Asparagus and citrus and strawberries were on hand in Brentwood last weekend to kick off the East County farmers market season. Good weather drew an early morning crowd of more than 100 shoppers who enjoyed al fresco shopping as well as cooking demonstrations, live music, fun for the kids and a raffle.
Three other markets in Antioch and Pittsburg are scheduled to open next month, but Brentwood decided to open a few weeks earlier to give local spring crop producers a chance to shine.
Brentwood is first in and last out in the East County market scene, going through mid November. Unlike last year, when rain put a dampener on the planned early opening, balmy weather and the 24-hour countdown to Easter had the market hopping.
Cecchini & Cecchini Farms was doing especially brisk business as shoppers filled their baskets with holiday dinner fixings. Louie Palacios, 16, has been working the markets with his father since he was seven. Brentwood is one of several markets Cecchini & Cecchini frequents. Palacios expected to easily sell out of his 24 cartons of bundled asparagus spears last week.
"Easter is always a better day," he said. "People buy two bunches instead of two."
Palacios kept busy early during the market not only restocking his displays, but also chatting up the customers.
"I'm a talker," the teen said. "I really enjoy coming to the markets. People are happy. I'm happy."
A customer asked if the asparagus is fresh. Palacios pointed east toward Orwood, where the Cecchini family is the last farm family growing East County asparagus.
"You can't get any fresher unless you go pick it yourself," he said. "And that's a lot of work. I wouldn't recommend it," he joked.
Just down from the Cecchini booth, market regular Jen Toscano had already stuffed her cloth market bag with everything from fish to eggs to produce. Toscano moved to Discovery Bay two years ago from Indiana. The farmers market was high on the list of reasons for the move.
She is enamored of the event-like atmosphere on Saturday mornings. She often runs into neighbors at the First Street market. She and her boyfriend rarely miss a date here when the event is in swing.
"This market has a personality. I'm so happy that we're back at the market today," she said.
Toscano said she loves talking to the farmers and producers who make the food. She also has a commitment to eating locally grown products whenever possible.
"It's nice to know where my food is from, and I don't mean just the location."
Toscano knows many of the booth operators by first name, and stops to talk about upcoming crops with a few. Today, she started at "Danny's" -- aka the From the Sea To You seafood booth. Eggs came from the local Shelly's Garden. She also made a point to shop at Enos Family Farms of Brentwood.
Toscano builds her weekly menus around market finds when possible. If she could, she said, she would skip the grocery store altogether. She is hoping a few new booths will show up this year to round out her market list.
"The only thing missing right now is meat and dairy," she said.
Farther down the street two of the original Three French Hens jam makers are offering samples of their wares. The Meyer lemon jam won't last much longer because partners Julie Deck of Brentwood and Minda Motta of Discovery Bay only use seasonal fruits in their small-batch jams.
"We don't have a retail store so this is it," Deck said. "This is how we started."
Three French Hens began selling their jams last year at the market. Now, they are in several stores such as Willy's Bagels and Gursky Ranch. They will be at the farmers market every other Saturday until the season gets into full swing, Deck said.
She and Motta sell about 30 or 40 jars of jams on a given Saturday. The pair work with local farmers to produce jams from local fruits.
Motta and Deck do their processing in a commercial kitchen in Solano County. Motta lamented that there are not more, and more affordable, commercial kitchens locally. Still, the farmers market is home for the partners. They would one day like to have their own storefront.
For now, like other local small producers such as Hogan's Honey of Byron, Shelly's Garden of Brentwood and Mon Petite Cherie Bake Shop of Discovery Bay, the farmers market is a way to reach customers like Toscano.
"This is a starting place," Deck said. "Our store is the farmers market."
Antioch Farmers Market at Somersville Towne Center
Delta Fair Boulevard and Somersville Road
Sundays: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
May 12-Oct. 27
Brentwood Farmers Market
First Street between Chestnut and Oak streets
Saturdays: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
March 30-Nov. 16
Kaiser Permanente Antioch Farmers Market
4501 Sand Creek Road
Thursdays: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
May 2-Oct. 31
Pittsburg Farmers Market
Oldtown Plaza at Railroad Avenue and Sixth Street
Saturdays: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
May 4-Oct. 26