The must-do market
No trip to San Francisco is complete without a forage at the old Ferry Terminal
INSIDE the small, brown cardboard box lies a twist of waxed paper thick as parchment, and within, placed carefully as if they were rare jewels, are four handmade j ellies flavoured with passionfruit and vanilla.
This modest box, and several more like it, sit cheek by well-fed jowl on the windblown counter next to a scotch egg of sorts, golden yolk oozing from the centre of a savoury muffin. Meet the Easton’s breakfast sausage soft-cooked egg savoury cake.
They are the work of the Tell Tale Preserve Company, a new patisserie where the quaint Steampunk packaging is as delightful as the edgy fare: almond and salted caramel brownies, souffle cookies, vanilla-smoked salt kettle corn and, yes, plain old (but very good) croissants.
The Tell Tale team tips up every week to one of my favourite San Francisco haunts, the old Ferry Terminal on The Embarcadero (at the foot of Market Street), a lovingly restored historic precinct that these days houses restaurants and high-end food stores, and three days a week hosts one of California’s best farmers’ markets.
Operating Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market is run by the not-for-profit Centre for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) and is highly regarded by local chefs for the quality and variety of its produce. (Organic farmers are hailed a bit like rock stars in this foodobsessed city and some producers travel more than 320km to flaunt their wares to an adoring public.)
The Saturday market can attract thousands of foodies to stalls lining the front of the Ferry Building and sprawling across the rear plaza overlooking the bay. During the week the market is smaller but no less varied.
On this chilly, late spring Tuesday, with the wind whipping beneath the Bay Bridge and the city’s ferries rocking at their moorings, I’m stoking my internal combustion engine with the aforementioned Easton’s savoury cake, washed down with a piping-hot coffee big enough to drown in.
All about me is the fecund promise of early summer: tubs of blueberries and boxes of new season’s cherries; dimpled organic clementines; and fat radishes in patriotic shades of red, white and an almost-blue purple. There are baby artichokes, baby parsnips and eerie lunar-white carrots.
Next door are stacked bunches of plump purple asparagus, peas in the pod, shiny green (or salad) onions, and piles and piles of garlic so good looking, I’m tempted to whip out my easel and rush off a quick still-life (but make do with an iPhone snap instead). The plump heirloom tomatoes are particularly fetching, blushed burgundy and tangerine or tigerstriped yellow-green.
There are loads of chillies, of course, and crates of Nopales (cactus pads). These are delicious in a salad or boiled or grilled and added to salsa or scrambled eggs.
San Franciscan foodies really get the paddock-to-plate thing ( Alice Waters is credited with pioneering the concept in the US at her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse 40 years ago), and in many restaurants the provenance of every last ingredient is listed on menus that read more like cookbooks. On the farmers’ market website you get the lowdown on the growers: their farms’ location and history, water use, pest management and weed control.
The Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market had its genesis in a one-off harvest market, when farmers and local restaurants set up shop in 1992 in the middle of The Embarcadero roadway. The following year a weekly market was established, and in 2003, once the historic Ferry Building’s renovation had been completed, the market found a permanent home.
Under the auspices of CUESA the market aims to educate as well as feed its shoppers, and hosts a regular schedule of cooking demonstrations and other events. Saturday is the main game, but if you’d rather avoid the hungry hordes, Tuesdays and Thursdays are far less crowded, allowing business folk from the nearby financial district to drop by for lunch on the run: ramen, tamales and all-beef hot dogs.
Inside the soaring Ferry Building, a bevy of permanent speciality food stores line the impressively restored central nave. Opened in 1898 and visible from far and wide courtesy of the 75m clock tower modelled after the 12th-century belltower of Spain’s Seville Cathedral, the ferry terminal was a bustling commuter hub until the 1930s, before the opening of the Bay and Golden Gate bridges.
These days it’s just as busy, but most folk are here to eat. The resident providores span the sunny Californian gamut from cowgirl cheesemakers to specialist mushroom retailers stocking fantastical fungi, from knobbly lion’s manes to weird yellowfoot.
I could spend hours in this building exploring the really good kitchen shop (Sur La Table) and the even better bookshop (Book Passage), or picking through the rather princessy (but very lovely) gardening stores whose clients are likely to tend little more than a pot or two of arugula on the balcony of their Nob Hill apartments.
Every time we’re here, holidaying en famille, we buy the same things: a crusty organic loaf from the Acme Bread Company (served at Chez Panisse, where the bakery’s founder, Steven Sullivan, worked in the 70s); a slab of handmade organic cheese from the Cowgirl Creamery; and half a dozen dainty pastries from the pretty-in-pink Miette.
If there’s time we might stop for a glass of bubbly and a dozen oysters from the Hog Island Oyster Bar (the briny molluscs are farmed at Tomales Bay, north of the city on the ravishing coast hugged by the old Highway 1).
Far West Fungi is always on our list, given its wonderful stash of wild and cultivated mushrooms from California and across the world. Today there’s a box of deep green fiddlehead ferns, a spring speciality in the US. These tightly curled fronds of edible ferns are said to taste like a cross between asparagus and okra, but my teenage sons decide the nearby chocolate store looks more promising (single origin bars, of course).
Then we stow all our purchases in a hemp shopping bag (handstitched by superannuated hippies, I venture) and head to Slanted Door for a late lunch. With floor-to-ceiling windows affording lovely bay views, the always-crammed Slanted Door serves excellent modern Vietnamese. Owner, executive chef and San Francisco food identity Charles Phan uses the best local ingredients, organic where possible, in keeping with the paddock-to-plate ethos of this very stylish, very Californian food precinct. FOOD DETECTIVE’S NEW HOME IS IN THE WEEKEND A PLUS SECTION, INSIDE YOUR PROPERTY LIFT-OUT
The renovated Ferry Terminal houses restaurants and high-end food stores, and the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market is held three days a week
The Easton’s breakfast sausage soft-cooked egg savoury cake, left, and bunches of fresh garlic