolds breathe some life into this cold slab of concrete. On the first day of the City Hall Plaza market, I bumped into some other familiar faces, such as Danish Pastry House and Stillman's Farm — they all hit the locavore circuit pretty hard at this time of year. For the discerning carnivore, Stillman's prides itself on its "conscientiously raised" meats, including beef from Belted Galloway cattle, pork from Berkshire pigs, and fresh eggs. But if you're more interested in heirloom tomatoes, herbs, and flowers, a Stillman's rep told me, "I would suggest visiting the greenhouse, because I can't put into words how awesome it is." It's tempting — but why would I hoof it all the way out to Lunenburg when they bring the best of it here?
BEST FIND Hot-pepper jam from Silverbrook Farm (Dartmouth, Massachusetts)