In the springtime of the year that her family pledged to eat only the produce of their own Virginia farm and that of her neighbors, Barbara Kingsolver faced the dilemma of how to get fresh fruit. No pineapples, no Florida grapefruit, no equatorial bananas.
As she tells it in her book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," the family of four went to an April farmers market in the midst of "dogwood winter" and found scallions, turkey sausage and black walnuts but no fruit. And then - mirabile dictu - rhubarb! The first "fruit" of the season and one of many miracles in a year of eating locally.
Miracles happen here, too. Every week since June and from now into October, the region's farmers' markets offer not only what's off the vine but also what's out of the oven, the hive and the barn. Butchers, bakers and candlemakers take their homemade wares on the road in the original small business format: market day.
Miracle Number One: Fresh, small batches always beat mass produce that is required to have a long shelf life. It's true of tomatoes and it's true of bread.
Two stalwarts in New London (Friday 10 a.m.-1 p.m. on Parade Plaza) and Waterford (Saturday 9 a.m.-noon at Town Hall) farmers' markets are Gracie Mae's Kitchen of Griswold and Lazizah bakery of Yantic.
Before the word "artisanal" was applied to foodstuffs, home-baked meant handcrafted breads and pies and cookies that might be eaten while still warm. Gracie Mae's makes a cottage dill bread that stays fresh only one day, except it never lasts one day. People have been known to tear off chunks to eat with coffee, sans butter or any other spread.
Gracie Mae's table is like a bake sale run by Aunt Bea. It's really hard to make a pie crust that good, and you can buy a slice ($2.95) of one of up to five pie varieties or a whole pie ($13.50), or the meltingly good chocolate chip coffee cake. One taster said the almond cookies ($4 for a stack of six) taste like Christmas. No argument from me. www.graciemaeskitchen.com or on facebook or (860) 885-8250.
At the Lazizah table is a mingling of Lebanese and Greek sweets and savories. We like the herb-dusted zatar pita ($2.95) and took on the challenge of comparing the spinach pita and the spinach puff, each $1.75 and each filled with a different zesty spinach mix in a rather doughy pastry. More exciting were the babaghannuj (eggplant spread) and an excellent hummus studded with chives and parsley (each about $6). The baklava, sold by the serving, beautifully balances the gooey and the crunchy. 125 Yantic Road, Yantic. (860) 889-2542
Miracle Number Two consists of the combination of inventiveness and hard work of the small business owners AKA farmers. They come up with new products amid the old favorites and they hawk their wares (and I mean that respectfully) so that the customer ends up trying raw Japanese turnips (Valchris Farm, Oakdale) or making kale chips (Hunts Brook Farm, Quaker Hill) or finding another way to use leeks (Fog Plain Gardens, Waterford).
Gourmavian Farms in Bolton, a husband-and-wife team, produces chickens of American and Italian heritage - or white and red, generally speaking. The reds take longer to mature, have a different "keel" and are less, well, bosomy.
The dressed chickens are sold frozen solid for $4.50 a pound. We thawed one of the Italian reds in a slow roast with red potatoes and herbs and it was polished off by a family of grandkids who would have said they ate only white meat. Gourmavian sells at Waterford, Chester, Ivoryton and other markets. www.gourmavian.com or (860) 716-9064.
Cranberry Meadow Farm in East Lyme sells humanely raised beef and pork and also honey. Their beef sausages sell out so fast we missed them, but in our freezer we now have nitrate- and nitrite-free hot dogs waiting for their turn on the grill. www.cranberrymeadowfarm.com or (860-437-7828).
Goats are also represented at the Waterford and Salem markets, but not as meat. Flora's Naturals sells goat milk soap and lotions made at the family farm at 89 Norwich Road, Salem. The shampoo bar ($7) was a big hit with a customer who said it left his hair pleasantly soft. www.florasnaturals.com.
Find yourself a farmers' (butchers - bakers - soapmakers - beekeepers) market. It's your chance to get local products not available just anywhere, but here.