Thursday, September 15, 2011

Philly Homegrown: Eating Local During Restaurant Week and Beyond

Philly Homegrown is a project sponsored by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation that aims to persuade people here to buy their food locally, that is, from within the Philly “foodshed” that reaches from Lancaster County to the Jersey Shore. This goal involves publicizing and expanding the existing local food movement as well as partnering with other organizations to ensure that more consumers (including restaurants) are sourcing local. Philly Homegrown’s newest push is in conjunction with Center City Restaurant Week (September 12-23). When you’re out taking advantage of Restaurant Week’s deals this year, a tiny red tractor logo will appear next to menu items that are made from local ingredients, giving you the option to make your dinner about more than just tasty, affordable eating. For a short tour through some of what Philadelphia’s local food movement has to offer, I spent a little time in the Rittenhouse Square Farmers’ Market, followed by a trip to try Garces Trading Company’s Restaurant Week lunch menu. Read more about Philly Homegrown here.

Rittenhouse Square Farmers’ Market

The Rittenhouse Market is run by Farm to City, a Philadelphia company that also operates farmers’ markets in Mt. Airy, University City, Passyunk, and Walnut Hill, among other neighborhoods. Farm to City’s founder, Bob Pierson, says he was inspired to start this business after a 1960s visit to Italy revealed a concept totally foreign to Americans then and especially now: most Italians knew where their food came from, so specifically that they often argued over which farm was the best to buy from. With this ideology in mind, Pierson insists on supporting only local vendors; if you’re not selling local products, his markets have no place for you. This means that purchasing your groceries from the Rittenhouse Market is an easy and delicious way to champion regional agriculture and industry, and to give back to the community instead of lining big national corporations’ pockets.

Because I visited the market on a Tuesday, there were only a few white tents clustered around the corner of 18th and Walnut. On Saturdays, though, the market stretches for a block in two directions, offering everything from fruit and vegetables to eggs and beef. One of the stands I tried was John & Kira’s chocolates, a great example of a local company that makes a point of sourcing many of its ingredients in the city and its surrounding areas. Some of the chocolates are even named after the purveyors of the farms their centers came from: “Glenn’s Raspberry” takes its label from Farmer Glenn in Gap, PA. The mint in the Urban Garden Bars is grown—you guessed it—in urban gardens. One of these is the Urban Nutrition Initiative’s School Garden, right here in West Philly.

This is all highly admirable: the glossy brochures littered with origin stories for every flavor, bright wrappers printed with information about the community-oriented gardens that made the chocolate possible, an ethos that is open and persistently environmentally friendly. But how does it taste? The dark chocolate-dipped figs pumped full of whiskey ganache are gooey and sweet in all the right ways; it’s kind of like eating a bite-size Christmas ornament shaped candy. And if you were laboring under the misapprehension that artificial mint extracts are just fine in chocolates, I’m here to set the record straight. You can taste the fresh mint so vividly it’s like a real mint leaf were under your nose. It makes a world of positive difference in flavor, and if you care about desserts, it’ll probably blow you away. John & Kira’s also has cute, vibrant packaging; the little ladybug (raspberry) and bumblebee (lavender and honey) painted chocolates are nestled in red and green boxes tied with twine.

Rittenhouse Square Farmers’ Market
18th and Walnut
Saturdays, year-round, 9am-3pm
Tuesdays, (until November), 10am-1pm
More information here.

Garces Trading Company’s Restaurant Week Lunch
Garces Trading Company’s lunch menu has the distinction of being almost completely locally sourced; only the dessert course offers no local option. I chose the cheese plate for the first course, an entirely local dish, featuring two wedges of soft cheese and a house-made honey condiment to pair it with. The cheese and honey went together well; my only complaint would be that it was a fairly small portion, and only one type of cheese was given. For the second course, I had the grilled organic black pearl salmon, with a golden heirloom potato salad, hefty chunks of bacon, romesco and green onions. It was a tad too salty but otherwise overflowing with complementary, and not competing, flavors. The dessert, a pumpkin cake, was a bit heavy on the spice, although the silky texture was lovely. If you’re heading to Garces Trading Company for lunch this week, definitely go for the salmon, but order the chocolate panna cotta instead of the pumpkin cake.

Garces Trading Company
1111 Locust Street
Philadelphia, PA

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