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Farm fresh; here's where to find picked-the-same-day produce in and around the Bay Area ... direct from the grower or at farmers' market.

Ifyou prize produce of impeccable freshness, as so many Bay Area cooks and diners do, you have more resources than ever for getting high-quality, picked-the-same-day fruits and vegetables.

Best of all is your own garden. But an increasingly diverse range of local shopping opportunities can supplement or replace the home vegetable patch. State certified farmers' markets in every county are numerous and sophisticated; here, a number of farmers tempt you with both basic and specialty crops. Or follow a map put out by growers and go directly to the farms to pick it yourself or buy produce picked just hours before.

In Bay Area fields and orchards, late August through October represents peak harvest for many crops: late-summer tree fruits are still being picked, corn and tomatoes come into their warm-weather prime, berries yield a second harvest, pears come in, and increasing numbers of apple varieties hint at the cool months to come. And you can celebrate this early autumn bounty in homegrown harvest festivals, now through Halloween.

You get more than freshness when you shop direct. Like the most demanding restaurants, many of which are supplied by special contract with small farms, you get flavor quality independent of shipping quality varieties that taste superb but don't necessarily store well enough for commercial purposes (supermarket produce may reach you many weeks or months after being harvested). Small growers used to supplying demanding chefs may raise exotic, unfamiliar, or miniature versions of better-known supermarket offerings. Many will ship gift orders for you. And you can ask them questions and get advice sometimes including treasured family recipes.

Farmers' markets: a colorful cornucopia

In an effort to promote the direct sale of high-quality produce, help the small farmer, and preserve farmlands near built-up areas, the state encourages the development of certified farmers' markets in every county Everything offered is produced by its vendor.

Market size is also regulated (most have waiting lists), so the face-to-face experience can be rewarding for both farmers and shoppers. One drawback: most markets don't have rest rooms.

Small and large, farmers' markets are a sunny clamor of colors, textures, and aromas. They're also spiced with a streak of serendipity: you never quite know whether you'll find crates full of pearl green baby Asian vegetables, buckets of bright statice, or an ice bed laden with oysters hauled out of local waters at 4 that morning. Whatever the offerings, you get more choice if you arrive as the market opens.

Prices vary, with more negotiating at urban markets. One recent morning, at the Marin farmers' market, here's what we got for $20: 10 full-size potatoes; 6 ears of tight-kerneled Platinum Lady corn; 8 dark red Santa Rosa plums; a head of garlic; a dozen chubby, red-orange French carrots; a bunch of pink, purple, white, black, and red beets; 6 vine-ripened tomatoes; a half-pound of fresh basil, nowhere blackened or torn; 8 aromatic tree ripened Gravenstein apples; a bunch of arugula; and a pound of squeaky-fresh sugar snap peas. Nothing, we were assured, was exposed to pesticides.

Here are markets in Bay Area counties; unless otherwise noted, area code is 415.

Alameda County. Livermore: J Street, 11 to

4 Sundays year-round; 465-6554. San Leandro: Bayfair Shopping Mall, 2 to 6 Thursdays and Saturdays through December; 465-6554.

Contra Costa. Pleasant Hill: Hillcrest Shopping Center, 8 to 1 Saturdays through November; 933-1418. Easygoing; try fresh squeezed natural juices; about 30 sellers. Richmond Civic Center, 2 to 6 Fridays through October; 237-7360. Good parking; diverse market (including live chicks), ethnic mix; about 35 sellers. Walnut Creek: library parking lot, 9 to 1 Sundays through November; 933-1418. Pleasant, tree-shaded, midsize market, but parking is tight; cheeses, home-cured olives, fine produce.

Marin. San Rafael: Civic Center, 8 to 1 Thursdays year-round and 9 to 2 Sundays through November; 456-3276. Sellers' favorite market, especially Thursdays; great variety (up to 70 vendors), including oysters, jams, honeys; good parking.

Napa. St. Helena: Dansk Square, 7:30 to noon Fridays through November; (707) 965-3652. Food writers autograph books to support fast-growing 40-stall market.

San Francisco. Large year-round market at 100 Alemany Boulevard, 6 to 6 Saturdays and 8:30 to 5 Tuesdays through Fridays; 647-9423. Saturday's the big day here, with up to 120 sellers. Smaller, more ethnic market at U.N. Plaza, 8 to 5 Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays year-round; 885-2001.

San Mateo. Redwood City: Winslow Avenue parking lot, 8 to noon Saturdays through October; 368-0559. Strong on flowers; look for fresh fish from Half Moon Bay, artichokes, sprouts; 40-plus sellers.

Santa Clara. Palo Alto: behind downtown post office, 8 to noon Saturdays through November; 325-2088. A little of everything; many yuppie shoppers, about 35 vendors. Mountain View: Franklin Street parking lot, 9 to noon Saturdays; 965-7448. New.

Solano. Vacaville: Andrews Park, 8 to noon Saturdays through October; (707) 425-9555. Small market along shady creek.

Sonoma. Healdsburg: North and Vine streets, 9 to noon Saturdays and 5 to 7 Tuesdays through November; (707) 433-5666. Small market with good selection (better Saturdays). Santa Rosa: Veterans Memorial Building, 9 to noon Wednesdays and Saturdays through December; (707) 538-7023. Can be sparse. Sonoma: Arnold Field, 4 to 7 Tuesdays and 9 to noon Fridays through December; (707) 538-7023. Homey; about 30 sellers.

Yolo. Davis: Fourth and C streets, 3 to 6 Wednesdays and 8 to noon Saturdays year around; (916) 756-1695. Popular 50-seller market, convenient to 1-80; shaded playground; live music, crafts Saturdays.

For a complete listing of northern California markets and growers who sell at their farms, request a free copy of the California Farmer-to- Consumer Directory from the Department of Food and Agriculture, Direct Marketing Program, 1414 K St., Suite 320, Sacramento 95814. Call (800) 952-527 2 to learn what's in season, where.

Another good resource, with crop updates, farm news (and maps), recipes, and bulletins on legislation affecting Bay Area crops and farmlands, is the privately printed Farm Fresh Newsletter ($15 per year). For a free copy, write to 4790 Montgomery Lane, Santa Rosa 95405.

Get to the source: the farms themselves.

If even the markets seem too far from farms, you can visit dozens of sources for field-fresh produce only an hour or so from San Francisco. In nearly every county, you'll find berries, vegetables, and tree fruits. But because of climate diversities, some counties offer produce not found in others. Along the coast, where fog and mild temperatures prevail, are the nation's largest producers of Brussels sprouts and artichokes. East of the Coast Range, more sunshine and warmer days make such crops as corn and tomatoes grow riper and sweeter.

You can also get some lesser-known products: earthworms to aerate garden soil, pygmy goats for pets, custom-smoked meats, soft llama wool for knitting. Seven Bay Area counties offer free map-brochures locating farms open for retail sales. Most are open daily all year, but some have crop-dependent seasons. Write to the addresses below; enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

Alameda County Farm Trails, 638 Enos Way, Livermore 94550. Coastside Harvest Trails (San Mateo County), Box 37, Half Moon Bay 94019. Contra Costa County Harvest Time, Box 0, Brentwood 94513. Country Crossroads (Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties), 1368 N. Fourth St. San Jose 95112. Napa County Farming Trails, 4075 Solano Ave., Napa 94558. Sonoma County Farm Trails, Box 6674, Santa Rosa 95406. Yolano Harvest Trails (Yolo and Solano counties), Box 484, Winters 95694.

10 festivals that celebrate harvest.

Join the celebration, now through October, at any of 10 harvest festivals. All are in or near the Bay Area.

Alameda County. Ardenwood Farm Harvest Festival, Fremont, 10 to 4 October 17 and 18; $4 adults, $3 seniors, $2.50 ages 3 through 1 3. Help harvest wheat, pumpkins, corn, walnuts. Call (415) 796-0663. Garin Regional Park Apple Festival, Hayward, noon to 5 September 1 3; free, parking $2. Use an antique press to make cider from one of the park's 1 70 kinds of antique apples. Music, crafts, foods. Call 795-9385.

Contra Costa. Walnut Festival, Walnut Creek, starts at 5 Thursday and Friday, at noon on the weekend, September 17 through 20; $3 adults, $2 ages 6 and under. This year's celebration includes a nutcracking contest, walnut-filled foods, and other eating booths. Call 935-6766.

Marin. Harvest Fair, San Rafael, 9 to 4 September 20; free. Tastings, hayrides, crafts, farmers' market. Call 492-0122.

San Mateo. Art and Pumpkin Festival, Half Moon Bay, 10 to 5 October 17 and 18; free. Join pumpkin pie-eating and pumpkin-carving contests, a Great Pumpkin Parade. Very popular (parking can be difficult). Call 726-3491.

Santa Clara. Santa Clara County Harvest Fair, San Jose, 4 to 9 October 23 and 11 to 6 October 24 and 25; free, parking $3. Much locally grown produce is judged. Nongrowers can also compete in contests from a costumed baby diaper derby to pumpkin carving. Call (408) 295-3050.

Santa Cruz. Brussels Sprouts Festival, Santa Cruz, 11 to 7 October 10 and 11; free. If you're not inclined to celebrate this crop, you can use the little vegetables in a putting contest. Call (408) 423-5590. Apple Annual, Watsonville, noon to 11 September 26 and 10 to 5 September 27; free. Apple Queen Pageant, square dance, parade, bazaar. Most events take place in Callaghan Park, Freedom Boulevard and Sudden Street. Call (408) 724-3849.

Solano. Vacaville Onion Festival, 10 to 6:30 September 5 and 6; $3.50 adults, $1.50 ages under 12. Onion games, onion everything. Call (707) 448-6424.

Sonoma. Sonoma County Harvest Festival, Santa Rosa, noon to 6 Friday and 10 to 6 on the weekend; October 2, 3, and 4; $3 adults, $1 ages 7 to 12, parking $1 to $2. Look at and taste local produce; world championship grape stomp (two partners-a stomper and a filterer-try to beat the rest at filling a jug in 3 minutes). Call (707) 545-4203.

How to recognize perfect produce.

How do you choose perfect farm-fresh produce? Not having been picked green or gassed for shipping, vine-ripened fruits can look quite different from their supermarket counterparts. We asked local growers for advice on selecting some September-harvested Bay Area crops.

Apples

You can find Gravensteins through mid-September. Sebastopol experts say, "For eating fresh, skin color should include a fair amount of red and yellow, but skin surface should be crisp, not waxy. For cooking, any stage is OK, as long as fruit isn't puckery green or wrinkled-aged."

Cantaloupe. "It picks itself; when the melon is ripe, the stem slips off. Look for yellow-orange color, yellow (not green) netting, and a nice scent," says Ray Erickson of Suisun City

Corn. Don't strip corn to check it; exposure to air turns the natural sugars to starch. Ken Dwelley of Brentwood advises, "Silks should look fresh, not matted. Run your hand over the ear to tell if it's filled out at the tip. Make sure there's no drying of the husk. Ask when the corn was picked.

Concord grapes. Roy Vater of Sebastopol says Concords should

be large globes, tight on their bunches, and blackish in color, with a smooth blue "bloom." "And make sure the stems are green-not brown and dried out."

Cucumbers. These should be solid, not soft, with good color (an indication of freshness). "Look for even shape," says Mr. Dwelley. "Bulbousness can mean the plant has experienced drought and may taste bitter."

Green beans. Dwelley Farms prefers Blue Lakes and says they're best picked relatively small (to 3 1/2 inches). They should be bright green with a velvety surface--and be firm, not limp, "Avoid beans with spots; they could have been caused by insects."

Peaches and nectarines. "These can have a little-just a little-green," says Mr. Erickson. "Flesh from these fruits should yield slightly to gentle pressure."

Pears. John Zoria of San Jose says, surprisingly, that pears should be picked hard and green, to ripen at home. "They're the one fruit not best-tasting when ripened on the tree. Tree-ripe pears are just pulpy."

Strawberries. "Pick them red-ripe all the way to the tip, and not too big (those can be hollow)," advises a Watsonville grower. "Insect damage to flowers gives berries what we call a 'cat face.' These taste all right; they're just not pretty."

Tomatoes. "The variety's what's most important," says Ray Erickson. "I like Ace, Royal Flush, or Jackpot. Look for even, dark red color, and firm fruits with a little give. Cut one open: it should be juicy red, with plenty of good tomato smell."
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Copyright 1987 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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