Get fresh at farmers' markets
The dollars you spend at a farmers’ market buy much more than fresh vegetables; you’re also supporting local producers. Try these 10 tips to put the best quality food on your table – at the lowest prices.
1. Fresh is best
The best food you can buy is unprocessed or minimally processed (as in dried pasta and canned tomatoes), and ideally organic. Sure, it means cooking from scratch, but even the most time-poor person can create a nutritious, tasty meal in 15 or 30 minutes.
2. Buy from farmer's markets
Visit http://www.farmersmarkets.org.au/ to find one near you. The produce is picked that morning or the night before, so the only way you can get fresher food is to grow it yourself. One drawback is that you're limited to what's in season, and what is actually grown by farmers near you. But that's fine: let the available produce drive your menus rather than the other way around. The other thing to get used to is that once the food is sold, that's it. There are no back-up supplies in a supermarket cold room. You need to arrive early to get the best selection.
The produce at farmer's markets may be cheaper, but don't automatically expect this. A lot of labour and resources go into producing food, and the farmer should receive adequate payment. Don't get too hung up about buying certified organic produce. Certification is expensive, and even the cheaper certification designed for producers selling at farmer's markets can be prohibitive for a small holder. Lack of certification doesn’t mean the grower is any less passionate about chemical-free agriculture. Ask farmers about their growing methods: you'll find some are largely organic anyway, but may occasionally use chemical pesticides. Others may use conventional growing methods but no chemical sprays. Any reduction in the use of agricultural chemicals can only be a positive.
3. Learn what’s in season
Find out what's in season in Australia each month, and specifically in your area. While most farmers’ markets have strict controls to ensure local farmers sell their own produce, there are some markets where stall-holders buy produce wholesale. So, if you see sweet potatoes at a Hobart market in June, you can be sure they're not from a Tassie farm!
4. Farm-gate fare
If you live within reasonable distance of the country, buy your produce from the farm gate. Check the classified ads in your local newspaper for opening times. In Launceston, where I live, we can source cherries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and stone fruit from farms within a 30-kilometre radius.
5. Surprise yourself
Another option is to have a box of pre-selected seasonal produce delivered each week. This service is primarily available through organic suppliers, but non-organic suppliers also offer it. You can’t choose what you receive, but that's the fun of it, because you can try things you normally wouldn't consider, and discover new flavours. Sophie Grigson's Vegetable Bible is a great resource; it was written specifically for people who have box deliveries.
6. Explore other markets
Melbourne has the marvellous Queen Victoria Markets, Prahran Markets and South Melbourne Markets. Adelaide has its Adelaide Central Markets. Sydney boasts an incredible fish market. Macro Wholefoods stores are located through Sydney and Melbourne. Ethnic stores are a great resource for adventurous cooks, supplying fresh and packaged ingredients at incredible prices.
7. Buy online
E-tailers are an excellent resource for the less mainstream products that you don't find in the supermarket, like rye pasta, brown Arborio rice, beluga lentils, unusual spices, honeys, preserves, and ethnic ingredients. Try Organics Australia Online http://www.oao.com.au/, Beach Organics http://www.beachorganics.com.au/, Magnus Fruit Company http://www.magnusfruitco.com.au/, Herbie's Spices http://www.herbies.com.au/, Santos Wholesalers http://www.santostrading.com.au/, The Nut Farm http://www.thenutfarm.com.au/, Smelly Cheese Shop http://www.saycheese.net.au/, Richmond Hill Café Larder Cheese Club http://www.rhcl.com.au/, Ashgrove Farm Cheese http://www.ashgrovecheese.com.au/, and Grandvewe Cheese http://www.grandvewe.com.au/.
8. Take advantage of gluts
When something is plentiful and cheap, buy extra and preserve it. For example, when tomatoes are in season, make up a large batch of pasta sauce and freeze it. An instant meal for when you're busy.
9. Check the labels
If shopping at a supermarket is your only option, check the signs on produce to see where it originates from. Obviously, the nearer to home it’s grown, the fresher it will be. An off-season passionfruit from Peru is not going to taste as good as one grown on a farm in your region. Plus, there's the issue of food miles.
10. Buy the best pulses, grains and nuts
Dried beans, peas and lentils: Choose smooth-skinned, evenly coloured beans of uniform size. As the natural form of vitamin B6 in beans is extremely sensitive to light, don’t buy beans in clear packaging. If you buy them in bulk, ensure they're from sealed, light-proof containers. Grains: Look for tightly-sealed containers. Choose a store with a high turnover if buying in bulk. Nuts: As nuts age, the oils oxidise and become rancid, creating a bitter, unpleasant flavour. Exposure to light, heat and oxygen speeds oxidation, so the optimal way to buy them is in the shell. Choose nuts that feel heavy; if they feel light, they may be withered inside. Avoid buying nuts in bulk from bins as they oxidise quickly. Otherwise, buy shelled nuts from a natural-foods retailer with a high turnover, or online from the grower or a specialist retailer. Unless you plan to use the nuts immediately, store them in an opaque airtight container in the freezer, as this slows oxidation.