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At the market with Deborah Madison

Chili peppers are a highlight of the Santa Fe Farmers Market. (Jane Black/The Washington Post)

In the souvenir shops in Santa Fe, you’ll find a patron saint for just about everyone. St. Pasqual is the patron saint of cooks. St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things, watches over the disorganized. And though it’s technically not official – if souvenir shops are left to judge -- Deborah Madison should be the patron saint of local farmers.

The author of 11 cookbooks, Madison arrived in Santa Fe 20 years ago. A former chef at San Francisco restaurant Greens and Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, she immediately became involved in helping to grow the city’s farmers market, which began with just six vendors in 1968. Today, the market has a permanent, LEED-certified, year-round home at the recently developed Santa Fe Railyard. In winter, there are 40 vendors. At peak harvest time, that number grows to 110. A local radio station broadcasts weekly from the chic warehouse space. A cafe serves tamales and pastries such as apple-cranberry strudel. There are even indoor bathrooms.

But what makes the market special, Madison told me, are the strict guidelines and farm inspections that ensure all the meat, dairy, vegetables and crafts come from 15 counties in northern New Mexico. (That means no teas or coffees like you find at some producer-only markets in Washington.) “We make some allowances for things like jars for jam makers,” she said. “But the fact that every single thing is made by our producers is what gives the market its integrity.”

On a Saturday morning tour, Madison introduced me to cheesemakers, cattle ranchers (one with an excellent handlebar moustache) and a poultry farmer who follows the strict Label Rouge protocols that result in chickens with “big thighs” and an intense, wild flavor akin to the taste of heritage turkeys.

Matt Romero shows off his dried chili peppers. (Jane Black/The Washington Post)

What I was most interested in, though, were the chili peppers.

At the end of January, there were no fresh ones, of course. But we found Matt Romero, of Romero Farms, scooping gorgeous, dried native peppers into one-gallon plastic bags.

“Smell these,” he ordered.

I leaned over the bag and inhaled. The peppers smelled sweet and fruity, almost like fresh sun-dried tomatoes. I bought a bag.

There were plenty of chili powders and spice blends, too. Trujillo Farms, based in nearby Nambe Pueblo, offers pure chili powders, made from an array of native chili peppers. These are not like the spices you find at the supermarket, which are often blends that contain cumin, garlic and other spices. The owner recommended I buy one made with the seeds and veins of the chili as well as the flesh. It doesn’t make the powder hotter – that’s determined by the type of chili used, she said – but it gives the spice a more intense taste.

To make chili sauce, she said, all I need to do is mix the powder with water or broth. I sniffed again. The intense aroma was evident through the sealed bag. I bought the hot chili powder and a green chili spice blend.

There were plenty of other interesting offerings: a pale green powder made from dried garlic scapes (excellent for garlic bread); cajeta, the traditional goat’s-milk caramel, and jujubees, a dried fruit similar to a date but far less sweet.

The supportive community helps to attract the diverse array of producers. (The community raised $4.5 million to build the new market building.) But the nonprofit arm of the market, the Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute, also helps to bring farmers into the fold. The Institute offers micro-loans to farmers (up to $5,000 at 6 percent interest) to help fund hoop houses and storage facilities that extend the growing season. Recently, the market helped one farmer buy more chickens because he was selling out of eggs within one hour of the market’s opening.

“You should see this place in the summer. The doors open and the vendors spill out on to the street,” Madison said. “People are roasting chilies in big drums and it smells amazing.”

I can only imagine. In the dead of winter, everything looked -- and tasted -- awfully good.

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  February 1, 2010; 10:10 AM ET
Categories:  Shopping  | Tags: Deborah Madison, Jane Black, Shopping  
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