In my twenties, I found myself living in London, England, and sorely homesick for an inimitable and tactile experience of home. What I missed most was a weekly visit to a busy farmers’ market, brimming with fresh, seasonal produce sold by the people who grew it. Most of all, I missed the food, but I also longed for the banal but quite pleasant background chatter of the small sale. “Yes, the beets are beautiful today . . . looks like it’s just under two pounds . . . that’ll be $7.50 . . . we’ll have corn in two weeks . . . our chickens run free on grass . . . see you next Saturday.” This was the agreeable if repetitive city soundtrack back when my rural Virginia family sold homegrown produce and flowers at Washington, D.C., farmers’ markets.
As a girl, I had no idea that my parents were farming legends and market pioneers. Nor did they. I knew only that we were farmers and that every single dollar we earned, some person at some farmers’ market had handed to us in exchange for fresh vegetables, berries, herbs, flowers, or eggs. Long mornings spent standing barefoot on the blacktop at the farmers’ market marked me with a lifelong habit.
When I left the farm at eighteen years old, I found that life without a good market was dry, tasteless. And in the capital of Cool Britannia in 1999, there was no such thing. Of course there were markets in London, some of them ancient. But they weren’t selling what I needed. The street markets sold Dutch tomatoes along with batteries, dustpans, and tube socks, and in the smaller organic shops and markets, the superior attitude, rubbery carrots, and high prices turned me off. My fantasy was to ship an entire market load from my parents’ Wheatland Vegetable Farms—two trucks of gorgeous, ecological vegetables destined for one of our best markets, Takoma Park in Maryland—on the Concorde. I would set up our stand, just like at home, next to the shabby imported produce. The fabulous display of fine vegetables would cause a riot and change the world.
Eventually I hit on the simpler idea of asking local farmers to bring their produce to London, and to my delight, a dozen farmers agreed. On June 6, 1999, I opened my first farmers’ market—and London’s first modern farmers’ market—in Islington, not far from my house. All I wished for was a place to buy fresh peas, strawberries, and apples from local farms. I knew that Londoners would love food straight from the farm, too—but I didn’t realize how much. The markets were a sensation. In three months I opened two more. Today we organize about two dozen year-round markets. In a few short years, farmers’ markets in England, Scotland, and Wales blossomed. My fantasy had come true.
Yet the markets also proved humbling. It was soon clear that I knew very little about much of the food our farmers were selling. In those days, I still suffered under the impression that a low-fat, vegetarian diet, with perhaps a bit of fish, was the only healthy one. Meanwhile, alongside the lovely produce I’d longed for, the fine farmers at London Farmers’ Markets were selling foods seldom seen at an American farmers’ market back then. Right from the start, we had grass-fed beef, heritage pork, fat Christmas goose, wild venison, raw-milk cheeses, high-fat butter, and thick cream. It did not escape my notice that these fine ingredients brought rosy cheeks and a great deal of pleasure to our loyal customers.
It was time for me to eat these traditional foods and (more intimidating) to learn to cook them. So I did, with happy results. My health was never better and my meals never more delicious. Soon I was gathering the research to support the case for traditional foods in Real Food: What to Eat and Why. But the path from a limited, anxiety-driven diet to conscientious omnivory and polymorphous delight in food—as a cook and an eater—was long, and I made many mistakes. With this book, perhaps I can spare you a few wrong turns. For this is the cookbook I needed when I learned that traditional foods from land, sea, and sky are not only tasty but also good for you.
It’s an idiosyncratic collection. The recipes here are those of a farmers’ daughter, former vegetarian, and home cook. They reflect the rhythms of my life with a cheesemonger husband and three small children. The ingredients are timeless, not trendy; the methods classic rather than rule-breaking. Above all, these are the dishes I love, made with real food.