By Linda McK.Stewart
Saturday mornings, rain or shine, 52 weeks a year … “Well, almost 52,” says Mariane Fittingoff, “I drive here from Thousand Oaks, just to hit the Calabasas Farmers’ Market before its closing time at 1 in the afternoon.”
In the California market that boasts on every signpost, flyer and awning “only 100 percent organic produce, pesticide free,” the organic or non-organic aspect makes no difference to Marianne. “I just come for the flowers.”
She gestures to the profusion of lilies, hydrangea, birds-of-paradise, roses, daisies, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans and huge sprays of bougainvillea spilling out of buckets around her feet. She’s more than pleased to pose for a picture with Señor Juan Durin, flower stall proprietor. Each grins broadly, holding armfuls of blooms. Asked how long he’s been presiding over his flower stall, Juan answers “Cinco años,” the very picture of a happy, happy vendor.
But then everyone looks happy: mothers with strollers, elderly couples arm in arm, wise-guy teenagers on the lookout for girls, confirmed bachelors intent on getting their once-a-week loaf of bread, their weekly ration of local wine. It’s a matinee that plays out on undoubted notes of contentment for all.
Soseh Gevorgian, in partnership with her mother, presides over her stall of Madlen’s Brittles, $7 for 7 ounces. The brittles are pumpkinseed, sesame and almonds oven-baked with organic cane sugar and the results are delicious. When customers often ask, “Baked, but for how long and at what temperature?” Soseh only smiles, shakes her head and rings up the sale. “It’s Mama’s secret,” she says and moves on to the next customer.
Further down the bustling aisle, 25-year-old Anis Mohammed, who until two years ago was a star soccer player in Casablanca, Morocco, is doing his usual over- the-top business selling 25 kinds of hummus. Most of his recipes, he explains, are Tunisian. But why not Moroccan, he is asked. “Because Mama is Tunisian.” So it’s hummus with curry or tarragon or sundried tomatoes or artichokes or eggplant and whatever it is, it’s totally addictive and deadly for anyone on a diet.
Tables heaped high with pomegranates, figs, kiwis, red, yellow and copper-colored tomatoes and carrots handsome enough in their green tasseled bunches to do a bride proud as a wedding bouquet. Generous samples are available at every stall. A few regulars every week munch and sip their way through the market. They depart, well-nourished, having spent not one sou. Vendors seeing them pass only smile, nod and wink knowingly at one another.
Crepes filled with local strawberry jam, lightly dusted with powdered sugar, are a breakfast favorite that cuts across all generational lines. Of special interest to several high-powered chefs from the most expensive restaurants in L.A. is the “mushroom man.” His stall, near the market entrance, is just on the right as you come in. He grows his own mushrooms – 20 different varieties. To many of us, a mushroom is a mushroom and that’s about all there is to it – unless you broaden the category to include truffles. Truffles are standard fare for the “mushroom man.” At a customer’s request he weighs up a tiny, slightly wizened brownish-white fungal nugget; 1 ounce on the dot. He removes it and with infinite care places it in a paper bag and hands it over. “That’ll be $250 dollars,” he tells his customer who, without batting an eye, hands over the stated amount in cash. Obviously a mushroom is not just a mushroom.
Calabasas (pop. 22,900) sits in the rolling hills west of the San Fernando Valley. It is included in the wide-flung boundaries of Greater Los Angeles. As such, it’s commonly but mistakenly identified with the glitter-glamour that is Hollywood. But, the fabled corner of Hollywood and Vine, only 20 miles away is, culturally speaking, light years away from the corner of Calabasas Road and El Cañon and the weekly market.
Shoppers at the market sport muddy boots, running shoes or bare feet. The 5-inch stiletto heels of Hollywood don’t make it this far. But Calabasas is not without its own roster of cinematic talent. Lady Gaga and Britney Spears live in Calabasas but when it comes to market chitchat, it’s all about composting, conservation and recycling with no mention of casting, contracts and box-office receipts.
Furthermore, Calabasas takes its green identity seriously. Single-use plastic bags vanished from the local retailers at least five years ago. Solar panels are a common sight on both private and commercial rooftops and public street lighting is photo-voltaic powered.
Recently, as the market was closing, I overheard a shopper ask a vendor, “Why can’t the market be open more than one day a week?” The vendor was heaving crates of fruit into his pickup. He paused, removed his broad-brimmed straw hat, mopped his brow with a scrap of yellow calico, replaced the hat then said in heavily accented-Mexican English: “Because, Señora, two times it makes too much the good thing.”
IF YOU GO: The Calabasas Farmers Market is open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays, year-round, rain or shine. For details: call 818-591-8161