Regina Anness of Little Rocky Run was obviously pleased with her purchases at the Clifton Farmers Market.
"I've got honey and peaches, so far, and am going back for tomatoes and corn," she said. "I come here every year to get good, fresh vegetables. I just think it's fresher, and it's a lot more fun than shopping in a grocery store."
Lots of people agree with her and, on a recent Sunday morning, they milled about the cheerful, cozy market in the summer sunshine, picking out produce and crafts and chatting with the vendors.
Run by Clifton resident Deb Dillard, the farmers market is now in its fourth year. It opened in May and will run each Sunday through Oct. 12, from 7:30 a.m.-noon, in the Clifton House Shoppes parking lot on Chapel Road (across from the fire station).
The vendors bring everything from blackberries to breads to candy — not to mention honey, soap, jewelry, furniture and glassware. And the customers get to buy homegrown produce and handmade items in a quaint and friendly atmosphere that harkens back to the America of yesterday. Said Dillard: "For some people, it's a regular part of their Sunday mornings and something they look forward to, all week."
The type of produce available each week varies according to the weather and the ripening dates at the particular farms. But customers can generally find plum, cherry and slicing tomatoes; sweet and bi-color corn; red and green peppers; zucchini, yellow crooked-neck and pattypan squash; purple and white eggplant; okra; peaches; cantaloupe; peanuts; watermelon; cherries; carrots and cucumbers.
Lettuce is also offered, at times, as are fresh herbs such as basil and dill, plus curly parsley, leeks and garlic. And in recent weeks, besides bringing his usual peaches, corn and tomatoes, vendor Dave Ashton of West Virginia brought boxes of blueberries with him. Currently, said Dillard, "We have a plethora of peppers from Westmoreland County in Southern Virginia. They did very well in the rain."
And the vendors rise before dawn so that everything arrives in Clifton at the peak of freshness. "Hilario and Esmeralda from Penn Farms bring peppers, and Herman from Flores Farms brings peanuts," said Dillard. "They pile in their trucks at 4:30 in the morning, from Westmoreland County, to get here and bring us fresh, Virginia produce."
JUDY MATE of Balmoral also comes regularly to the market, as a customer. On a recent Sunday, she'd already purchased tomatoes and green peppers and was in search of zucchini and summer squash.
"I always feel like the vegetables are right out of the garden — and I think they taste better [than store-bought ones]," she said. "And I like the idea of the open market. With a store, you don't know how long the produce has been sitting on a truck."
But that's not all the market offers — there are treats, galore. Take Dave's Candy Kitchen, for example. Dave Andersen of Fair Lakes offers samples of his homemade chocolate goodies and, after one taste, it's hard to resist bringing home a bag of butter-almond crunch or chocolate-covered pretzels. Caramel popcorn and hard candies are available, too, and Anderson also creates molded chocolates with messages such as, "Welcome" or "It's a girl."
Also tough on the ol' willpower are the delectable array of baked goods sold by Dillard's husband, Paul Radam, for various bread vendors. Croissants, pastries, baguettes, boules, rolls and sandwich breads are among the offerings. Breads include buttermilk, sourdough, multigrain and Dillard's favorite, sunflower crunch.
"It is to die for," she said. "And it makes the world's best tomato sandwiches." Customers may also buy pound cakes and seasonal pies such as blackberry, bourbon walnut, sour cherry, strawberry/rhubarb, apple and peach.
Selling both edible and practical items are Tom and Terri Merz of Centreville. Their business is T&T Apiaries, and their table at the market is laden with the products of the bees they raise. There's honey — ranging from $2.50 to $7.50, depending on the size jar, as well as handmade bar soap, men's shaving soap, beeswax and candles.
"They probably have about 15 different scents of soap — lemon, cucumber, peppermint, rose, vanilla, lilac, coconut, etc.," said Dillard. "They're $4.50 each, and I buy a dozen at a time and send a half dozen to my mom on Mother's Day. It's wonderful — It's all we use at home because it lasts a long time and does a good job of cleaning your hands without drying them out."
THE CANDLES vary from classic, hand-dipped tapers to decorative shapes such as lighthouses, angels and bears. And the beeswax can be used to coat sewing thread and for making candles or furniture polish.
Mark Knoff, of Warm Woods of Clifton, makes Adirondack furniture out of western California cedar and sells his plank-style chairs and loveseats at the farmers market. And since he belongs to the Bluebird Society of North America, not surprisingly, he also builds and sells birdhouses for bluebirds.
Bringing items from her Maverick Chic business is Lara Wheeler. She creates beaded accessories including necklaces, earrings and bracelets, using both carved and clear beads. She sells Harry Potter themed bookmarks and zipper pulls for fun. But they're not just for children's clothes; they may also be used on backpacks or as chain pulls for ceiling fans.
"They're adorable," said Dillard. "She calls them 'smile therapy' because they're fun to look at and use, and they make you smile when you see them. They're easy to grab onto and they come in flowers, animals and even a tea-time theme with a clock and a tea cup."
Clifton's Melissa Glidden of Clifton Pottery and Folk Art sells hooked rugs, clay figurines and birdhouses, plus baby plates and cups decorated with folk art. And Melanie Barry of Burke brings her business, Entertaining Designs, to the market. She offers dishwasher-safe, beaded glassware with real silver accents.
"It's good quality, and the prices are darned good, too, for yourself or for gifts," said Dillard. "Her salad-bowl set with matching large fork and spoon is beautiful and also practical because it fits into your cabinet."
A pair of wine glasses costs $25; also available are swizzle sticks, butter dishes, etc. Said Dillard: "You could set your entire table with what she's got."
SINCE THE PRODUCE offerings and even some of the vendors can vary from Sunday to Sunday, Dillard encourages people to join her e-mail list at email@example.com so they may receive a weekly market update telling which vendors will be there, the following week, and what they'll be featuring.
"The nice thing about the Clifton Farmers Market is that you can actually talk to the vendors, tell them your preferences and they'll set things aside for you," she said. "You don't see that happening in the larger markets." She also believes a farmers market is a good place to buy produce because "it's got more vitamins than store-bought fruits and vegetables."
"That's because, once they're picked, they start losing their vitamins," continued Dillard. "And there is no comparison with a fresh tomato that came off a vine Saturday evening and something that was picked green, six weeks earlier, and shipped. It's more nutritional and it tastes better. I've not bought corn in a grocery store in years — it's too starchy. I buy it here and freeze it."
And then there's the intangible value of the farmers market. "Sometimes, people stay and just mill around for 1 1/2 to two hours," she said. "They have coffee and chat and just enjoy themselves. So don't sit home and have your coffee — come here and have some — with a pastry."