The Wandering Foodie Goes to the Lake Geneva Farmer’s Market

By William Turner

There is something very nostalgic about a good farmer’s market. You feel like you are getting closer to the food, to the earth, to your true inner being. Slightly over the top, I know, but that is the way I felt when I visited the farmer’s market in Lake Geneva. This wonderful fair of food, flowers and the arts is held every Thursday morning from May through October at the horticultural hall, which is located on Broad Street, about four blocks north of the center of town.

Horticultural Hall is worth a visit in itself. This building just celebrated its 100th anniversary. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was designed by Robert C. Spencer, a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright, and built in 1911. The Hall was originally built with land and funds donated by Chicago magnate Simeon B. Chapin, who also founded the Water Safety Patrol, among many other civic endeavors in the Lake Geneva area.

Chapin and the other founding board members conceived of Horticultural Hall as a space where the professional gardeners and landscapers that worked on their grand lakefront estates could socialize, trade goods and share advice to ensure the continual improvement of the estate grounds. They formed the Lake Geneva Gardeners and Foreman’s Association for this purpose and dedicated the Hall to its activities.

While estate gardeners don’t meet here regularly anymore, its second chapter as a multi-use hall draws thousands of people annually to flower and antique shows, teas and lectures. It is an ideal event space for up to 185 guests and is a favorite for wedding receptions, and of course, the Lake Geneva Farmer’s Market.

Sean Payne, born and raised here, manages the Lake Geneva market. He finds and signs the vendors, makes sure they don’t fight and gets rid of re-sellers. His goal is to have only the people that produce the products participate in the market. The result is that the vendors really know their stuff and can tell you a lot of interesting things. Bring your credit card because almost all of the vendors take plastic.

The market has been in existence for 18 years and has about 50 vendors. Most of them offer food, plants and flowers — maybe 80 percent. However, there are some interesting arts and crafts stands including jewelry makers, gourd painters and soap makers. I think this adds to the fun.

All of the vendors have interesting stories to tell. Here are three of my favorites at the Lake Geneva market. There are many other good ones, but this will give you a feel for the place.

LEROY FROM THE CHEESE PEOPLE

The cheese vendors tend to congregate in the alley portion of the market and Leroy is my favorite. He is a true cheesemonger, representing 11 local producers in southeastern Wisconsin. He brings their artisan and farmstead cheeses to market. His array includes cow, goat and sheep’s milk varieties.

Artisan cheese is making a big comeback in Wisconsin. As tastes have moved away from the common cheddars and jacks, the creativity of Wisconsin cheese makers has emerged with vigor. Wisconsin continues to lead the nation in cheese production, making about 25 percent of the U.S. total, with about 90 percent of all milk produced used to make cheese (statistics courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board). However, the real story is the rapid growth of artisan cheese and the astounding fact that Wisconsin now produces nearly half of all artisan cheeses in the U.S. Leroy is the epitome of this trend.

Leroy let me sample three of his favorites, Amish swiss, farmers jack with Thai basil, and, catch this, a pistachio-encrusted blue cheese and cheddar log. They were great — I bought a quarter pound of each – and my total was $14. Artisan cheeses range from $10 to $25 per pound, but they are worth it.

Right next to Leroy is another cheese vendor who sings upon request. Don’t forget to ask for your favorite song.

LINDA FROM RUSHING WATERS

Rushing Waters is a very interesting hatchery, fishery and smokehouse located in Palmyra, about 30 minutes north of Lake Geneva. They raise trout on their farm and sell it fresh or smoked at the farmer’s market. They also make a great dog treat with a smoked fish base and have samples available for anyone who brings his dog to the market. They buy premium salmon on the world market – King, Copper River, Cojo, Scottish, all wild caught — and smoke the fish on their premises. I tried samples of smoked trout and King salmon: they were great.

Smoked fish is, in moderation, generally good for you. Some critics have complained that smoking destroys the good Omega-3 fats, but the Harvard Heart Letter reports that “the composition of omega-3 fatty acids calculated as a percentage of the total lipids [fats] does not change during the smoking process.”

Try a trip to Rushing Waters — go fishing, buy some of their great products or try their new restaurant, which just opened.

ANGELA FROM AUNTIE G.G.’S PROVISIONS

You can’t miss Angela – she has the biggest sun hat that you have ever seen and she wears an apron like a good ole’ country girl. Her specialties are heirloom tomatoes, garlic, honey as well as some soaps she makes as a sideline. She is a multi-faceted girl.

Heirloom tomatoes are increasingly popular because of their reputed great flavor. The heirloom seeds are from pure strains that date back sometimes more than a century. “Heirloom” means not hybridized. There are constant disputes between the purist Heirloom growers and the commercial hybrid tomato growers. Personally, I am going to keep buying from Angela because I like the argument of Scientific American in March 2009:

“Any plant that sets only two fruits, as heirlooms sometimes do, is bound to produce juicier, sweeter and more flavorful fruit than varieties that set 100, as commercial types do. Plus, heirlooms are sold ripened on the vine, a surefire way to get tastier results than allowing them to mature on the shelf.”

Angela also sells five different varieties of garlic. She’ll tell you all about them, and you know very well that you should be eating more of that product. One of her other offerings is local honey. Some (Dr. Oz) say that it helps reduce seasonal allergies; others say not (WebMD). Who knows, but some of my friends swear by it. Anyway, her honey is good and I will continue to buy it.

This year, the market is open every Thursday, May 8 through October 30, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. The market does not have a website, but you can like their Facebook page for updates (www.facebook.com/LGFarmersMarket).

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