Thursday, October 2, 2014

Fresh produce returns to the French Market

Photo: Matthew Hinton, The New Orleans Advocate

By Ian McNulty, New Orleans Advocate
A riverfront location and access to overland portage routes made the site of the French Market a natural for trading and commerce among Louisiana’s native peoples long before it became the city’s first official public market in 1791. Today, market boosters say, a confluence of that long history and the modern appreciation for fresh and local foods recommends the site for a new weekly, year-round farmers market.
That market will debut Oct. 15, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., and will continue each Wednesday thanks to a new partnership between the city-run French Market Corp. and Market Umbrella, the nonprofit group that operates three other editions of its Crescent City Farmers Market around town.
Leaders of both organizations on Wednesday outlined details of their new market-within-a-market plan, which will begin with more than two dozen vendors selling a mix of fresh produce and seafood, locally raised meats, bread, pasta, grab-and-go snacks and handmade pantry staples.
The farmers market will take shape in a covered, open-air pavilion area near the French Market’sbank of walk-up cafes and a small stage used for live music and cooking demonstrations.
Jon Smith, executive director of the French Market Corp., said the idea is to provide local residents and chefs with a new venue for fresh foods direct from their producers and to give out-of-towners more tastes of local flavors to enjoy on the spot, to buy for picnics or to take home as edible souvenirs.
“I can’t think of a better way to honor the history of this place than with an open-air market like this,” Smith said. “We want the market to be something that people will plan a visit around. We’re hoping to create a mini-festival atmosphere.”
The French Market hosted a weekly edition of the Crescent City Farmers Market from 2004 until Hurricane Katrina. That venture attracted far fewer vendors and shoppers than the other local farmers markets, but both partners in this new effort said they feel better equipped today to promote and develop the weekly market day.
“We know this is no small task, but we have done our homework,” said Kathryn Parker, executive director of Market Umbrella.
Over the summer, her staff conducted surveys at the French Market and nearby businesses, circulated an online survey, polled vendors at other markets and conducted a focus group with local chefs.
This feedback guided the mix of fresh and prepared foods the market planners sought to achieve during an open call for vendor applications last month. The research also led them to add new features, like free parking for vendors and market shoppers, plus a designated loading zone for chefs collecting large orders for their restaurants.
As with the other local farmers markets, vendors at this new site will accept payment from people using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the government assistance program commonly called food stamps.
“We’re ready. Now what we really need is the people of New Orleans to show our local food producers your support and reclaim your food heritage,” Parker said.
While perhaps best known today for souvenirs and other retail items sold at its flea market area, the French Market was once an essential part of the city’s network of public markets.
The new farmers market plan is the latest in a series of efforts at the French Market to rekindle that legacy and update it for modern tastes and lifestyles. In June, the market revamped its annual Creole Tomato Festival with an expanded lineup of food and music. And last month its board approved a proposal from three well-known New Orleans purveyors of artisan foods — St. James Cheese Co.Bellegarde Bakery and the butcher shop Cleaver & Co. — to open a new eatery at the market. That concept, called Continental Provisions, is under development for an expected debut later this fall.
“I’ve been with the market since 2010, and we’ve seen such remarkable changes,” said Demetric Mercadel, president of the French Market’s board. “The addition of the farmers market, with all the delights it’s bringing, will be such a huge step forward for what we intended to do with the French Market.”
Some vendors on tap for the market’s Oct. 15 debut are familiar names from other locations of the Crescent City Farmers Market, like Pete & Clara’s Seafood and Monica’s Produce. Others are new to the New Orleans market circuit, like Feliciana’s Best Creamery, a dairy in Slaughter, and Iverstine Farms, of Kentwood, which will offer pasture-raised meats, including special-order turkeys for Thanksgiving.
Another market vendor, Bob Romero, owner of sugar producer Three Brothers Farm, in Vermilion Parish, predicted the French Market venue would be a good way to reach new customers.
“You need more than belts and sunglasses for sale when visitors come here. They want something local,” Romero said. “I imagine my cane syrup going back to California with someone. That’s a whole new market for us.”
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter, @IanMcNultyNOLA.

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