The downtown Santa Barbara farmers market, with 90 vendors, is one of the largest and best in Southern California, well worth a weekend expedition. To purists' delight, it has no prepared foods, crafts or rides, just a dazzling array of fresh produce and flowers. The ambience is cosmopolitan and upscale: Farmers make change in French and Italian, and shopping assistants help customers to their cars.
The region abounds in exotic fruits. Last Saturday, Jay Ruskey of Calimoya sold custardy Booth and White cherimoyas with an ideal sweet-tart balance, and a few of the ultra-rare pink-fleshed Selma variety, with an intriguing cherry-berry taste. The California Tropics stand carried prized Fino de Jete cherimoyas, large Vernon sapotes and purple passion fruits. Randy Wade, who helped found the market in March 1979, had two very different mandarins: pixies, sweet and almost crunchy, and Karas, with deep orange, juicy pulp of extraordinary spicy flavor.
Most stone fruits came from the Central Valley. Steven Murray of Arvin offered delicate white-fleshed Rainier cherries, the first of the season, along with the reddish Brooks and Tulare varieties, and experimental apricots he dubbed "Kittycots." Ubiquitous Castlebrite apricots generally taste bland, but the ripe ones from the Dinuba's Regier Farm had surprisingly good flavor.
From Arroyo Grande, Two Peas in a Pod, true to its name, sold sweet sugar snap peas, eminently munchable, and English shelling peas. They also had a few early punnets of Heritage raspberries, and some similarly precocious blueberries.
John Gato of Rancho Tres Gatos brought buttery Irene avocados, from a 1937 seedling named for his mother, nearly round Nabals, and big but bland MacArthurs--all harvested at his quarter-acre Santa Barbara plot, surrounded by apartments. Another local backyard grower, Nancy Bertelsen, had colossal Mangel beets, 16-inches long, weighing 4 pounds--perfect for feeding horses and armies. Earthtrine Farm of Carpinteria displayed superb organic greens and herbs, including sorrel, French and Italian parsley, dandelion greens, radicchio, cinnamon basil and Winter Density lettuce, an heirloom variety like a cross of Romaine and butter lettuce.
Downtown Santa Barbara farmers market, Santa Barbara and Cota streets, Saturdays from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.