On Sunday, Thomas Albright will wake up early.
Before 5 a.m., the patriarch of the Albright Farms family will be in his truck, driving from his farm in Monkton to the city, where Saratoga and Holliday streets meet underneath the Jones Falls Expressway. By 7 a.m., he'll see his first customers — friendly faces coming to buy Albright Farms' produce or meat, kicking off another season of the Baltimore Farmers' Market & Bazaar.
Albright has participated in the market since 1979, just two years after it opened. In that time, he's seen the market evolve to keep up with the way customers shop, eat and cook.
"Years ago, the older generation bought volumes of produce to cook at home," he says. "It used to be that people came to buy volume and something cheap. Some still do, and that's available. But people buy smaller quantities and want a different-quality product now."
For Albright, that means a focus on selling meat from animals that are "pastured and natural," with no antibiotics or hormones.
A few years ago, John Bartenfelder of Bartenfelder Farms noticed more customers voicing an interest in organic products. In response, Bartenfelder began the three-year process of converting several acres of his farm to organic status.
This year, he will sell organic herbs harvested from that land. "I think the demand is there for organic herbs," he says.
If the herbs are popular this year, Bartenfelder says, he will probably expand his organic offerings; by 2016, about 30 more acres of Bartenfelder Farm will be certified organic.
Another trend that Pam Pahl, owner of Pahl's Farm, has noticed is that more people are looking to container gardening to add more fresh food and flavor to their lives.
"Container gardening is a big thing right now," she says. "We give people ideas about what to do if they don't have a yard — just a porch or a deck in the city."
Most vegetables and herbs can be grown in containers, as long as the container is big enough for the plant's root system. Herbs, peppers, tomatoes and lettuces are popular container garden options.
"We sell a lot of lettuce pots," says Pahl. "You can just pick the leaves right off."
Every year, market vendors tweak their offerings. "We're always doing something a little different," Pahl says. "We always have new kinds of flowers and different herbs in the spring. We look in the seed catalogs and say, 'This look neat! Let's try growing it!'"
Chesapeake Greenhouse's John Maniscalco grows hydroponic lettuce and herbs in his Eastern Shore greenhouse. "I have four new lettuces I'll be bringing to the market this year," he says, "and a few new herbs, like lime basil and lemon basil."
For vendors and customers, the market's start is a reliable marker of springtime.
"The opening of the market is a good jump-start," says Brett Rhodes, an assistant manager at Zeke's Coffee, a stand well known for its strong brew and long lines. "It means the weather's getting warmer, baseball's starting, and it's time to get on the golf course."
For city residents, opening day also means renewed access to local produce. "The thing I'm most excited about is the fresh local fruits and veggies," says Canton resident Christine Mason.
"It's the best grocery store you'll go to anywhere on the East Coast," says Robert Banks, market vendor and owner of Banksy's Cafe in the Lake Falls Village Shopping Center. "And there's not one unfriendly vendor at that market."
Early in the season, market shoppers should expect a limited selection of produce. "For the first few weeks, it'll be kale, collards, spring onions and spinach," says Bartenfelder. More varied produce, including asparagus and strawberries, will arrive closer to the first of May.
Even with a limited variety, market vendors say there are many ways to prepare the produce that will be available in early April. Pahl praises roasted kale and cauliflower chips, and Bartenfelder says his wife, Robin, "always has a pot of kale or collards on the stove."
Originally, the market was open only to farmers selling their produce, but over time, the vendor population has expanded. Today, the market includes about 50 farmers from Maryland and Pennsylvania, more than forty food vendors and about 35 crafters selling their wares in the "bazaar" section of the event.
The market draws between 5,000 and 10,000 visitors every Sunday, depending on the season; the busiest day is usually the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
Farmers stress that the market is a great place not only for local produce and meat, but also for inspiration and education. Albright chats with his customers about issues that include agriculture regulations and the best way to cook beef tips.
"When people come to the market and interact with farmers, they get educated and change their perceptions and thoughts about how to eat. They eat healthier," he says.
But market vendors are not just in the business of lecturing. For vendors and customers alike, the social aspect of the market is an important part of its charm.
"The part you look forward to most is getting back to see the regular customers and other vendors you haven't seen in a few months," says Bartenfelder. "You get caught up on what the families are doing. It's the social atmosphere, not just the business, that makes the market successful."
"I think it's the crown jewel of all East Coast markets. A Baltimore landmark," says Banks. "There's something down-to-earth and charming about strolling through the market at 7 a.m., eating a pit beef sandwich or ice cream that early.
"It's a type of character only Baltimore can give."
The Baltimore Farmers' Market & Bazaar is open every Sunday from April 7 through Dec. 22. The market opens at 7 a.m. and remains open until "sellout," which usually occurs around noon.
For more information about the Baltimore Farmers' Market & Bazaar, visit http://www.bop.org
For information about other farmer's markets in the city of Baltimore, visit http://baltimore.org/taste-baltimore/farmers-markets/
Banksy's Swiss chard with bacon
Robert Banksy, whose restaurant Banksy's Cafe (6080 Falls Road, Baltimore; 410-377-4444) is also a popular vendor at the Baltimore Farmers' Market, says that after a visit to the market, his ideal Sunday dinner would be Maryland oven-fried chicken, redskin potato salad and Swiss chard.
For the potatoes, Banksy says, "Go mayo-free and dress with Dijon mustard, fresh tarragon, shallots, salt, pepper, a splash of cider vinegar and chopped cornichons or capers."
He prepares the Swiss chard like traditional collard greens, with smoked pork or turkey leg, using the recipe below.
1 bunch (about 2 pounds) Swiss chard (can substitute kale or collard greens)
1/2 pound applewood smoked bacon, diced (can substitute smoked turkey leg)
4 whole garlic cloves, peeled
1.5 quarts chicken or vegetable stock
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice, plus the zest of one lemon
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Cut away the tough yellow stalks and stems from the chard. Discard any leaves that are bruised or yellow.
Rinse greens in salted water. Wash the chard thoroughly in fresh water, being sure to remove any grit. Dry thoroughly.
Heat a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Cook the bacon or turkey until lightly crisp and the fat has rendered. Add the garlic and saute for 2 minutes to soften. Add the chard to the bacon and garlic. Toss well.
Pour in the stock and cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the wilted and tender. Take care not to overcook. Season with salt and pepper. Garnish with the lemon juice and lemon zest and drizzle with the olive oil.
Roasted kale chips
Pam Pahl, of Pahl's Farm, roasts vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli and kale to make crunchy snacks. "Kale is something that will be around early," she says, recommending a simple recipe for kale chips.
"I'm a salt person," she says, "but you can season with anything you'd like — maybe cinnamon, paprika, pepper, garlic salt."
1 bunch kale
1 tablespoon olive oil
Sea salt to taste
Additional spices if desired
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Rinse the kale, removing any grit. Dry thoroughly. Remove the stems and tough center ribs from the kale. Cut or tear into large pieces. Toss with olive oil and sea salt to taste. If using additional spices, sprinkle with spice before tossing.
Place in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes, until crisp. Let cool before eating.
Thomas Albright enjoys chicken from his farm, simply roasted with rosemary and lemon. He makes the most out of the bird by using the leftovers, including the bones, for chicken noodle soup. "It's really easy," he says, "and will feed a family of four — with leftovers."
1 whole chicken (about 4 pounds)
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 lemon, quartered
1 sprig rosemary
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Rinse the chicken, inside and out, and pat dry. Rub olive oil evenly over the outside of the chicken. Season the outside of the chicken with salt and pepper. Place the lemon and rosemary inside the chicken.
Place the chicken in a roasting pan and cover with tented foil. Remove the foil about 30 minutes before the chicken is done (for a 4-pound bird, remove foil after ninety minutes). Roast until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the bird reads 165 degrees. For a 4-pound bird, the entire cooking process should take about two hours.