Basil to Die For

Salt Lake City Farmers' Market

I have a confession to make: though the only thing I have ever grown successfully is arugula, I have this fantasy of moving to somewhere where the soil is rich and opening a high-quality organic farm and winery.

The winery produces merlot, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir, and the farm produces everything from goat cheese to 10 varieties of basil and that allows me to make an array of simple, innovative dishes teeming with vivacity and freshness. Whatever I don't eat I can sell to gourmands who demand the best.

Of course, on my farm and winery, which rolls across gentle hills and ducks around gentle creeks and stands unafraid beneath tall snowcapped mountains, I also have a collection of century-old farm houses and farm homes, and while Porter and I live in one of the homes, I have converted another into a three-room bed and breakfast, and one of the perks of staying there is that guests are entitled to the farm-fresh food and limited-quantity wine varietals. It would be a slow place, with diners taking hours to wind through their courses.

It is that sort of fantasy that makes a trip to the farmer's market such a forbidden thrill, especially a farmer's market like the one in Salt Lake City, which teems with fresh and innovative foods, fruits and vegetables, not to mention a satisfying array of artisan products such as handmade jewelry and soap, along with coffee and gallon-buckets full of fresh-cut exotic, native and even plain flowers.

On a small scale that hopefully one day will rival the superb farmers' markets in California, Oregon and Washington, Salt Lake City's Downtown Farmers' Market fits the bill.

The Salt Lake City market, now in its 10th year, takes place every Saturday from early July until late October at Pioneer Park, a reclaimed square of tall trees and greenery in the heart of the city at 300 South, 300 West. I call it 'reclaimed' because for years the park languished as a hideout for drug dealers and drug users and homeless people. A few years ago the mayor appointed special patrols to the park to squash drug activity, and a building boom in downtown Salt Lake City in recent years have turned the abandoned and neglected warehouses and workspaces that surround the park into prime real estate. The farmers' market, full of its wholesome goodness, is an exclamation point in the area's rebirth.

This year, the market stretches along 300 South and vexes towards the middle of the park, though its precise size and offerings differ from week to week as new produce becomes available or early season offerings wither. The market also highlights different groups throughout the summer: Sept. 1 is Chef's Demo Day, Sept. 8 is the Greek Festival, Sept. 22 is Utah Non-profit Day - highlighting the state's non-profit groups - Sept. 29 is the Arts Fest, Oct. 6 is the Utah Antique Machine Association showcase, Oct. 13 is Harvest Celebration, and Oct. 20 is the Pumpkin Day Parade.

Though at its most basic the market is a showcase for Utah's surprising variety of farm and garden-produced fruits, herbs and vegetables, it is also significant of the great culinary leaps the state is making. Salt Lake City now has an admirable collection of top-rate eateries - something that would have been difficult to boast 12 years ago when I first came here - the breadth and variety of food available speaks well to the sophistication Utahns are gradually attaining.

Take, for instance, the woman selling smoked game hens. This ... this is significant. I mean, you don't walk into Denny's and find smoked hens on the menu. The woman selling them said they were indeed succulent and, at only $4.50 for a small bird, quite a bargain. She even had forks and knives for us to eat them right there, but my good friend Laura and I had just had breakfast and were on our way to the Tracy Aviary: we weren't hungry and it somehow did not seem right to carry a smoked bird into an aviary; I'll have to come back some other Saturday. There was also a hard-core mountain biker from Kamas selling the delectable Uinta Coffee, and a whole crew from Rico, an uptown-area Mexican market, selling handmade tortillas and mango salsa - Muy delicioso! And - this is one I could not pass up - The Soap Lady (two men, actually) where they are selling lavender and oatmeal soap. They sliced off bars from a huge soap loaf, and I hid two away in my bathroom drawers but the whole apartment smells of its creaminess.

Laura and I spent the whole morning at the market, as the day turned very warm for late August, and while I filled myself with the coffee and all the great treats laid out to sample, and nearly burned myself a new nostril from smelling all the herbs and soap, I limited myself to a bag of tomatoes and some savory (northern Utah's valleys had a rare mid-June snowstorm this year and as a result hardly anyone has any tomatoes) I spent most of the morning in a sort of fantasy - when I have my farm I am going to have this and that. Will I every actually have my winery/farm? Who knows? But in the meantime, I have the farmers' market to help push my dreams along.

The market runs from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and is produced by the Downtown Alliance.

Jeff's Bio

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