I knew this would happen. No sooner do I mouth off about the quality of chicken than I have to start backtracking on what I said. This is not to say I have eaten some good chicken since I last blogged, but I will admit that my implied generalisation – which repeated pretty-well every prejudice that Brits have about America – that the produce over here is all tasteless pap, was unfounded and unfair. You can buy just as crappy food in Britain as you can over here. I’ve seen awful meat and poultry on the shelves of all of Britain’s supermarkets, with the exception perhaps of Waitrose. I’m just irredeemably smug because when I’m at home I get to buy all of my meat from local farmers.
That smugness got a good slap across the face when we went to two farmers’ markets yesterday. The first, and by far the biggest, is a covered market in Soulard, just south of Downtown. As soon as we parked the car and wandered the streets I got that sensation, that bumping on the skin, when you realise that this is a place where you could actually choose to live. The houses are Victorian redbrick, as are the pavements. There are trees and inviting pubs and coffee shops. The market itself has been going since the 18th century and is made up of two long galleries, filled with stalls. It was a Saturday and the place was humming. A stall was selling good-looking Bloody Marys – too early for me – and was doing a roaring trade. I was already on a high because I’d just been given a taster in a smokehouse across the road called Bogarts. It is an offshoot of the very popular Pappy’s Smokehouse and if the one barbecued rib I tasted was anything to go by I’m going to have to make some frequent trips. The rib was fleshy and beautifully moist. It wasn’t dripping with sauce, just a thin layer of glaze on the top, and the smoking enhanced the flavour rather than smothered it. It was without doubt the finest piece of barbecuing I have ever tasted. Bogarts only opens at lunchtimes from Tuesday to Saturday or I think we would be there tonight. Pappy’s is also closed on Sunday evenings, more’s the pity. Both places close when they run out of food – as they always do; as simple as that, so we’ll have to go early.
The market was strong on fruit and veg, less so on meat, and not much good at all for fish (but then we are a very long way from the sea). I would call it a general market rather than specifically a farmers’ market, though a good few of the vegetable sellers were bringing produce from their own farms. But if you lived in the neighbourhood you wouldn’t have much good reason to go anywhere else for your food.
The second market we visited was in the middle of a nearby park, Tower Grove. These really were home producers and by the time we got there at about 11.30 many of them had already sold out. An interesting distinction from an English market was that anyone who was selling meat had it in freezers rather than fresh, and I can see some sense in this. For one thing it was extremely hot yesterday, but more crucially they don’t have to worry about what to do with unsold stock. Still, I’d be reluctant to buy a frozen chicken, even if it were free-range. Freezing mushes up the texture. And the things are always so wet. A good chicken should be dry when you cook it, not sopping wet. When I’ve bought chickens over here in Wholefoods, even their poshest ones have been hermetically sealed in thick plastic bags, sloshing around in water. Contrast that to a chicken that has been hung in a butcher’s. Not a drop of water to be seen.
I digress. The Tower Grove market was very good. One man was even selling “English bacon”. I quizzed him about this and we quickly established that it’s back bacon, American bacon being universally streaky. He’d sold out. He does do “cheek bacon” though, which I must try. It’s a bacony form of Bath Chaps.
As in most farmers’ markets I’ve seen in the States, everything was generally on the pricey side. I think it’s worth it, ultimately, but whereas I like to think of farmers’ markets as a way of farmers cutting out the middle man and retaining all of the retail price for themselves, sometimes there’s a danger that producers will overstep the mark so much that we’re into the area of “boutique food”, designed to appeal to people with more money than sense rather than people who just want to buy decent food straight from the people who grew it. There’s a store I visited today called Local Harvest. It claims to source as much of its food as possible from local producers. They have two labels which you can find on some products. One says 150 and the other 300, and each refers to the maximum amount of miles something has travelled. Quite apart from the fact that I don’t consider 150 miles to be exactly local, I could see very few items which carried the stickers. Most of the stock, I’m sorry to say, was stuff you’d see at any health food store. Their strawberries, albeit organic, came from Driscolls, the largest supplier of soft fruit in the USA. A bunch of three small beetroot, with the leaves still attached (which I often use instead of spinach), was $3.99. That’s about £2.40. For one portion of beets. As well as thinking that’s just taking the piss, it highlights another problem with food pricing over here. Everything gets rounded up to the nearest 99 cents. So a producer comes along with a bunch of beets that he wants to sell to the store for $1.50 (still more than I pay for a good bunch of local beets at home). The store then doubles the price in mark-up, but rather than sell them for $3, it rounds the price up even more to $3.99. Well, that’s just bonkers and cynical. But they all do it.
These gripes aside, it’s good to know that the movement towards decent produce is as strong here as it is at home. I despaired of ever buying free-range pork here as most pigs are raised in enormous sheds, but no, you can get it. Restaurants are springing up all over town which boast of their local sourcing. Some are even getting into the nose-to-tail movement. All power to their free-range elbows.