Winter markets offer local flavor through the colder months
By Francesca Shanks
Did you know you can still get local food and food products after harvest season is over?
It’s true. In community spaces across the Berkshires and Southern Vermont, local food system supporters work hard to organize winter markets that offer multiple vendors and some holiday surprises.
In addition to the usual suspects — lots of garlic to keep all winter long, winter squash, local bacon, maple syrup, etc. — you’ll also find some special items designed for holiday savoring and gift-giving. It’s not uncommon to grab a whole duck, or a beautiful sheepskin cured by a local artisan, or even handmade wooden toys.
In the Berkshires, Berkshire Grown organizes markets in North and South County that draw thousands of people and foster a holiday atmosphere complete with music, coffee and lunch options. In Vermont, market coordinators work hard to keep the season going inside, with weekly markets in Bennington and Brattleboro.
Many of these markets — particularly those run by Berkshire Grown — are huge hubs, the kind of event at which you can spend an entire morning or afternoon. It can be overwhelming, but this kind of one-stop shopping is a great display of the local cornucopia, and a terribly efficient way to pick up pantry staples and lovely holiday items.
Jennifer Trainer Thompson, prolific cookbook author and Hancock Shaker Village executive director, favors the pre-Thanksgiving market at the Towne Field House at Williams College (“Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays because there are no gifts, and it’s all about getting together with family”), and says the market usually sways her Thanksgiving menu depending on what’s available.
Also, “I’m always looking for gifts,” Trainer Thompson said. “Like so many of us, I like to shop locally.” Excellent local cheese, beeswax candles, and honey and maple syrup are some of her gift choices.
Stephanie Boyd, a potter who helped organize the very first winter markets in Williamstown, spends lots of time catching up with the folks she runs into while shopping. (Small towns, you know?)
“Part of what I look for is just the social atmosphere,” she said. “Also, I know some of the vendors, so it’s fun to catch up with them. Our paths don’t cross except when we’re at craft fairs, so it’s nice to talk to them when I’m not busy running a booth!”
Boyd usually goes without a big list — she likes being surprised — but she’ll always get a cup of coffee and looks for consumable gifts. In addition to the classic honey/syrup combo, local vinegars are a popular choice.
“I’m looking for whatever sparks my eye,” she said. “Usually I’ll also get some kind of flower or leaf arrangement I can use as a table decoration.”
Don’t forget to eat while you shop, too. There are usually quite a few brunch/lunch options — from fresh baked goods to pulled pork sandwiches to brick oven pizzas, baked fresh while you wait. Baked goods, sweet and savory, are also available to take home.
If you’ve never shopped one of these markets before, don’t worry. Follow these tips to get the most out of your market experience. You may find yourself with a new holiday tradition!
Bring some cash.
Many vendors have card swipe machines these days, but bring cash to be sure you’ll be able to get whatever you want at the market. Swipe machines also skim a bit of profit from the farmer/food producer, so buying in cash will help ensure you’re making a bigger economic impact locally.
Make a list.
Are you looking for winter squash in bulk? An apple pie? Without a list and a plan, the cash you brought will quickly vanish. Make sure you get what you really need before making any impulse buys.
See everything before you buy anything.
Take the time to walk the market! Glance at every stall and see what’s offered, then decide what and where you’ll buy. Many vendors are offering the same or similar things for different prices; you’ll want to compare so you don’t end up buying vegetables at twice the price. And you might like the look of one goat’s milk soap better than the other.
Don’t stop at food.
Winter markets are often more of a blend of food and craft, while summer markets focus more on what’s available during harvest season. Gift options abound — from the aforementioned soap to beautiful, locally cured sheepskins, to jewelry, to cutting boards. You’ll also be able to stock up on things like maple syrup and honey — it’s a good opportunity to cross some folks off your shopping list.
Talk to the vendors.
You might just meet your new meat supplier, or find an off-the-menu delicacy. If something’s sold out, you can often reserve another for a later date — and at the very least, your farmer will know exactly what to substitute. Plus, it’s great to get to know the food folks coming to these markets — you’ll learn where to find them again, how to order their products outside of special events, and more.
Try something new.
Come on now, it’s the holidays — spring for that braided bread you’ve always wanted to try. Shell out a few bucks for goat sausage. Get a whole duck. This is a time for indulgence, for memory-making, and for establishing new traditions.
If you go
Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Baptist Church at 601 E. Main St.
Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The River Garden, 157 Main St.
Nov. 18, Dec. 16, Jan. 13, and Feb. 17
10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Monument Valley Middle School
Nov. 19 and Dec. 17
10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Williams College Towne Field House
Francesca Olsen is a writer and musician living in North Adams, Mass. She writes for The Eagle, Banner, Journal and Reformer, and other publications.