by David Cecelski
This past Saturday I was on my way to one of the big limestone caves in East Tennessee when I stopped for supplies at the Madison County Farmers and Artisans Market in Mars Hill. I was taking my 13-year-old son and a friend spelunking for the first time. Spring was just coming to the mountains. The mountainsides were still mostly gray and the trees leafless, but the serviceberry trees, always the first to flower up there, were in full bloom, and a few redbuds had bloomed too. And I’ve never seen a prettier row of cherry trees than the one coming into Mars Hill.
This was the farmers market’s first Saturday of the year. There were maybe twenty vendors set up in a parking lot on the campus of Mars Hill College, a liberal arts college founded by Baptists in 1856. The farmers didn’t have vegetables yet, but there were some wonderful crafts, baked goods, meats, cheeses, bedding plants and jams and jellies.
I couldn’t buy anything too perishable for our trip, but I purchased a hearty loaf of 10 grain bread from Gail Lunsford from Wake Robin Farm Breads. She does her baking in a wood-fired brick oven on a farm that’s been in the family for 150 years. I also found out-of-this-world jams and jellies made by a very sweet elderly farm woman whose name, I’m afraid, now eludes me. I bought a jar of her blackberry jam and a jar of her red grape jelly, as well as a few cheese muffins to eat when we got out of the cavern. I had some of the blackberry jam with the bread the next day for breakfast and I don’t know if I’ve ever had any better.
I also went crazy at the booth for Spinning Spider Creamery, a goat cheese maker. Jeff and Chris Owen raise their goats at Bailey Mountain, near Marshall, the seat of Madison County. Jeff offered me a taste of a chevre seasoned with rosemary and figs and it was amazing. After a bite of that chevre, I had to buy a container of it. I also got an aged goat-milk feta and a round of a Camembert-like cheese that the Owens call “Camille.”
The Madison County Farmers and Artisans Market is open Saturdays from 9 AM to 1 PM. It is one of at least three dozen tailgate markets that operate in Western North Carolina. The one in Mars Hill is the spring’s first to open; others will follow later in April or May. For the sites of the region’s other farmers markets, their opening days for the season, and the days of the week and times they’re open, check out the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project’s Local Food Guide.
photos by David Cecelski