Wednesday Farmers' Market: Hail, strawberries and a lesson in the alternative food movement

Tornadoes are threatening Denver as I drive into Boulder, but things are calm, even sunny, at the Wednesday edition of the Boulder Farmers' Market. To be truthful, the market has been a little less than scintillating over the past week or two. I have bought dutifully; I have feasted on large salads and sauteed spinach. But now, walking past the rows and rows of greens, radishes and bedding plants, even the fantastic hothouse tomatoes and cucumbers, I'm finding myself a little jaded. It's been a long, cool spring, and the produce hasn't varied much.

And then, at the Ollin Farms stand, I spot a small miracle: a single plastic container of strawberries. Local, field strawberries. They aren't very pretty -- smallish and not terribly red -- but this is the last container left on the counter, and I snatch it up. Even as I do, another shopper moves toward me, eyes glazed like a sleepwalker's. "Oh," she murmurs. "Strawberries. Are those samples?" When I tell her they're not and I've purchased them, her disappointment is so palpable that I offer her one and, after a routine demurral, she accepts and walks away smiling. See also: From Leaf to Acorn, the greening of metro Denver's salad scene

That's the way this market goes. Last year, someone I didn't know suddenly handed me a perfect peach, saying, "I love this variety. You just have to taste it."

The Jodar Farms stand is crowded with CSA customers. By now, it's starting to rain and we all surge forward, hoping to get under the awning -- which is very narrow. Aaron Rice is handing out our shares. When I ask for an extra carton of eggs, he apologizes because this particular dozen has been washed. All the eggs you buy commercially are washed, and that's why you have to refrigerate them, but experts tell us washing is less hygienic than leaving them unwashed -- because when eggs are laid, they're coated in a protective layer called the cuticle. Europeans apparently know this. They don't refrigerate eggs -- in fact, American eggs couldn't legally be sold in British supermarkets -- and it surprises them that we do.

In addition to the strawberries, here's another stunning surprise: olive oil. I don't usually buy packaged goods at the market because I figure I can flavor peanut butter for myself and easily make my own granola. But olive oil? A hint of the sunny Mediterranean right here in Boulder on this drizzly-sunny-unsettled day?

The signs say "Olea Estates: Imported from our family estate in Sparta, Greece," and a vendor named Jake Burgart is handing out olives, along with pieces of bread anointed with golden oil. The oil is clean, fresh, mellow and bright, and it takes only a single taste to sell me on a bottle. Along with all those greens, it'll make for a perfect spring salad in the evening.

Jake says his family is the sole distributor of this oil, and the story he tells is a perfect illustration of the way the alternative food movement is functioning and growing, the ethical and economic forces driving it, and the rich web of human connection it creates.

Jake's father is an organic farmer in St. Louis who goes to several Missouri markets a week. At one of them, he met George Chronis of Olea, who praised his tomatoes -- "I didn't know there were tomatoes like this in the United States" -- and gave him a sample of olive oil to try. "My dad grew up in an Italian household," Jake says, "but he had never tasted oil of that quality before." Chronis told Jake's father that that his family had been cultivating these olive trees for 160 years. The olives are organically grown, hand-picked over two months as they ripen, and cold-pressed.

"The region they come from, Laconia, is famous for producing high quality olive oil," Jake explains. "It has volcanic, arid, rocky soil. The microclimate makes for a more mild light-flavored oil." And where commercial olive oils are usually blends, with high quality and lower quality oils mixed, Olea's oil is made from a single variety of olive. "It's a very old species called patrinia," says Jake. "It has a very pure flavor."

During the financial crisis of the early 2000s in Greece, the Chronis family thought of selling their estate. But the two sons, George and Demosthenis, decided to search out new markets. That's when George met Jake's father, who eventually signed a contract to buy a large percentage of the Olea Estates' crop for sale in the United States. "George Chronis comes from a family of warriors; it's a culture laden with honor," Jake says. "My father is a small businessman, but he's very ethical and honorable in his work. I think what connects the two families is honor."

And also, I'm thinking, driving home through the beginning of a hailstorm, snacking on the occasional strawberry, a deep love and respect for food.

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