So what, you may wonder, is available at a farmers’ market in the dead of winter? Come spring, New England growers will begin harvesting familiar, anticipated asparagus, strawberries, chervil, and hearty greens. But in winter, the word “seasonal’’ pretty much means “frozen.’’ After a few frosts, even kale stops growing. Nonetheless, there’s still fresh, regional seafood, meats, and vegetables, these thanks to root cellars and squash coolers, which provide storage to mellow and sweeten them all winter.
Until recent years, there were essentially no winter markets in this area. Last January, the weekly Somerville Winter Farmers’ Market opened every Saturday from November to May at the Somerville armory. Similar markets started in 2010 in Natick and Wayland. All are back this year. Last Saturday, the new Cambridge Winter Farmers’ Market opened at the Cambridge Community Center. Nearly 850 local residents showed up to shop from 22 vendors. Perhaps even more than in summer, these weekly markets are a social gathering for eaters of every stripe, from food-snob to value shopper.
Winter markets are new to modern-day New England and in order to come with produce, growers are following a hybrid system that combines the edgiest trends and the oldest traditions. Colonial-era root vegetables (the old-fashioned root cellar is coming back into use), sit alongside microgreens from high-tech inflatable greenhouses.
There are acorn, butternut, and kabocha squashes (cool-cured until fully sweet), fresh eggs in various colors, winterbor and lacinato kale, red and golden beets, baby field carrots, wild halibut caught the day before, and popcorn still on the cob. Winter lobsters have harder shells (excellent for making stock), and are filled with more meat than in summer. Regional preserves, pastas, sauces, and honeys abound. And Maine shrimp are at their best now.
The Cambridge market was in the works for half a year. Last June, Jose Mendez, then a director at the Cambridge center, realized he had access to a giant gymnasium and six months until the first frost. He set out to blend the model of the Somerville and Wayland markets to the mission of his center: serve and educate the community.
“We have the space, and I wanted to maximize its use,’’ he explains. “I figured, how hard could it be? You just contact people to come and have a farmers’ market. Well, it turns out it’s not that easy.’’ Mendez describes the months of work he, two staffers, and director David Gibbs have just completed. They had to procure licensing, vet quality regional vendors, develop advertising partnerships, create educational activities (in an adjacent art gallery), and even put together a musical program (on a stage facing the space).
“A lot of issues came up, such as: Can we even sell food?’’ The City of Cambridge re-zoned the center’s gymnasium to allow the market, and created Saturday parking for vendors on an adjacent street (metal parking signage now says Saturdays are “Reserved for Farmers’ Market’’ instead of “for Street Cleaning’’). Directors of the Harvard summer farmers’ market and several Cambridge city council members helped with other details, and the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture’s “Model Rules for Farmers’ Markets’’ helped guide vendor agreements.
The center serves a primarily underprivileged and minority segment of the Cambridge community, mostly within walking distance of its Riverside location. Center staffers set vendors’ fees low - about $30 per week - to encourage moderate pricing. Also, federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program electronic cards are honored at double face-value for the first $10. Music and activities keep kids busy and supervised while parents shop.
Corinne Espinosa, a single mom who raised her 12-year-old son with the help of the center’s after-school program, is one of many center regulars on opening day. “To be honest, I don’t usually shop at farmers’ markets, because I don’t have a lot of money,’’ she says. Without a car, the long walk to the cheapest supermarkets becomes untenable in winter - and once there her SNAP card is only worth face value. “I came initially because I know the center. But having a market like this right here all winter - it’s incredible.’’
Vendors are equally excited. At the end of the day most of them - particularly growers - say sales exceeded expectations. As venues like these multiply, you can see how a reliable market for local items forms. And eventually, shoppers who have no neighborhood supermarket will have an alternative.
Cambridge Winter Farmers’ Market, Cambridge Community Center, 5 Callender St., Cambridge.