Finding Farmers' Markets - Irvine, CA (UTC)
This post is part of a series Much Ado About Fooding is doing on farmers' markets - Duc and I plan to visit as many as we can, starting in southern California, to get a sense of what sets each apart, what drives communities to them, and what gems people should look out for. To keep track, bookmark the "Farmers' Market" category.
The more we explore farmers' markets in Orange County, the more frequently I'll get the question about which is the best one around. It is a difficult question to properly answer though. We have been finding that what we expected was coming true as we visit farmers' markets - they all have something they excel at. However, if you really want to emphasize on produce in both variety and abundance, I highly encourage that you drop by the Irvine Certified Farmers' Market across the street from UCI (in the University Town Center "UTC"). Not only is it quite possibly the largest in OC with 115+ vendors, it also has the biggest variety of produce we've see. I definitely know that I have to come to this one if I'm looking for a particular fruit or vegetable. Chances are that I'll find it at this market.
There are several points of entry for this farmers' market. All of the booths are set up directly on the parking lot of UTC which you are able to spot from far away if you are driving near campus. There are ample street signs as well pointing people in this direction. We have always missed the market even though we had heard such good things about it but only because we wouldn't force ourselves to go out at such early hours. This market starts at 8AM and only last for four hours so if you are planning on going, go early! Everything is bustling right at the start and no matter which arm of the market you enter into (there are several entrances), you will find a multitude of people looking for the freshest stuff. Because the market is so sprawling, there are also several areas where entertainers sit/stand to perform for the crowds. We spotted musicians this time.
There is a good mix, as well, of craftspeople and products that are not edible. We adored the succulent arrangements at one of the booths which featured all types of containers and set-ups. Jewelry and clothing easily were aplenty with clothing for children, women, and pets and jewelry of ranging styles, mainly all handcrafted by the makers who were present themselves. There was also a very, very interesting vendor by the name of Stella Star (founder is Keri Beaudoin) who created soaps and candles to look exactly like what they were to smell like. That picture above of the cherry pie? Yeah, that's a candle and it smelled exactly like a homemade cherry pie as well. There were so many other types of soaps and candles we saw, and we definitely had to smell them out. They were so realistic and came to mind as great gifts!
Of course with so much food abound, the actual food product vendors had to sling their fare as samples for us curious folk. A spoonful of a tart by Tarts N' Things persuaded us to buy a few to take home. These ladies were smart too because they had stamp redemption cards for their tarts with a list of the various farmers' markets they set up at - guess it will be a regular purchase for me! We especially liked the lemon, caramel apple, and pineapple flavors. The multiple oils and vinegars vendors nearly tempted me in but Duc pulled me away since we have much too many bottles already. However, I would like to point out that there is a large avocado oil seller there who is more than happy to talk your ear off about how fantastic avocado oil is for you! Oh and be careful of the dip guys - they could charm your money out of your hands with how delicious their product is and how convincing they can be. We have a theory that there is a dip and hummus mafia out there that uses farmers' markets. How else do they get us to buy so much from them? In fact, the one at this Irvine Farmers' Market slipped Duc a small bag of pita bread pieces and stepped away as if nothing happened. What else would you do in that situation but walk over to try some dip on the bread? Genius.
For those looking for meats and seafood, there is no shortage of that at the market. Fresh fish sit in iced buckets waiting to be taken home. There are common meat vendors for beef, pork, and chicken but also some uncommon ones like a bison meat slinger. If you're not into meat for your protein, you can saunter on over to the mushroom guy who has more than enough types of cultivated mushrooms for you to savor (I didn't see any wild though). Oh and salami? Talk to Mangi con Amore about their nitrate-free cured meat which is just perfectly perfect. We walked away with two of those including a sublime Tartufo. There is also someone selling starter plants and herbs for the gardeners out there too.
So I had mentioned that Irvine Farmers' Market has more unique produce available. I have not seen a market yet that had so many vendors who sold common Asian vegetables but there were at least three at this one that had all the squashes, greens, and fruits I recall eating growing up. Bittermelons and spiky bittermelons, Chinese broccoli, and Chinese chives were just some of the ones we spotted but there were plenty more. Another farmer had unprocessed macadamia nuts, and the fava beans I saw in some booths were enormous. In fact, one farm had red cabbage larger than my head! Hydroponic lettuces and vegetables were not exempt from these displays. It became clear that any type you needed could probably be found here, and the swirling of languages that we heard as we walked down the aisles really let us know that this was a great community connector for many. I had previously mentioned that the Hollywood Farmers' Market was a good example of a binding market that represents the community - I think that Irvine Farmers' Market is in a similar situation for Orange County with all of its abundance and variety. Catch them on Saturdays from 8AM to noon across from the UCI campus. Get there early for better parking!
Photography by Duc Duong. More pictures available on Facebook here.