Northern Californians like to brag that they've got California's best farmers markets, with the highest proportion of passionate specialty growers. Whatever the merits of such claims, the San Rafael farmers market certainly ranks among the elite: Not only is it large, it also offers stuff that's hard to find elsewhere. It's well worth a trip if you're in the Bay Area.
For example, almost no one in California still grows older varieties of seeded grapes, but last Sunday Phillips Vineyards of Lodi offered two kinds of translucent yellow, almost raisiny muscats--a revelation of how richly flavored grapes can be--along with pale elongated Lady Fingers and classic Flame Tokays, which made Lodi famous.
Ginger and John Balakian of Reedley won top honors in the market's "best bunch" contest for their Red Globe grapes. And John Lagier of Escalon had organic Zinfandel wine grapes, which are rarely eaten as table grapes because, even though they have high sugar and excellent flavor, they're small, seedy and tightly packed.
Barbara Shumsky of Puff Lane Organic Farm in Santa Rosa sold small, dense, intensely sweet-tart Golden Russet apples, considered the finest of all by many connoisseurs, along with Golden Delicious (at their best now), exquisite Comice pears, and unusual stony-fleshed Kieffer pears, hybrids of European and Asian pears.
Lucy McBride of Sebastapol had superb Asian pears, including sweet golden-orange Chojuro, a venerable late-season Japanese type, and Yali, which looks like a European pear but has the crunchy texture of an Asian.
Another Sebastopol farmer, Alma Vigil, sold excellent red and gold raspberries along with an unusual tangerine-colored variety.
Dan Schlanger of Winter Creek Garden, who sells to Chez Panisse, displayed pristine organic vegetables from Rumsey: broccoli raab, edamame (fresh soybeans) on the stalk, ruffled Red Calabash and striped Tigerella heirloom tomatoes, green and red mustard greens and small white Tokyo turnips so sweet they were delicious uncooked. Star Route Farms of Bolinas had nettles (which lose their sting when boiled, steamed or stir-fried) along with purslane, dandelion greens, curly cress and squash blossoms.
Javier and Patty Salmon sold mild, creamy fresh goat cheese made from the milk of their own goats in Bodega according to Peruvian techniques Javier learned from his father. They also had a light, smooth goat's milk mascarpone and a manchego-like cabrero, aged for two months, then soaked in red wine.
For dessert, nothing could surpass Robert Lower's incredibly soft, luscious Barhi dates from Thermal, some of them at the most sought-after stage: half yellow, half tan. For those who can't make it to San Rafael, Lower also sells at today's Santa Monica farmers market.
San Rafael farmers market, Marin County Civic Center, north of San Pedro Road, near U.S. Highway 101, Sundays 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.