There is no better way to start a summer Saturday than strolling the aisles of the Downtown Saint Paul Farmers’ Market, inhaling the earthy smell of vegetables and trying to identify the herbs by scent as you pass. If the sunny bouquets of chrysanthemums don’t bring cheer, the children bouncing and twirling to the beats of live music surely will. But, as zucchini and tomatoes make way for squash and root vegetables, the urgency to visit the market fades.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The Downtown Saint Paul Farmers’ Market runs all winter through April, Saturdays only, from 9am to noon. Though the fresh vegetables are gone, the winter market has a fresh energy of its own, offering a different mix of vendors: upstart producers offering new products like salsa and caramel popcorn, established producers who haven’t been able to get a stall at the summer market, and familiar, established vendors. The winter market has a gentle, relaxed vibe. Customers linger and carry quiet conversations over coffee and a pastry and meander the aisles chatting with vendors and sampling cheese, bread, and chocolate.
For the most part, the vendors of frozen meat, poultry and fish line up with their trucks and tables along Wall Street, while the purveyors of apples, coffee beans, chocolate, and cheese pack themselves into Golden’s Deli, which also offers a small dining area, across the street.
Here’s a sample of what’s available:
Newly-arrived vendor Aunt Else’s makes æbleskiver from their family recipe while you wait, three for $5. Spherical Danish pancakes cooked in the rounded cups of a special cast iron pan, æbleskiver are rotated frequently (traditionally with a knitting needle) until golden brown. Aunt Else’s dusts their æbleskiver with powdered sugar and serves them in a bed of syrup. Aunt Else’s also sells organic æbleskiver mix, made with Minnesota grown wheat and organic buttermilk from Wisconsin, and pans.
Another new vendor, Driving Force Energy Co. out of Woodbury, MN, offers Sweet & Spicy Caramel Popcorn for $4 a bag. The air-popped popcorn is sweetened with brown sugar and agave nectar and livened up with a dash of cayenne pepper. Driving Force Energy Co.’s Brenda Stanton hopes to get a stand at the summer market to sell her array of popcorn treats and energy bars.
Long-time regular A Toast to Bread offers custard empanadas for $3 each. These crisp, buttery, crescent-shaped pastries filled with silky custard sell out quickly, so get there early. A Toast to Bread also offers savory tuna empanadas, as well as other baked goods.
Newcomer Snappy Dog sells salsa, mild, medium or hot, $5 for a 16-ounce jar. The medium salsa is tomatoey and chunky with heat that sneaks up on you. It’s summer in a jar. If the faint snap of vinegar reminds of you of homemade, it’s because Snappy Dog’s Dave Merten canned this salsa for friends and family for years, while making his living selling cars. Merten has only recently, in the past couple of months, rented A Toast to Bread’s kitchen on their idle days to launch his salsa business. “I found them on Craigslist,” Merten says, noting that they also rent to other upstarts. “An incubator kitchen of sorts.”
One of the marvels of visiting the Farmers’ Market in winter is that St. Paul itself serves as a giant, open refrigerator. Rather than cramming their products into coolers, the meat, poultry and fish vendors display their meats on tables. It’s easy to fall in love with a ruby-red, marbled chuck roast, such as the ones from Chase Brook Natural, to take home and defrost for Sunday dinner. While they market their products to fifteen other farmers’ markets, you can find Chase Brook Natural at the Saint Paul Farmers’ Market only in winter. They can’t get a spot in summer.
Bar Five Meat & Poultry supplies eggs and fresh, whole, free-range chicken (roasters, fryers, and stewers). Even a seven-pound roaster was tender and juicy, and needed no further cleaning. When asked if they are at the Farmers’ Market all year, the vendor from Bar Five replied, “The chickens lay eggs all year ’round.”
Wolf Honey Farm‘s cinnamon honey spread, $6 for a 15-ounce jar, is popular among their regular customers, because, according to Dale Wolf, a beekeeper for 39 years, it’s high in antioxidants. Heated, it makes a perfect dip for tart apples. Wolf says the honey’s high sugar content keeps it from freezing, even when temperatures drop to 20 below at their self-service honey stand in Wisconsin.
Golden’s Deli’s bagel sandwiches, $5.99 each, are toasted and prepared while you wait and loaded however you choose, with options including eggs and ham from farmers’ market vendors, turkey bacon, cheese, tomatoes, olives, cucumber, jalapenos, and lettuce. The bagels are from Bruegger’s.
Oh, and here’s a bonus: parking is easy to find.