Fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables from nearby farms are the core of every farmers market, but they’re not the only draw for customers. From breakfast crêpes and Chinese dumplings to baklava and pulled pork, many Montgomery County markets offer a treasure trove of prepared foods—some so superior to those sold in shops and restaurants that they are definitely worth a detour.
Farmers markets are exploding in popularity nationwide. In 2013, there were more than 8,000 in the United States, up from 3,700 in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The Montgomery County government website listed more than 20 markets in 2013, but there are at least that many additional smaller ones operating throughout the county. Some of the biggest are so successful that vendors have to wait for space to open up, according to Mitch Berliner, who co-founded the Bethesda Central Farm Market and the Pike Central Farm Market in Rockville.
As the modern reincarnation of market day in medieval towns, these markets are becoming so popular that developers consider them an amenity that will draw buyers to a new apartment complex or subdivision.
While weekday markets target customers buying groceries and lunch, weekend markets have become an integral part of some communities: a place for family outings, meeting friends for brunch or lunch, watching cooking demonstrations, listening to music and, of course, shopping. The Olney Farmers & Artists Market is a prime example. A visit to its bucolic location, with plenty of grass and large shade trees, is like spending a day in the country. Visitors can sit at tables or stroll around a section of juried artwork.
Other markets may not be as pastoral, but they, too, offer amenities, such as activities for children. Bethesda Central Farm Market holds a pie contest for nonprofessionals in late summer.
No matter their size, markets also have become incubators for entrepreneurs, who view them as an inexpensive way to test their offerings before putting money into a brick-and-mortar site.
That’s the case with Frankly…Pizza! owner Frank Linn, who brought his mobile pizza oven to the Kensington Farmers Market before embarking on plans to open a location in Kensington.
Still other vendors have learned that they can earn a decent livelihood by selling at four or five markets a week. Bakeries and restaurants also find that selling at markets is a great way to advertise their products.
After visiting about 20 markets in the Bethesda area, we’ve come up with eight that offer a variety of vendors worth seeking out.
Bethesda Central Farm Market
Arlington Road and Wilson Lane, Bethesda; 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays, April to December; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays, January to March; www.centralfarmmarkets.com
Heirloom Kitchen: It’s hard to choose from among Christine Ilich’s collection of deeply flavored vegetarian soups. Often made with vegetables from her garden, they include: soothing sweet pea in the spring; and lively watermelon gazpacho with mint, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, bits of hot peppers and a cooling touch from cucumbers in midsummer. Pints are $7 each. Equally tempting is the spectacular creamy Thai, suffused with the heady fragrances of lemongrass, kaffir, galangal, chili, coriander, coconut and sesame oils and beautiful chunks of vegetables, with a touch of heat, for $8. Ilich, who worked in New York restaurants before moving here, is planning to sell her soups in local stores.
Patisserie Poupon: Assume that any item with a crust from this Georgetown branch of a Baltimore bakery will be a flaky perfection of butter and flour that will certainly remind you of a little bake shop on the Left Bank. Choose a rich, creamy leek quiche with Gruyère-like Comté cheese and custardy filling for $6; a rich, but homey individual puff pastry tart filled with apples and applesauce for $4.50; or an individual lemon tart with the perfect blend of acidity and sweetness, topped with meringue, in a pâte sucrée crust for $4.50.
Affinity Woodworks: KC Cromwell produces finely crafted maple, walnut, oak and sycamore bowls, cutting boards and cheese boards, as well as larger pieces of furniture in his shop in Culpeper, Va. These handmade knockouts will improve the look of anything you put in or on them. Cromwell is a former Green Beret and Iraq war veteran with a fine eye and skilled hands. He began working with wood when he was a young boy. In 2009 he turned his hobby into his occupation. “I always wanted to be a woodshop teacher,” he says. “Now I do that, too. People always come up to me at market and ask me if I can repair this or that. I’m making a good living.” Bowls cost $85 and up; cutting boards and cheese boards go for $35.
Montgomery Farm Women’s Cooperative Market
7155 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; indoor market, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; outdoor market (weather permitting), 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays; and 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; www.farmwomensmarket.com
Saint Michel Bakery: This quintessential French bakery in Rockville usually sells out of its wares early. Where else can you get a croissant made with the premium French butter Charentes for $2.15 or one made with Président, the lesser-quality French butter, for 30 cents less? Bite into the increasingly popular canelés—little cakes with crunchy caramelized sugar surrounding a custardy interior—that are just 55 cents each or the spectacularly rich version of bread pudding your mother could make if she were French, for $2.05 per serving. Breads are just as special: the miche, a country bread of white and rye flour, is perfect for sandwiches; one quarter-loaf is $3.15.
Kensington Farmers Market
Kensington Train Station, 3701 Howard Ave., Kensington; 8 a.m. to noon Saturdays year-round; 301-949-2424
Cara Mia Bakery: Mia Kerns has been baking since she was 10. She kept at it even when she became a lawyer and then started a family. She quit lawyering but kept on baking. “When I found out I didn’t need a commercial kitchen to bake for a farmers market, I ramped up my output and started selling in Kensington,” Kerns says. She makes cookies, summer pies, muffins and granola bars, but her pièce de résistance is a chocolate-lime cookie with cocoa nibs and a heavenly touch of lime. She also sells her grandmother’s recipe for old-fashioned cranberry ice-box cookies with pistachios, an unusual and highly addictive combination. Chocolate-lime and cranberry ice-box cookies are $8 per dozen.
Pinch: Dan Zhu’s family has been making traditional northern Chinese dumplings for at least four generations, beginning with his great-grandmother. These are boiled, not steamed, and have delightfully tender skins. Filled with a savory mix of pork, chicken, lamb, beef or veggies, they are served with pickled slaw and boiled peanuts with star anise and a kicky sauce of black vinegar, garlic, soy ginger and red pepper sauce. Cost is $8 for six. The dumplings are also available at Bethesda Central Farm Market on Sundays and Pike Central Farm Market in Rockville on Saturdays.