AT almost any farmers market, I can find something to make me hungry. Maybe it's the musky perfume of guavas from a backyard grower. Or the sharp scent of citrus as someone peels a tangerine. It could be a farmer who still plants one plot of winey Chandler strawberries just for the market crowd. Or maybe it's nothing more than the irresistible way the morning sun gleams off a mound of moist spring onions.
Still, the hard-bitten realist in me knows that although all farmers markets may be created lovable, not all are created equal.
So, of the more than 90 markets in Southern California, which are the best? To find out, I polled farmers, chefs, shoppers and other experts and then spent three weeks driving more than 1,000 miles and visiting more than 25 farmers markets from Irvine to Ojai to sort out the cream of the crop.
What separates a great market from the rest of the pack? It's a combination of several things.
Size is not a prerequisite, though better markets do tend to be bigger. Success draws a crowd, especially now when good farmers are becoming more selective about how many markets they want to attend.
Age seems to help too. It really takes five or six years for a market to become established and another five or six years for it to reach its maturity. You can tell when a market starts to feel settled, with a regular cast of complementary farmers so that the individual parts add up to something more than a loose collection of farm stands.
More important is variety. There should be a mix of fruits and vegetables and enough unusual crops to be interesting. You can buy bags of oranges on the street corner. At a great farmers market you want to find not just oranges, but blood oranges, and maybe even a choice of Tarocco or Sanguinelli varieties. There shouldn't be just regular tangerines but great ones like Dancy, Pixie and Gold Nugget.
Quality is most important, of course. That means not only the obvious things such as fruits and vegetables that are sparkling fresh, but also that they are the best varieties and have been carefully farmed and fully ripened. And certainly there should be nothing that looks like it came from the produce distributor.
There can be crafts and prepared-food stands, but there shouldn't be so many that they overshadow the produce. Farmers markets are about more than just Kettle Korn.
Less obvious are those things sportswriters love to call "the intangibles." A great market has a spirit about it, an infectious joy that makes your step lighter and quicker as you approach it.
What causes this? Who can say exactly? But visit any of these markets and you'll see what we mean.
1. Best in show
The Santa Monica farmers market, which turns 25 this year, is the crown jewel, the best in Southern California and among the three or four best in the nation. That's why you'll find so many chefs and professional produce people shopping here. If you don't get excited walking through this market, you simply don't like food. There is so much to choose from, with more than 90 farmers, so where do you start? There's Weiser Family Farms with its rainbow of a half-dozen potatoes, two or three cauliflowers, a couple kinds of carrots, sprouting broccoli and even crosnes, knotty little tubers that are spectacular sauteed in butter. Right next to them is Jaime Farms, with all kinds of chards and greens and eye-popping radishes. And so it goes down the line: citrus from Polito Family Farms, Friend's Ranches and Peter Schaner; killer vegetables from McGrath Family Farm, Rutiz Farm and Coastal Organics; herbs and greens from Coleman Farms; fabulous cheeses from Redwood Hill and Winchester Cheese; heirloom apples from Windrose Farms and See Canyon. Santa Monica also has excellent farmers markets Friday, Saturday and Sunday. It really is an embarrassment of riches.
Santa Monica, Wednesday, Arizona Avenue at 3rd Street, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (310) 458-8712.
2. Mardi Gras market
If the Santa Monica market is like a temple where we worship great fruits and vegetables, the Hollywood market is like a big street fair celebrating them. It's Hollywood, baby, and the people-watching is out of this world. Movie stars -- and people who look like movie stars -- stroll by dressed down in baseball caps and outsized sunglasses. Others are seriously dressed up in zany costumes. (What? You don't do your vegetable shopping in gold lame?) No market has a better lineup of prepared foods. And there are some really cool arts and crafts. In fact, the 16-year-old Hollywood market is so much fun that you might be tempted to forget what terrific fruits and vegetables are sold there. Right now, among the roughly 90 farmers, there are three great growers of mandarins: Mud Creek Ranch, Friend's Ranches and Churchill Orchards. And that's just one example. Tutti Frutti Farms, McGrath Family Farm and Givens Farm have fabulous mixed vegetables and Harry's Berries and J&J Farms have terrific sweet strawberries.