If you love produce as much as I do you know that living in the East Bay is better than living in San Francisco. I realize I could start a riot here, but I've lived in 3 out of four directions of the peninsula, in various neighborhoods and cities, and no matter where I was, no matter if I was in possession of a drivers license or not, I made it to Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market, and/ or the Berkeley Farmers' Markets, because there was more to see, smell, taste, touch and procure in these markets.
And until I moved to North Berkeley myself, I was a tried and true Berkeley Bowl Trooper, from the old school-- back when it started in the old bowling alley. I still love to get there when I have my list in Excel spreadsheet form and the time is early enough before rush hour clogs the insane parking lot and creates lines worse than LA traffic.
But now I have been seduced by Monterey Market. I used to laugh at its size, comparable to Rainbow Grocery but tiny compared to Berkeley Bowl. But then. But then I found its buried treasure. One day two summers ago I stopped by for a few things and bought an entire flat of the best boysenberries I have ever seen, smelled or tasted! I went home and ate about four baskets, made pie with a few more and froze the rest. Returning just a day or two later I found that I had bought something which would not be back again until the following year... Sad...but also something to look forward to.
You can go to the same place day after day, year after year, and find everything ok, get what you need for the price you like and shrug shoulders at the prospect of change.
Until. Until one day you pick the best looking toad you can find for toad soup and when you get through checkout you realize your bag is exploding with a Prince and your car has been moved closer to the horizon, where a pretty sunset awaits you.
A few days ago is a perfect example. I needed some citrus and butter and cranberries. I like to stock up on cranberries before they disappear so I can whip up a batch of my favorite walnut-cranberry-orange bread, which I love to toast and smother with butter. (It really can be whipped up-- it's a one bowl and wooden spoon recipe!)
I'm in love with citrus and I always look at what's going on. Scratch and sniff is the best way to learn about new citrus. Both blossom and skin will tell you what unique flavor and perfume are awaiting you. While scanning high bins of yellow and green and orange globes my eyes did a double-take on a gnarly looking fruit.
YUZU! Fresh, California grown Yuzu were staring at me. Like a collector at a yard sale discovering a priceless chair, I monitored my breathing and tried not to look around frantically. I bit my tongue when I wanted to jump up and down and yell, "Hey?! Do you see what I see?! Look! It's fresh Yuzu, here, in Berkeley, California, yours for the having!! Can you believe such a thing? It's so wonderful!!!!!"
But instead I kept walking and went back nonchalantly, looking puzzled on the outside and then hunkered in and bought at least 5 pounds.
Yuzu is a fruit I only saw one of once, while living in Napa. A famous chef I knew had smuggled one in from a recent trip to Japan. Like Bergamot, it's an ugly mottled fruit, but it's exquisite perfume and flavor lives in every molecule of its being.
Monterey Market is a cold market, mostly outside and seemingly unkempt. But it's a facade, truly, because you never know what you will find there. Bill Fujimoto buys small and large shipments directly from farmers single and corporate. The back room, unseen by the average consumer, is a carefully organized chaos of fruit and vegetable back-stock/ cases, available to restaurants, chefs and caterers who want to buy direct and avoid (or amend as the case may be) produce companies or farmers' markets.
And if I haven't sold you yet, I beg of you to rent or buy Eat At Bill's, a lovingly made documentary about Monterey Market and its beloved workers. Watch it just to see the massive pumpkins, which get brought in on elephant transport trucks and the joy so many people share about cherry season, and one particular cherry in particular.
When we talk about shopping and eating local we often overlook our markets with rooftops. But Monterey Market, Berkeley Bowl, The Food Mill, Rainbow Grocery, Bi Rite market, Farmer Joe's and so many more in the Bay Area are all about shopping locally. These businesses are still independent, many of them family and/or co-operatively owned. If you can't get to the farmers' market, find your CSA box lacking this week or next month, or just want to see that there are a dozen kinds of sweet potatoes, countless citrus varietals, far out and funky shaped mushrooms, head over to a new market for countless fruit and veggie adventures. They await you in one corner of the bay or the other...