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Appreciation for our farmers markets

There's nothing like travel to make us appreciate home.

Last week, I made a quick trip to San Diego, easy to do now that we can fly direct from Santa Rosa, to visit an old friend. Once there, I looked for farmers markets, as I always do wherever I find myself.

Several friends insisted that the Hillcrest market was the one to see, the biggest and the best, so early on Sunday morning, off we went in search of seasonal glory and deliciousness.

The market is indeed huge, with two long rows of vendors and several shorter rows. But I noticed something different about it from the start. Mounds of gorgeous citrus and perky greens soon gave way to produce — pineapples, mangos, colorful cherry tomatoes — that had traveled a great distance. You could quench your thirst with watermelon agua fresca, offered by several vendors.

I soon realized that this was not a certified farmers market but, like so many similar markets throughout the country, simply an outdoor market with a mix of local foods, foods from wholesale produce marts, crafts and many prepared food vendors. It serves one of the most important functions of a farmers market, that of a community gathering place, but it doesn't offer a lot in the way of local farmers and their local crops.

A bit of research uncovered six certified farmers markets in San Diego, but none that I could get to on this trip.

We're lucky here in Sonoma, where in the middle of winter we have seven certified farmers market days each week. At the height of the season, we have 30 market days a week, all certified. Over the years, a few non-certified markets have opened locally but they have never lasted long.

What San Diego does have is an old Italian market, Mona Lisa on India Street, in the heart of Little Italy. As I walked through its narrow aisles, I thought of Traverso's and how much I miss it.

There were bins of dried salt cod, something our local health department nixed years ago, and legs of prosciutto hanging above the deli counter. Handmade ravioli, house-made tomato sauce, Italian cheeses, three types of rice for risotto, a huge array of olive oils and vinegars and scores of Italian pastas lined the shelves. There were even three types of aceto balsamico tradizionale, the real thing, in authentic bottles with authentic — i.e., three-digit — prices to match.

The selection of Italian wines was plentiful and inexpensive; I've never seen more Italian wines in one place, ever, except in Italy. The deli case was filled with handmade sausages, cotechino and all the salumi I've missed these last 14 months or so. Mona Lisa even sells the little end pieces, which I always nibbled as I drove home from Traverso's.

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