Labor Day has come and gone. Kids with new bookbags are back in school, eager to please their new teachers and reconnect with old friends.
Although not technically true until Sept. 23, fall has arrived. This seasonal passage could be seen and felt last Saturday at both Missoula farmers markets: The cabbage was huge, the corn plump and the squash bins overflowing, sure signs of a season well-grown.
For some reason, the cool weather had me searching more for fruit than for veggies. I wanted my last, best taste of summer: There is just nothing as perfect as a strawberry, cherry or melon harvested just a day or two ago, fresh from the vine, bush or field. Grocery stores have these year-round but they aren’t the same as the sweet gems that grow just a few miles from Missoula tables.
A few vendors at both markets — the Missoula Farmers Market near the XXXXs, and the Clark Fork Market near Caras Park — still had strawberries, and they were amazing: small but deep red, bursting with flavor. Two or three had small batches of cherries, remnants of an unusual weather year for local crops.
But the season for these summer fruits is ending.
Huckleberries were still available last Saturday, but several vendors said their supply was nearly done. Will there be some next week? Maybe. Maybe not.
The Dixon melon trucks were still at both markets, although not piled quite as high as they’ve been. Sales were brisk. The most-asked question of the day: “Will you be here next week?”
At both venues the answer was the same: Yes, the trucks will be there this coming Saturday. But then it’s a week-to-week decision. Other vendors sell local melons too, so there’s still time (although limited) to enjoy these truly amazing gifts. Once you’ve had a Montana melon, right from the field, you’ll join the legions of locals who await these treasures every season, year after year after year.
A pleasant find at the Missoula Farmers Market last week: blueberries from Montana Blueberries, from Plains, Montana. These fat, juicy berries are available at some local stores, and you can pick them yourself at the Plains farm at 50 Seed Orchard Lane. The season is winding up, but u-pick opportunities are still available 8 a.m. to noon Thursday, Friday and Saturday this week, according to the farm’s Facebook post.
Much easier: Buy a pint at the market for eating now, and a frozen gallon to store for winter.
Berries are the last sweet tastes of summer, but don’t despair: Fall fruits are arriving to save the day. Apples, pears and peaches are stars.
At the Clark Fork Market, the folks at Forbidden Fruit Orchards stand had boxes of white and yellow peaches stacked, ready for customers who crave these fuzzy delicacies every year. Owners Tom and Lynn McCamant bought 20 acres in Paradise, Montana, to start the orchard in 2000, and now grow peaches, apricots, nectarines, cherries and strawberries.
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Early-variety apples have made their market 2019 debut too, and are available at both spots from several vendors.
Swanson’s Mountain View Apple Orchards from Corvallis had their Zestar and Paula Red apples at the Missoula Farmers Market last week: The Zestar is a crisp, firm eating apple with a nice sweet-tart balance; the slightly sweet Paula Red is good for baking, eating, sauces or cider.
“In August and September, you get the coolness that the apple really needs,” said Charlie Swanson, who owns the orchard with his wife, Julie. Charlie’s grandfather started the orchard in 1907. As fall progresses, the orchard’s apple varieties change — McIntosh, Empire, Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Spartan, Winter Banana and others — depending on what ripens, and when.
And at the Clark Fork Market, Stevensille’s Home Acres Orchard also had early apples — Ginger Gold, State Fair, Duchess of Oldenburg and Summer Red varieties — for sale, and some pears, too. The explainer sign for Ginger Golds described them this way: “Crisp, mild, tart flavor with sweet finish.” I bought some; the sign is accurate.
Much-coveted Asian Pears may be ready this coming Saturday, according to orchard owner Kurt Welborne.
With all these sweet options still available (for now), there’s just one thing to do: Grab whatever local fruit you can find, set out some crackers and cheese, pour a glass of your favorite sipping beverage, and savor the end of one season and the beginning of another.
Meanwhile, here are two things to remember about the farmers markets, and speaking of apples, three events to put on your fall calendar:
• The last day for the Tuesday Missoula Farmers Market near the XXXXs is Tuesday, Sept. 24, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
• The last day for both the Missoula Farmers Market and the Clark Fork Market is Saturday, Oct. 25.
• The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula’s annual Fall Festival and Apple Day is 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 22, at the museum. Try your hand at cider making with an old-fashioned press, visit the Hayes Homestead Cabin to find out what people did to prepare for winter, take a tour of other buildings and enjoy fall crafts. Food trucks will be on hand for lunch. Admission is free but bring a nonperishable food item for the Missoula Food Bank.
• Hamilton’s Annual McIntosh Apple Day is Saturday, Oct. 5, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., on the lawn at the Ravalli County Museum, corner of Bedford and Second streets. Dubbed “The Biggest Bake Sale Under the Big Sky,” this party packs in a crowd to enjoy up to 180 vendors offering crafts, dipping apples with caramel sauce, fresh apple butter, BBQ, kabobs, apple cider, children’s activities, a huge raffle of donated gifts, a silent auction, and a mega-sale of hundreds of homemade apple pies, all to raise money for the Ravalli County Museum.
• Following McIntosh Apple Day, enjoy Hamilton’s companion festival, Liquid Apple Night, Saturday, Oct. 5, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Cider companies from all over the Northwest are invited to share their craft, served with locally catered food and some music, too. Call the museum at (406) 363-3338 for ticket information.