MADISON, Wis. — Driving six hours round trip for a one-day visit to a farmers market might seem foolish, especially when there are plenty of decent ones in the Chicago area.
But the Saturday Dane County Farmers' Market in Madison, Wis., not only was named the top farmers market in the nation by Eating Well magazine in 2007, it has appeared on an array of "best market" lists online — from Saveur to Taste of Home to Peter Greenberg.
Dozens of Yelp reviews back up those judgments, bestowing a five-star rating on the market and its picturesque setting on the square surrounding the state Capitol.
That long car ride actually might be a small price to pay.
It's billed as the largest "producer-only" farmers market in the country, meaning the actual farmer, baker or cheesemaker who produced the food is required to be there behind the table to sell it. The market isn't known so much for its exotic selection but for its bounty of high-quality, locally grown and made foodstuffs, many of them certified organic or labeled pesticide-free.
On any given Saturday, about 160 Wisconsin-only vendors gather, hawking everything from fruits and vegetables to cheese, meat, jam, honey, maple syrup, flowers and — my husband's and my personal favorite — bakery goods. Plus, there are promises of protesters, a small arts-and-crafts fair, street performers and more.
The market opens at 6 a.m., but we arrived at 9:30 a.m., when it already was bustling with shoppers and a few unobtrusive protesters. We could still navigate the sidewalk along Pinckney Street fairly easily and soon made some random purchases: a pound of Super Sugar snap peas, which we discovered upon sampling, lived up to their name; a bag of black popcorn kernels; six ears from Alsum's sweet corn; a pint each of blueberries and raspberries. Oh, yes, and a couple of ripe heirloom tomatoes from Snug Haven Farm, which has been selling its organically grown tomatoes and spinach to Frontera Grill restaurant in Chicago since the mid-1990s.
The crowd was getting thicker by the time we stopped to look at the fruit-filled turnovers and pies at Pilgrim's Pantry, an Amish/Mennonite-owned bakery, the first of about a dozen bakery vendors we would wander past. We are sweets aficionados, so the bumbleberry pie (a mixture of red raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and strawberries) looked and sounded especially appealing, but we moved on, eyeballing table after table of fresh-picked produce. Think rhubarb, fingerling potatoes, gooseberries, cherries, knob onions, bunches of fresh lavender and sweet basil along with showy displays of baseball-bat-sized (only a slight exaggeration) zucchinis in traditional green and sunshine-yellow and kohlrabi as big as a child's head.
We had noticed several market-goers munching on thick, bronze-colored scones, and before long, we found their source: Chris and Lori's Bakehouse, which featured 15 renditions of the bakery treat. I had to laugh when I saw that they were organized into four categories: Ultra Healthy, Very Healthy, Semi-Healthy, and Slightly Healthy. I suggested to my husband that we taste-test one from each group, for research, of course, but he wouldn't go for it. We chose a couple of Very Healthy chocolate chunk scones made with whole-wheat flour, oats, honey, canola oil and dark chocolate, which we would consume — guilt-free — on the ride home.
By 10:30, foot traffic was, not unlike rush hour on the Kennedy: practically at a standstill, which isn't unusual; 18,000 to 20,000 people pack the market every Saturday "rain or shine." During our visit, the shoppers — from grandmas to hippie-ish college students — were smiling and polite, chitchatting with strangers literally in their faces. It was a reminder that we were in friendly, down-to-earth Madison, not New York City or even Chicago.
Still, at this point, both of us started to feel a little claustrophobic being jammed into this polite sea of humanity, and we ventured out of the market, across the other side of Mifflin Street, where we discovered the Madison Sourdough food cart. Among the yeasty offerings, was the miche, a humongous mixed-grain bread topped with a rendering of the sun and a wheat stalk formed by a stencil dusting of rye and wheat flour. If ever dough could be described as breathtakingly beautiful, it was the 24-inch round, 41/2-pound miche. Still, looks alone couldn't sway us.
We decided to take home the pepitas polenta, a fragrant loaf studded with bits of fresh sage and toasted pumpkin seeds. Andrew Hutchison, baker and co-owner (who grew up in Arlington Heights), told us that the bread's starter comes from grain grown in Dodgeville, Wis., and milled in nearby Lone Rock. Talk about knowing where your food comes from.
As we were about to make our way down Carroll Street, we spotted the arts-and-crafts fair and several street performers, including two violinists playing Mozart. We paused to watch three adorable toddlers boogieing to the beat of "Big Rock Candy Mountain," performed by Scott "Boo" Kiker, a one-man band singing and playing a steel guitar, drums, horns, cymbals and kazoo.
But just ahead we discovered an even more alluring view: Bleu Mont Dairy, an award-winning small-batch cheesemaker. Here we tasted several full-bodied, cave-aged cheeses, each one so uniquely complex and fabulous that choosing one to take home was the hardest decision of the day. In the end, we added the earthy, slightly caramelly Bandaged cheddar to our booty.
Fountain Prairie Farms, a nearby stall, is one of about 10 meat purveyors at the market. They offer a range of products, including beef, chicken, pork, lamb, emu, elk, venison, duck and goose. Fountain Prairie's antibiotic-chemical-steroid-free beef comes from grass-fed Highland cattle and is served at Graze and at L'Etoile, the acclaimed Madison eateries owned by James Beard-winning chef Tory Miller. Had I been more of a carnivore and my husband less of a vegetarian, surely we would have taken home a couple of their rib-eye steaks or summer sausages.
We continued strolling around the square, sampling more Wisconsin-made food products such as Brunkow's baked cheese with garlic while loading ourselves up with more fresh produce as well as wildflower honey from Marsden's Pure Honey. You can't miss it because the owner, Dale Marsden, dons a goofy-looking straw beehive hat at the market. We also snatched one more chunk of cheese. This time a pesto havarti from Forgotten Valley out of South Wayne, Wis., before we finally headed back to the corner of Main and Pinckney streets, where we had started.
One of the best parts of going to the Dane County Farmers' Market is that memories linger for weeks afterward. In blueberry muffins. A raspberry tart. A grilled pesto havarti cheese sandwich on pepitas polenta bread. And an array of other dishes both simple and complex.
If you go
The Dane County Farmers' Market on the square is open 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday through Nov. 9. A winter market is held indoors. Log on to dcfm.org for more information, including a link to sign up for the weekly e-newsletter, which includes a listing of seasonal products available and recipes.
If traveling long distance, take a cooler for perishables such as cheese and meat.
To beat the crowds, arrive at the market early, by 7 a.m. To do that, consider staying in Madison the night before. Madison is a beautiful, foodie-friendly college town situated between two lakes, with lots of fun things to do and see. For more information, log onto visitmadison.com.