If you've never made the trek out to Madison for the Dane County Farmers Market, you owe it to yourself to get there.
This Madison market, located on the State Capitol Square, is reported to be the largest producer-only farmers market in the country. And it’s a doozy, sporting right around 160 farmers and vendors every Saturday April through November.
I made a trip to the market just this past weekend. And I can tell you, September is the perfect time to plan a visit.
Wisconsin produce is currently at its peak season, so you’ll find plenty in the way of fresh sweet corn and juicy tomatoes, as well as other lesser known vegetables like Asian long beans, Thai eggplant and plenty of interesting greens and micro-greens. The market is dedicated exclusively to producers, but if you’re interested you can also find arts and crafts or single-serving food items just across the street from the square.
Pro Tips: It will take you about two hours to make the rounds at the market if you want to see everything – and even longer if you linger to visit or eat – so be sure you set aside time to enjoy. Also, plan your trip to finish up before 10 a.m. if you want to get the best selection and avoid the crowds. Lastly, don't forget to bring bags for hauling your produce, as well as a cooler if you plan to stock up on a warm day.
Here’s a list of great (and sometimes more unusual) items you can find right now at the market:
1. Aronia berries
These tart, tannic berries (that you might mistake for blueberries if you're not careful) are one of the most popular new superfoods on the block, sporting record setting amounts of antioxidants in each bite. Great in smoothies, as well as making pies, jam and sauces, these little babies are in season through mid-September, and I spied them at at least three vendors at the market.
2. Pehoski Purple garlic
If you think all garlic is the same, you've got to try some of the heirloom varieties – quite a number of which are available from vendors in Madison. Pehoski Purple is a variety I love to tout as extra special – primarily because it's indigenous to Stevens Point. This garlic is not only gorgeous (with its purple and white exterior); but, it’s ultra flavorful and stores well. I prefer it for cooking, rather than eating raw, as it's quite robust.
3. Chocolate chip sconuts
New York has cronuts; Madison has sconuts. These doughnut-shaped scones are chock full of chocolate chips and dipped in icing, so they’re a real morning treat that’s just about perfect with a cup of coffee. So, grab a couple and save them for Sunday morning’s breakfast. Get them at Chris & Lori's Bake House stand.
4. Gitto Farm tortillas
If you spy these babies at the market, pick up a package or two at the Gitto Farm stand. They’re made in small batches with all organic ingredients and they hold up really well (better than many) as a sandwich wrap. The tortillas come in three varieties: whole wheat, white and spelt.
5. Stella's hot & spicy cheese bread
You’ll know you’re getting close to the Stella’s stand when you see the big red signs and hear the shouting: "hot, spicy cheese bread, warm from the oven!" There will also be a line. But, it’s worth it to get your hands on this sweet buttery bread, studded with crushed red pepper and filled with ribbons of provolone and Monterey jack cheeses. You won’t be even the tiniest bit sorry.
6. Bleu Mont bandaged cheddar
Here in Wisconsin, blocks of cheddar are a dime a dozen… until you get around to Willi Lehner’s version. He hand-crafts large wheels of cheddar and ages them for 16 months on special spruce boards, wrapped in cloth and spritzed with a mixture of water and old cheddar rinds. The cheese is wonderfully sharp and fruity with notes of toast, nuts, caramel and earth. You can buy his cheddar at the market (which I’d advise you to do); but – even better – you can have a one-on-one chat with the cheesemaker himself, since he’s almost always manning the Saturday market.
7. Sumac & lime leaves
If you’re a food lover, you won’t want to miss the amazing wares at the Hickory Hill stand, which seems to specialize in hard to find items. This time around, I found gorgeous edible flowers, sumac (delicious and lemony, great for teas and sauces), and fresh kaffir lime leaves (or just lime leaves, as I prefer to call them).
8. ALL the hot peppers
If you’re a chile-head like me, Madison is the place to be. At least two vendors on my walk had a great selection of fresh hot chile peppers, including not only jalapenos and serranos, but Bhut Jolokia (ghost peppers), Pasilla, Cayenne, Carolina Reapers and Trinidad Scorpions. Buy a few for tasting, or get a bundle for making hot sauce or freezing (hot peppers freeze easily – just pop them into a freezer bag and use them all winter long).
This year the Dane County Farmers Market is open Saturdays from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 18 through July 4 and July 18 through Nov. 7. Get directions and parking information online.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.