Why Farmers Markets Are the Heartbeat of a Community (And the Best Fish You've Never Had)

July 28, 2015
Farmers' markets are the heartbeat of a community.

There is nothing that makes me feel more alive than waking at dawn to greet a bustling market as it opens. I love talking to the farmers-who awakened three hours before I did-about what they grow, and what's in season. Farmers are a very particular type of foodie, and I hold a similar type of love for farmers as I do for bakers and sausage makers.

I feel a special kinship with foodies like these, and find it almost enlightening to spend time observing them in their midst, if even that just means listening to them talk about their craft.

Though I love sharing the farmers' market with my friends and family, sometimes I prefer to go alone because I don't want anyone to rush me, or ask when we're leaving. It is almost as if the farmers' market experience has taught me, in the truest sense, about how to live in the moment, and how to savor every ounce of life inside and outside the farmers' market.

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The St. Helena market is one of the highlights of my life, simply because it combines my love for St. Helena with my love for farmers' markets. This fabulous market offers so much: from the hummus guy and his amazing products, to the produce farmers, to Patty from Flour Chylde with the gluten-free baked goods, Kelly the potter who makes and sells his bowls, which are hand-crafted but absolutely functional, to the man selling almonds and the best almond butter and almond meal.

There are so many different products and vendors to choose from, and one of my absolute favorites is Santa Rosa Seafood, and the owners, Trudy and Mike Svedise. (A bit of background, in case it's your first time here: I can't say enough about fresh seafood.) I have been to many farmers' markets and fish markets, but I have simply never seen anything like the Santa Rosa Seafood stand.

Seeing a full-scale fish and seafood vendor set up once a week as a pop-up is a pretty amazing experience, but even more wonderful is the quality and freshness of the products they sell, which are all grouped under a canopy, and stocked in dozens of ice-filled gray tubs.

They sell an unbelievable selection of some of the most beautiful fish, shellfish and homemade treats that I have ever seen, and probably will ever see. They have fresh local seafood, along with the beautifully prepared items that they make at their shop, including some personal favorites such as the tuna poke, and the mouth-watering fresh smoked salmon.

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As a philosophy, I love to buy my food local and in season, so naturally I inquire about those items and plan my food weekend around them. Every Friday morning at the St. Helena market and Saturday morning at the Calistoga market, I go to their fish stand.

Both locations are always vibrantly bustling with life, and have long lines filled with happy customers eager to get what they want. The fish stands function like well oiled machines, and with 16 markets, they are masters of their craft, which explains how they move as much of their exceptional product as they do.

Even at store level, there is nobody that can compete with them, a fact that comes through loud and clear when you taste the fish. Trudy spoke about how her customers are so accustomed to the quality of her fish that they "know the difference" and return weekly to re-experience the freshness and quality that can only be tasted through her fish. As a customer, I couldn't agree more with Trudy about her amazing product, which speaks for itself.

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Trudy and her husband started the business on Fishermans Wharf, where her husband Mike was a commercial fisherman and Trudy had a small tackle store, where she smoked fish. Every day her husband would take tourists out on the boat to fish, and when they returned, she would meet them at the dock and sell them smoked fish.

As a couple raising four kids and running a business, their day would start very early at around 3:30 a.m. Trudy remembers driving her kids back and forth over the Golden Gate Bridge, sometimes many times a day, to commute to and from school, and Trudy speaks of learning that "when you work for yourself, you work for yourself, and you do what needs to get done."

Eventually after many years, Trudy and Mike grew tired of their routine and wanted something more, so they expanded. They began, 16 years ago, with one stand at a farmers' market, initially preparing to-go meals of fresh local fish that customers could enjoy at home. As their business grew, they started to keep an eye on a particular building in Santa Rosa (where they now reside), peeking in the window and saying, "One day, this is going to be ours."

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In 16 years, they have gone from a small tackle shop teaching fishing and selling smoked fish, to having stands at 16 markets, and owning a free-standing 6,000-square foot shop in Santa Rosa that functions as both a retail store and a commercial kitchen, with a restaurant soon to open-and I bet you can guess what they're making.

Authentic to the experience of visiting their kitchen is getting to watch the fishermen as they unload the fish, seeing the cooks making the crab, the smokers smoking the fish, and all of the other genuine details that make their place come alive. They have a wide variety of product to choose from, supporting 30 to 40 independent fisherman who deliver right to their shop in Santa Rosa. Although most of what they do is local, they have expanded to cater to customers that desire specific products that aren't local.

From New Zealand they get orange roughy, mahi mahi shipped overnight from Hawaii, fish from the Gulf, products from both coasts, fish from Alaska, and 15 different kinds of oysters as well as exotic caviar. This doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the products and variety they offer. They are known for some of the wonderful specialty products like smoked mussels and lobster cioppino. Trudy is certainly not resting on her laurels-she still goes to the Wharf three days a week, waking at 3:30 to greet the boats as the fish and crustaceans are delivered.

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One of Trudy's favorite markets is the Thursday night Windsor community market, from June to August, where their family home is. At this market, Trudy and her family still prepare food, and make some amazing barbecued oyster and seafood kebabs, clam chowder, cioppino, scallop pasta, and fish tacos. Trudy is still lit up by a passion for teaching her clients how to use the products they sell.

With 16 markets, Trudy has so many things to do to run the business, but she still works the market in St. Helena every Friday morning. Not only does she love the St. Helena market itself, but she loves getting to work with the customers that come, helping them find seafood that feels just right for their tastes.

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Trudy loves taking the drive every Friday morning, starting early at 3:30 a.m. as she leaves the house, and described the experience almost as a meditation, sharing a nostalgically personal moment: passing the wineries and vast green fields early in the morning even before the sun peeks out over the mountains.

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Out of everything Trudy said in our conversation, most impactful was how she spoke about what her business has created for her, and her connection to her family. Trudy says, "When you believe in yourself, anything is possible. I'm proud of what we have done. We did this, we made this out of our family. Hard work pays off." The foundation of what she's taught her kids is that if you want a paycheck, you have to get up and work, and if you do that, the payoff is great.

This article originally appeared on ReadSource. For more fabulous food adventures and mouthwatering recipes, follow ReadSource on Facebook.

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