“It’s like the summer between junior high and high school. We’re all growing up,” said Mara Welton, co-owner of Half Pint Farm, as she sold seedlings at the Burlington Farmers Market last Saturday. Fans of the farm’s mini-veggies had to search a bit for them this year. Instead of occupying its longtime spot in Burlington’s City Hall Park, Half Pint was positioned at the corner of Main Street. A block of St. Paul Street, between Main and College, was closed off for the day — a first for the market — between 6:15 a.m. and 3 p.m., an arrangement that will continue at least until this season’s final outdoor market on October 27.
The weekly gathering was nearly forced out of the park earlier this spring to make way for planned repairs, but city officials and farmers’ representatives reached a compromise. A quarter of the park has been left unoccupied to allow for rehabilitation work, while the expanded street area has enabled the market to swell from last year’s 68 permanent vendors to 90. (By contrast, in each of the four previous seasons, the BFM added just two or three new vendors.)
Despite that increase, the congestion of human and canine bodies that formerly characterized Saturdays in the park seemed to have been relieved last weekend. Picnicking families were taking advantage of the newly vacant park space, laying out blankets and enjoying their local grub.
The sharp uptick in new vendors fulfilled one goal of BFM manager Chris Wagner. “I’m really excited, because this is exactly what the farmers market is supposed to be — an incubator for businesses,” he said.
The newbies ranged from Narwhal Pickles, whose offerings include wild-nettle chutney and golden dandelion butter; to MPT, which sells tamales, Panamanian Christmas ham and other Latin American delicacies. Wagner said his team’s mantra in choosing new vendors was “You gotta do something different.” Here’s a sampling of some of the wackiest — and tastiest — new businesses at this year’s Burlington Farmers Market.
No, these aren’t desserts made by some nice lady with a hippie name. Ric Crossman, a restaurant veteran and now owner of A+ Handyman Services, is hardly a member of the counterculture. Nor is his wife, Annette Didrickson — but she is an avowed fan of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern.” Watching that show last year gave Didrickson the idea of opening a restaurant in Burlington that serves homestyle fare, with and without insects.
The eatery is still on the drawing board, but on Saturday Crossman hoped that a presence at the BFM would get the, er, buzz going.
“Yesterday, I was so excited to start selling bugs!” exclaimed Didrickson, her thick hair swinging as she laughed. Apparently, marketgoers were excited to eat them, too. By noon, the couple had sold out of every bag of their cricket trail mix — a combination of Chex cereal, pretzels, peanuts and roasted crickets. Didrickson and Crossman likened the insects’ flavor to that of toasted almonds, but said their thin legs and wings give them a texture like the wafer in a Kit Kat.
Once the trail mix disappeared, only a few cricket-filled cherry- and maple-flavored lollipops remained, along with bright-green T-shirts printed with the slogan “Save a Cow, Eat a Bug!”
That was the tip-off that Cricket Delights is more than just a novelty product. Didrickson believes in the remarkable sustainability of crickets as a fast-reproducing, lower-methane-producing protein source, and her passion finally convinced Crossman to join his wife in the business. “She gave me a bunch of articles to read,” he said, and explained that the insects, called “mini-livestock” by some farmers, not only require minimal water and space, but boast 75.8 milligrams of calcium and 12.9 grams of protein per bug.
Unlike the Bumu project at Middlebury College, which processes crickets into a nutrition supplement, Crossman and Didrickson aren’t aiming for the international market, but they said they eventually would like to feed Burlington’s homeless and hungry. For now, they’re serving anyone looking for an uncommon treat.
They just have to fight the American prejudice against eating insects, which are considered a perfectly good food in much of the world, notes Crossman. If Saturday was any indication, that battle has been won.
Growing up in Connecticut, Hugo Lara was accustomed to eating his parents’ native Peruvian cuisine. But he realized that it might seem exotic in Vermont. So when he began selling farmers market dishes in Montpelier and Burlington, he was careful not to screw them up. “I would never want to ruin a person’s entire introduction to a whole food culture,” Lara said, “so I put a lot of pressure on myself to do it right.”
For Lara, a 28-year-old board member of Slow Food Vermont, “doing it right” includes using as many local ingredients as possible. Slow Food compatriots the Weltons of Half Pint Farm are helping him grow native peppers for dishes such as aji de gallina — a traditional chicken stew — and ceviche. Other friends in Maine are growing purple maize for Lara’s chicha, a sweet, refreshing drink flavored with lime and spices, including cinnamon and cloves. At the start of the season, the corn was still imported, but Lara hoped to switch to the New England-grown variety this summer.
Lara calls his farmers-market biz A Little Peruvian, and the dishes he sells there are classics. “I really picked the dishes that are most iconic,” he said. “Things every Peruvian knows how to make.”
Picarones may not look too different from an American doughnut, but the South American fritters are made with potato and pumpkin. For those who prefer savory flavors, there are skewered chunks of beef heart; and causa, a cold, whipped potato cake not unlike a meaty terrine in shape and texture.
As the season progresses, Lara will offer dishes that dip deep into the Peruvian melting pot, such as Amazonian juanes, a tamale-like concoction of rice and fillings stuffed into a bijao, or banana leaf; and Chinese-influenced stir-fry lomo saltado, which he serves on a roll.
For Lara, whose day job is working for an environmental nonprofit, the opportunity to start this food sideline couldn’t have come at a better time. National Geographic named Peru “the next foodie frontier” in its Best in the World 2012 list. The cuisine is already trendy in large North American cities; now Lara just has to conquer Vermont.
Ground nuts. Coltsfoot. Toothwort. They sound like the ingredients in a witch’s brew. And they could be. But Dave Kaczynski prefers you call them dinner.
A wildcrafter in his 19th season, Kaczynski has made his living for years supplying restaurateurs with native foods. Recently, he has expanded to selling to the general public at the Montpelier and Stowe farmers markets. With a loud voice and a casual manner, the heavily tattooed Kaczynski isn’t shy about singing the praises of his wares.
“I hate to put Intervale farmers to shame, but the wood nettles are probably the best green Vermont has to offer,” he said Saturday. Kaczynski claimed that the wild plant has twice the vitamin A and B of spinach, and he was happy to provide cooking instructions. Though a silversmith by trade, “I pretend to be a chef,” the wildcrafter joked.
Nutty-tasting nettles are best simply sautéed in butter, he advised. Violets are delicious in a salad with a light dressing that won’t overwhelm their sweet, floral taste. Raw wild Jerusalem artichokes can be used in place of water chestnuts.
If Kaczynski is picking up these foodstuffs for free, why should people buy them from him instead of hunting on their own? Besides requiring a considerable time commitment, he explained, indiscriminate foraging can be damaging to native plants. “We need to have some sustainable practices, to let people know what’s cool and what’s not,” Kaczynski cautioned. Hot commodities such as fiddleheads have become so endangered in some parts of Vermont that towns have posted warnings against picking them.
Kaczynski keeps an eye on sustainability and knows the best places to find the most sought-after treats, including morel mushrooms. He claimed to have two “pretty conspicuous” regular gathering places in Burlington. Where? “If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” he quipped. Perhaps the safest place to find wild foods is at Kaczynski’s booth at next week’s market.
Burlington Farmers Market, Saturdays, 8:30 a.m.-2 p.m. at City Hall Park. Info, 310-5172. burlingtonfarmersmarket.org