Let it Reign

Photos by Brevin Blach

Catt White has worn many hats-food journalist, restaurant consultant, restaurateur and head of a dining industry trade journal. But it’s in her current role as San Diego’s Market Maestra that she’s reaping praise for all the good she’s sown, connecting consumers with farm fresh edibles at the trio of diverse local farmers markets she operates throughout the county.

“I’ve always sought out farmers markets wherever I’ve lived or traveled,” says White. “That meant frequent visits to farmers markets in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the central markets in every Mexican town and Paris neighborhood I wandered into.”

After meandering into San Diego in 2003, White became a regular at the Hillcrest and Ocean Beach markets, but she yearned for a center of foodie commerce near her home in Little Italy-a place where people could shop, grab a bite and meet their neighbors. She envisioned a European-style market with sweeping views of San Diego Bay, where the region’s bounty was laid out, ripe for the picking.

In 2008, White turned that dream into reality, rolling up her sleeves and utilizing her network of industry contacts to develop the Little Italy Mercato. Along the way, many people told her it would never work. A few months after the market opened, a Little Italy Association board member pleaded with her to shut it down so as not to embarrass the community.

But White stood strong in the name of good food and local artisans. Today, the Mercato is the largest farmers market in the county and a consistent recipient of national and international press.

The soul-sating success of that venture fueled White to take over the North Park Farmers Market in May 2010. Under her direction, a once ailing operation comprised mostly of tchotchkes dealers has blossomed into a bazaar stocked with farmers, artisans and food vendors, all using the freshest ingredients. Likewise, her Pacific Beach Tuesday Farmers Market has been making waves as an up-and-comer since debuting last summer.

As her empire has grown, so too has the county’s entire farmers market scene. “When I started the Little Italy Mercato, there were 26 farmers markets in San Diego County. Now there are 54,” says White, adding that, thanks to an increase in shoppers desiring to know their producers and support local purveyors, she sees room for even more markets.

White attributes that growth and potential to a simple fact-once people taste fresh food, it’s hard to go back to mass-market, processed fare. She likens the shift toward farmers markets and their values to the Starbucks phenomenon. “A whole generation of people stepped away from watery, stale coffee, because it became so easy to get something better,” says White. “Farmers markets, along with farm-to-table restaurants, are raising the bar on what is an acceptable level of food quality.”

In an effort to keep that bar moving skyward, the Maestra is at work on several groundbreaking concepts for San Diego. One is a morning market that will allow early-rising chefs to get their pick of the freshest local produce for their restaurants. Another is a dockside marketplace where shoppers can procure the catch of the day straight from the fishermen who reeled it in. Her third and most ambitious plan is to open a grand-scale, edibles-focused public market like Seattle’s Pike Place or San Francisco’s Ferry Building.

“We have a small handful of likely locations in negotiation,” says White of the public market. “We’ll need to raise a boatload of money, but we think we can do that.”

-Brandon Hernández

Market Watch

Catt White’s Farmers Markets

Little Italy Mercato
Date St., from Kettner Blvd. to Union St.
Saturdays, 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m.

North Park Farmers Market
North Park Way and Herman Ave.
Thursdays, 3 p.m.

Pacific Beach Tuesday Farmers Market
Bayard St. at Garnet Ave.
Tuesdays, 2-6:30 p.m.

After Market

Local chefs jumping on CATT WHITE’S farmers-market-to-table freshness

Guido Nistri at Bencotto Italian Kitchen
750 West Fir St., Little Italy

“On Saturday mornings, my little boy and I go to the Little Italy Mercato. It reminds me of the mercato my mom used to take me to every week when I was a kid in Italy. My favorite fruits and vegetables to get there are tomatoes, baby artichokes, plums, figs, cherries and Swiss chard, which I use to make Bietole al Parmigiano.”

Bietole al Parmigiano (Parmesan Cheese Swiss Chard)
2 bunches Swiss chard
4 tsp extra virgin olive oil, plus additional for garnish
2 garlic cloves
Pinch of salt
Parmesan cheese

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add the chard to the water and boil for 3 minutes. Remove from the water and drain. Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until just before brown. Add the chard to the pan, season with salt and cook, gently stirring for about 5 minutes. Drain the chard, remove the garlic cloves and place on a platter. Drizzle with additional oil, sprinkle with cheese and serve warm.

Bill Sauer at Fred’s Mexican Cafe
1165 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach

“I meet with the folks from Escondido’s Rodriguez family farm every Tuesday at the P.B. Farmers Market and purchase whatever they have that I can make a good salsa out of for our salsa bar. One week, it was Anaheim chilies and tomatillos. The next, I used strawberries, oranges and cilantro.”

Strawberry Salsa
10 pints strawberries, stemmed and diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
½ red onion, diced
2 jalapeños, seeded and minced
1 bunch cilantro, minced
Juice from 1 orange
Juice from 1 lime
1 tbsp salt

Mix all of the ingredients until they are completely incorporated, cover and chill before serving.