June 2020

My Vendors

If I’d been a better student, I’d have got a better education.

Cornucopias from north, east, and south open at San Francisco. In the 21st century we are replete with farmers’ markets, so it would be a challenging project to record a visit to them all. What I’ll do here is describe the vendors I patronize, with a mention of the markets they’re in.

There is no better way to list my vendors than in the order I discovered them, which means I can’t start until 1993 at the San Mateo Farmers’ Market which was then located just off SR 92 where it crosses US 101. I shopped there on Wednesdays during my lunch hour when I worked at Oracle. I’d shopped at the Alemany Farmers’ Market and the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market in San Francisco years before that; but, damn me, it was not until I started going regularly to the San Mateo market and buying repeatedly from the same vendors that I started to pay attention to them. That led me to introducing myself and chatting them up, which led to their remembering me and making the whole transaction more enjoyable.

In the summer of 1993, a handsome high school farm boy from Sanger named Eric Schletewitz threw a few sacks of his father’s oranges into the back of his pickup and drove to San Mateo to see if he could hawk them. Since they were delicious, he could; and I’ve been a customer of his ever since as I’ve watched him marry, have kids, and eat way too much of his wife’s good cooking. His workers still bring his fruit to the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market on Wednesdays and Sundays.

My second vendor was Lou Iacopi, who in the winter of ’93 brought to the San Mateo market mainly beans and peas but also artichokes, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and kale, all of it the finest quality I’d ever seen. And pricey, but hey, by then I was making enough money to afford him and I deserved it. I’ve been a steady customer of Lou’s since then. He’s now at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market and the Mission Community Market.

Also back along that time at the San Mateo market, the Rodriquez guys were selling really fine berries, including excellent blackberries and raspberries of different varieties. They were one of the early vendors at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market and I bought from them on Saturdays after I left Oracle until one Saturday they weren’t present. Turned out they’d been caught selling an unauthorized green herb and were replaced by Poli Yerena, who’s been my berry vendor since then. He’s at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market, the Heart of the City Farmers’ Market, the Mission Community Market, and the Alemany Farmers’ Market.

My market guru from near the beginning at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market was a delightful woman named Sybil Conn who was then writing a market report that listed every week what all the vendors had brought to market. This was an invaluable tool for serious marketers, and I so loved it at first sight that I wrote her with an offer to provide some editorial assistance with the report. We met, clicked, and I for followed her through the market every Saturday while she introduced me to vendors. We’ve been good friends ever since.

Next up is Hidden Star Orchards. I met Johann Smit in 2003 when he premiered at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. At that time he sold only apples, but I’d buy his seconds to use in my preserves for their pectin. Since then he’s added cherries and other fresh fruit to his offerings and, more recently, six varieties of hard cider from his apples. I was hooked at first sip. The Goldrush variety comes in at 8.4% alcohol, so one bottle gets me quite pleasantly buzzed. He’s also at the Heart of the City market and the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market.

Right after I met Johann Smit, I discovered the Olsens. Ken Olsen grew the best mandarins I ever ate, and I eagerly awaited his return to the Ferry Plaza market every winter. Neither of Ken’s sons was the least bit interested in farming, but his grandson Erik was. He started working on the farm as a youngster; and by the time he was in high school in about 2015, he was accompanying Ken to the market. Now he runs the show for Ken, and I’ve got him to pick blood oranges for me before they were fully ripe and still sour so that I could make a marmalade of them. This winter he’ll be bringing me some green mandarins for the same purpose.

Tierra Vegetables. I found Lee James at the Ferry Plaza market right after Ken Olsen. She grows a large variety of heirloom beans that she sells dried; and she introduced me to the Chantenay variety carrot, the carrotiest carrot I’ve ever tasted. She also sells a great many dried chiles; however, the most exciting thing she grows is the poha (Physalis peruviana), a close relative of the tomatillo, husk and all but golden, sweet, and delicious. Best of all, she sells little packets of what she calls “Mole Crumble”, which you can use to make a mole sauce every bit as good as one made from scratch after a whole day in the kitchen.

In that time frame I found Twin Girls. They’re also at the Alemany market and the Mission Community Market, and their great distinction is that they grow the best nectarine variety I ever tasted. It runs a little smaller than average, but it’s freestone, which makes everything easier. The real reason to buy them during their short season is for their superb taste.

Then came Nash at the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. Alas, the booth fees at the Ferry Plaza are so high that he had to move to the Alemany market. He sells his gourmet olive oils there as well as olives he’s cured in various tasty ways. He lets chickens run loose in his olive grove and sells their delicious eggs. I once wondered if he might bring to market chickens that were no longer productive; and he told me that, hey, they worked hard for him so he just let them live out their lives. I felt about an inch high. Oh, and he’s a practicing Muslim, so maybe he gets this attitude toward his hens from the Koran. Didn’t ask him about the gays.

Another favorite vendor from the early aughts is Gary Alfieri at the Ferry Plaza and Heart of the City markets. When I first met him, he was selling only nuts; and I was an avid buyer of his almond butter. Over the years, he expanded into cherries and now sells a wide variety of them and is my go-to guy for them. He’s also a really nice guy and just radiates it, but it’s also quantifiable. The same people work his stands for years and years, which speaks eloquently for his management practices.

Somewhat later I blundered onto the Happy Quail Farms stand at the Ferry Plaza market. David Winsberg has heirloom chiles, Bell peppers, and eggplant; but what I love him for are the exotics. You want ume plums? He’s got ’em.

I went to the Noe Valley Farmers’ Market very shortly after it opened in December ’04 because the market manager is Liz Crane, an old friend from her days at the Ferry Plaza market. My favorite vendor there is the Herrs, and it’s pronounced Hurr rather than Herr because they’re Hmong rather than German. For a number of years they brought snow peas to market, and I just love pickling them. No more, alas, but they still have fine sugar snaps that I pickle avidly and fresh green garlic in its season. Not to mention a wide variety of other vegetables. When I’ve made an extra-hot preserve, I take a jar in for his mother, who just loves them.

And finally, when the Castro Farmer’s Market opened in about 2010, it leaped to the top of my list because it was just right down the hill from me. There I found Shelly and her son Kelly, who sell excellent eggs from their pasture-raised hens. When they’re at the market, I buy their eggs. My other main vendor at the market is Rodin Farms. For the first few years, Marie Rodin came to the market, and she was absolutely delightful. That helped, but it was the quality and variety of her produce that cinched the deal. Her worker Chuy now brings apricots, peaches, nectarines, and several kinds of plums, including the rare and treasured Greengages. Not to mention several varieties of pluots. Oh wow.

Those are my main vendors now, and I keep them happy by plying them with jams made from other vendor’s fruit. I take my nectarine man strawberry jam and vice versa.”

Meanwhile, another of our COVID doors.

COVID door on Valencia

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The Vault Garden

Yes, that sounds like an oxymoron since there’s little sunshine in the typical vault, but no, it’s a brand new restaurant, a spinoff from The Vault, a popular underground restaurant under the Bank of America building at 555 California. It’s now closed owing to the pandemic.

Anticipating the opening of restaurants for outdoor dining, they changed their name to The Vault Garden and vaulted up to ground level at the near end of the plaza containing “The Banker’s Heart“, that iconic sculpture renamed by Herb Caen.

They opened last Thursday, and I got a reservation for Sunday, making it my first foray into pandemic era al fresco dining. No parking place was visible as we drove around the block, so we parked in the ridiculously expensive but very convenient garage beneath the building and soared to the plaza in the elevator. You’re at the edge of the plaza there, and as you walk onto it, The Banker’s Heart is straight ahead and The Vault Garden is on your right, a handsome setting with striking outdoor heaters.

In recognition of the pandemic, the tables are spaced well apart, and you keep wearing your mask until your drink arrives and put it back on before you ask for your bill.

We arrived a full thirty minutes early, but they seated us immediately, perhaps because the day was totally socked in and some people might have cancelled their reservations. When the city first allowed restaurants to open outdoor dining, I fretted over the blunt fact that we are often so windy, so foggy, or so both that dining outside wouldn’t be enjoyable. And yes, while the breeze was tolerable, our meal would have been even better without it.

The menu is carried over from the underground restaurant and is not long. The beverage menu offered a good range, and I settled on the Goat Rock Dry cider, which was delicious.

For an appetizer, I had the Lemon Pepper Fried Calamari. Oh my goodness on a couple of levels. First, the portion size was enormous, appropriate for an entree. Second, it was superb. The batter was delicious and the squid was cooked so that it was crispy, seriously crispy, so crispy that I can’t imagine how they did it without turning the squid rubbery. This was the best calamari I’ve ever eaten. By itself, it was a bit too salty, but the stingy little bit of JunJu Chili Dipping Sauce somehow cut the saltiness. I’d order this over and over but as an entree.

I went in with the idea that I’d have the hamburger because it was praised in the reviews and I hadn’t had one in ages. I shouldn’t have because even though it was a very good burger and came with a mountain of good fries, there were other entrees vastly more interesting.

Oh, and even though both of us ordered the hamburger, I threw in an order of the Parker House rolls because, like the burger, they got a good review. This goes to show that we must never completely trust the reviews because the rolls were just OK, much inferior to my mother’s owing to neither being yeasty nor soft. Would not order again.

Unfortunately, we both chose the calamari as an appetizer, so we were way too stuffed to even consider a dessert.

So the bottom line is that the service was pleasant and attentive but unobtrusive, 9 out of 10. Ummm, 9.9 since I could not find a single flaw. The ambience was quite good at about 8, and the food ranged from barely 5 on the rolls to 8 on the burger to 9.9 for the calamari.

This was a very good dining experience that I recommend with one caveat: look at the weather forecast and make your reservation for a day when the wind is projected to be low. I would not want to eat there on a windy day.

Meanwhile, speaking of restaurants, here’s the back door to the Zuni Cafe.

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