If you’re looking for the authentic Napa, you’ll find it tucked away behind a baseball field in St. Helena. Just a few blocks off Highway 29, the St. Helena Farmer’s Market is a favorite of locals, but hasn’t made it onto the itineraries of most tourists, who speed right by without knowing it’s there. Here you can find the artisanal cheeses served at The French Laundry, Bistro Jeanty, and other beloved Napa Valley restaurants, explained and demonstrated by the cheesemakers themselves. Local chefs make use of Crane Park’s barbecue grill to demonstrate their prized techniques, and local authors read from and sign copies of their books.
The Napa and Sonoma valleys are fertile growing grounds for much more than the wine that makes them so famous. Depending on the season, you might see stands selling tomatoes and other garden vegetables, fresh-picked berries, exotic mushrooms, micr0-greens, and fresh herbs. Nurseries sell plants and seeds, so you can start your own kitchen garden as well.
But although farmers abound, they’re almost outnumbered by booths offering many of the other food products that have made Napa famous. On a recent Friday, stands selling handmade olive oil, fresh-baked bread, and specially blended teas were lined up in between stands selling all kinds of fresh fruit and veggies.
One of my favorites is a stand offering tastes of three flavors of smoked olive oil. The enthusiastic demo team told me that thanks to the originality of the process and flavors, they’ve gotten a great deal of media attention already even though they just launched the product and company in April.
Another of my favorite stands is the Napa Valley Tea Company, which makes hand-blended teas with names like Divinitea, Serenitea, and Wild Monkey Marsala. Owner Agnes Pease blends each tea herself using locally sourced ingredients, including wine essences and dried fruits and berries. She continually comes up with new combos based on extensive taste testing; in fact she warned me that several of my favorite flavors weren’t yet up on the company website. On a hot day, locals stop by continually for cups of ice cold “Napa Valley Seven” and “Vitalitea.”
That’s one of the best things about the St. Helena Farmer’s Market, and about all of Napa and Sonoma’s wonderful markets. They are chances to meat the farmers, cheesemakers, and other artisanal chefs who make Napa and Sonoma the foodie capitals they’ve come to be known as worldwide.