On the first Sunday in June, I headed out to Alexandria to visit the West End Farmers Market. The market is located in Ben Brenman Park, adjacent to the Cameron Station complex of condos and shops. It struck me that a park was a fantastic place to host a farmers market and I wondered why there weren’t more park/farmers market collaborations. As you’re driving into the park, you can immediately pick out the familiar white tents indicative of farmers markets the world over. The background of the lush green grass that only seems to grow in state funded parks made the tents pop out all the more. The market, in its third season, was originally conceived by Julie Bryant, a former coffee shop owner, with the assistance of Susan Birchler. Since its inception, the market has grown to 25 vendors, ranging from fresh produce and meats to homemade chocolates and Virginia wines from North Gate Vineyards. As I walked around, it was apparent this was a regular community gathering place, as vendors greeted customers by name and chatted about their plans for the upcoming week. Water bowls were left out for dogs by the vendors, a welcome treat considering the warmth of the day. And the vendors themselves were all happy to chat away about their offerings, giving serving suggestions and telling their own little stories. A real sense of community has been created in this market and it is a shame it’s not more metro accessible. By car, it’s a quick trip outside of DC and well worth the drive.
My first stop was J&W Valley, where the two ladies manning the table were shelling English peas. While they had the peas for sale in the pods, they were also shelling them for their customers’ convenience. Their easy manner and the table’s set up reminded me of the many farm stands that dot the Georgia landscape (I’m a Southern Girl, what can I say). It was at J&W’s stand that I spotted the first broccoli of the season. Considering my love of stir fries, I was quite happy to see the lovely green bunches. I picked up a large container of the shelled English peas (I may be from Georgia, but the city has softened me…no shelling of peas for this girl) and about two pounds of the broccoli. I resisted the temptation to pick up some of the spring onions and beets, opting to pace myself for once.
As I continued on, I noticed there were a number of local artisans with booths at the market. I later learned most of the artisans only sell at West End on the first Sunday of every month. A man was setting up his collection of paintings and sketches not far from a woman with various crafts on display at her own booth. A cute booth accented with wooden shelves caught my eye, so I wandered over to find out more. The shelves were peppered with glass bottles of oils and artisanal soaps, vaguely reminiscent of a Bath and Bodyworks. The vendor, Grubby Girl, sells handcrafted bath and body products made from all natural ingredients grown on Meeting House Farm. The farm is home to over a dozen bee hives and a garden of herbs and vegetables, all of which are used to make the Grubby Girl line of products. The soaps are hand crafted into shapes ranging from flowers to stars and with names like “redneck” and “farm person”. Unfortunately, no one was manning the booth when I walked by, but I remembered the name so I could look it up online later. Their products are sold at farmers markets and specialty stores throughout Virginia.
I stopped dead in my tracks when I stumbled upon Fleurir Hand Grown Chocolates, mostly because I saw the word “chocolate” on their sign. Another customer was standing at the table when I walked up, so I quietly listened as Robert Ludlow, the chef behind Fleurir’s chocolates, rattled off the various flavors in each four piece box. The flavors include standards like caramel and 85% dark chocolate but are mostly unique combinations created by Ludlow himself. The cheesecake flavor tastes exactly as if chunks of the dessert have been dipped into chocolate and served on a platter. The almond amaretto starts out as a simple chocolate. Just when you’re thinking “so where’s the almond”, the flavor of almonds hit your taste buds and then mellows into a lovely finish. The most unique flavor combination is the Ginger Rogers, a dark chocolate infused with mint and dotted with bits of crystallized ginger. The chocolates are all made from locally sourced ingredients and use fresh cream and butter. Sold in boxes of four assorted flavors, the chocolates aren’t cheap ($8 a box) but they’re great for an indulgent, occasional treat.
I had heard about Tom’s Amish Store through various local food blogs, so I was happy to see his sign at West End. The booth is littered with homemade jars of jams and jellies, loaves of fruit breads and other goodies made from the Amish. Tommy Tompkins, the Tom in Tom’s Amish Store, has a friendly and easy demeanor that reminded me of someone’s kindly grandfather. When I first walked up, he was talking with a woman he obviously has known for years. Joking back and forth, the two could have easily been mistaken for a married couple. She asked him about the cheeses he had that week and he cut off a piece for her to try (while slyly putting in a compliment about her appearance). He gave me an easy smile as the lady decided on which cheese she wanted. He managed to make her not feel rushed while acknowledging me, something many vendors can’t easily do. With a wave and a promise to get together soon, she headed off with her cheese and he turned his attention to me. I asked him about the cheeses he had and he first showed me an 18 month aged soft cheddar. Like all the products he sells, the cheese is crafted by the Amish and aged in a cave Tommy helped them build. The cheese had a silky texture and a robust flavor, perfect for a picnic of cheese, a baguette and fruit. I got a block of the cheese, surprised to find out it only cost $3.50.
I had gotten so distracted by the baked goods, cheese and chocolates, I almost forgot I was there for produce. That’s when I hit upon Westmoreland Berry Farm’s stand, the same vendor I bought my first strawberries of the season from back at the opening of the Crystal City Farmers Market. The farm, located in Oak Grove, Virginia, hosts a wide variety of “on the farm” activities, including tours, wagon rides and a “goat walk to the stars”. The farm also allows people to come pick their own berries during their harvest months. Known for their sweet berries, Westmoreland also sells peaches, apples, pumpkins and gourds from their orchard. The stand wasn’t just a testament to berries though. They also had garlic, onions and other greens. I had already picked up a big batch of strawberries earlier in the week, but I couldn’t resist the first garlic of the season, so I picked up a bunch along with some onions (still attached to their green stalks).
Perched at the end of the market was a truck, festooned with big chalkboards. One chalkboard touted their meat offerings, which included ground bison! I noticed people going in and out of the truck, which confused me until I realized the vendor was On the Gourmet. On the Gourmet is a mobile purveyor of local meats and dairy products and gourmet chocolates, crackers and oils and vinegars (to name just a few of their offerings), offering home delivery to locations up to 20 miles of Vienna, Virginia. I have heard about On the Gourmet from other DCFoodies writers, as well as the boards on Don Rockwell, but had never actually seen the truck myself. When I stepped inside, I was reminded of a tiny general store, with artisanal products artfully arranged to catch the eye. Retro bottles of soda are juxtaposed with high end products like truffle infused olive oil and aged balsamic vinegar. Boxes of Lucy’s Cookies, gluten and dairy free cookies, in varying flavors were stacked together next to a basket of “deep discount” items. I dug through the deep discount basket, finding chocolates, cookies and crackers, among other things. I picked out a box of olive oil and sea salt artisanal crackers (to go with my cheese, naturally) and headed out of the truck. I could have easily stayed inside for hours, perusing their products and sampling; the truck seems designed to encourage foodies to explore its offerings. Although I was tempted to pick up practically everything I saw, I stuck to the crackers and a few pounds of the ground bison.
Just before we headed out, my boyfriend Rick nicely pointed out he was starving. A table weighed down with baked goods caught our eye, so we stopped to see what she was selling. The vendor, Treats by Gale, had a selection of homemade scones that looked rather tempting. Gale King, the Gale behind Treats by Gale, began selling her baked goods on a small scale before making it a full fledged business. Her treats include chocolate chip and white chocolate cranberry walnut cookies, brownies, scones and even a Caribbean Great Cake. The scones were only a dollar and were the perfect size for a morning snack. Rick picked up a cinnamon apple scone and I opted for a blueberry one. She wrapped up our scones and encouraged us to pick up her business card, saying she sold her treats online too. We thanked her and headed home, bags filled with more than just produce. The West End Market has managed to create a neighborhood bazaar, offering a wide range of locally grown and made products in the middle of a suburban park.
New produce seen around the markets:
• Garlic bulbs
For the pasta:
3 1/2 cups all purpose flour
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon olive oil
Pinch of salt
For the filling:
1 bunch beets
1 bunch Hakurei turnips
1 container Chevre goat cheese
Cut the beet and turnip bulbs from their stalks and wash them thoroughly. Place the beets and turnips into separate pots filled with water. Bring the pots to a boil and continue to let them cook until the beets and turnips are tender, about 20 minutes. Drain the beets and dice them into small pieces. Drain the turnips and scoop out the flesh, mashing it in a bowl. Add the beets and the goat cheese and stir until everything is mixed together thoroughly. Cover the mixture and put it in the refrigerator until ready to fill the tortellini.
Place the flour and salt in a large bowl and make a well in the middle of it. Crack the eggs into that well and add the olive oil. With a fork, work the liquid ingredients until a dough forms. Take the dough out of the bowl and place it onto a surface dusted with flour. Knead the dough until it becomes smooth and then form it into two round discs. Wrap the discs in plastic wrap and allow the dough to sit for an hour. Using either a pasta machine or a rolling pin, roll out one of the discs until it’s about as thin as a quarter. Cut the pasta sheet into 2 inch squares. Place 1/2 teaspoon of the beet mixture onto the center of a pasta square. Take one corner of the pasta square and fold it over to meet the other corner, forming a triangle. Pinch the sides of the square together, sealing the filling in. You may need to wet the sides of the dough square a bit before sealing the tortellini. If any filling squeezes out, simply wipe it off and make sure the tortellini is sealed. Take your pinkie finger and wrap the pasta triangle around it, creating the tortellini shape. Pinch the ends together to finish off the tortellini. Place the tortellini on a plate dusted lightly with flour. Repeat this until all the squares from both discs of dough are used.
Once all the tortellinis are formed, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Add the tortellinis to the water carefully. Cook until the tortellinis start to float to the top, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the water with a slotted spoon and serve with a simple sauce of browned butter and fresh herbs.
The West End Farmers Market is located at 4800 Brenman Park Drive in the heart of Ben Brenman Park. The market is open on Sundays from 9 am to 1 pm.