Boulder Farmers' Market, week fifteen: Tomatoes, in jars and on tarts (with recipe!)
I don't generally pay a lot of attention to preserved or prepared foods -- other than bread, coffee and gelato -- at the Boulder Farmers' Market, but on Saturday I found myself lingering by the MM Local stand, on which jewel-like jars of food were stacked. Last winter I ran out of my own frozen and canned tomatoes and found that commercial brands, even the expensive and/or organic ones, tasted muddy. On impulse, I picked up a jar of MM Local's tomatoes with basil and was delighted by the clean, fresh taste: tomatoes, basil and salt, nothing more. From there, I moved on to MM Local's peaches. There's a sort of existential sadness at the end of every peach season, and these sweet, still slightly-firm fruits preserved with organic sugar came close to providing a cure.
Ben Mustin at the MM Local stand at the Boulder Farmers' Market.
So this round, I sampled a piece of pickle at the MM Local stand, and chatted with the owners.
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Jim Mills and Ben Mustin aren't farm people or hippie idealists, and they don't tell loving stories about Italian grandmothers and the enticing scents emanating from childhood kitchens. The two come to the local food movement with a background in marketing -- hence the pleasing, precise look of their webpage, and the jars that cleanly showcase the fruits within rather than display a flashy company logo. But Mills and Mustin are also passionate about food, hugely supportive of local farmers and actively living all those truisms about environmental integrity.
"Jim and I started MM Local from a very ideological place based on values that are dear to us: connecting to local food, community, health and sustainability," says Mustin. "In 2009 the economy was in a bad place. We saw the marketing edifice collapsing around us. We thought, If we could get MM Local to work in a bad economy, maybe we could make it work in a good economy.
"Another really big reason was that we wanted to introduce a brand and product that people could trust," he continues. "We're always going to be local, we're always going to represent why people love local, and our customers are always going to know exactly where their food comes from."
MM Local works solely with organic farmers, though some of the smaller farms they turn to aren't certified. "Organic farmers are at the forefront of understanding soil conservation," says Mustin. "A lot of them are living on their farms, doing as much as they can to protect the soil. The farmers' market has had a huge influence on us. It's where we went first to meet farmers and learn about the cycles of local produce. Hit the market on the right day and the peaches are perfect or the tomatoes perfectly ripe. I love connecting with the farmers -- whether tiny local farms or large organic ones for whom we're a tiny customer -- and learning to know what's coming on. A lot of what we sell has to do with farms calling us if they have a surplus or are looking to plant more and want to have some assurance that there's a market for their products."
Their passion for quality doesn't come cheap. A 15-ounce jar of MM Local's plums, peaches, pears, beets, cucumbers, beans, chili peppers or carrots can cost anywhere from $4 to $9 in stores. (The brand is distributed in several places, including Alfalfa's, Cured and Lucky's in Boulder, Whole Foods, the Tony's markets in Denver, and some King Soopers; customers can also purchase a harvest share at their website.)
But they do their best to keep the prices in balance. "We don't ship our products, so we save on transportation," says Mills. "On the produce side, we pay a fair price. We want longterm partnerships with the farms. Our products are going to be priced higher, but we believe we deliver on amazing taste, and people's dollars are supporting local farms and the whole local economy." The company has seven full-time employees, and also employs seasonal workers.
For the last year or two, Mills and Mustin have been developing new fermented and pickled foods. "Growing Gardens had a bumper crop of a German variety of cabbage," says Mustin. "They asked, 'Would you guys be willing to buy this from us? If you can make something from it, pay us. If not, don't.'"
There was nowhere to store the cabbage, he adds, "so we put it in a vat of vinegar and pretty much forgot about it. We rediscovered it a year later sitting in a corner of the warehouse. We tried it, and it was really good. So we re-created the process for this year in a controlled and sanitary way."
Making sauerkraut and several kinds of kimchi allows MM Local to preserve a greater variety of produce. "Fermenting is one of the oldest preservation methods," Mills says. "So much of the process is all raw; you're not pasteurizing. And it just delivers this funky beautiful taste that you can't get with any other process, couldn't get if you pasteurized the food. There are legitimate health benefits, great probiotics, lots of good enzymes and good vitamin content."
"There's increasing peer-reviewed research that fermented foods played an important role in human evolution and biology," adds Mustin. "It's a very optimistic thing. If we can change our perspective on the role of bacteria, that would change our society." He considers current attempts to patent strands of bacteria "a cynical departure from our communal tradition of fermenting," he says. "People who buy food are our first line of defense."
And the people who buy the food, as well as the people who provide the raw ingredients, are the reason they enjoy the farmers' market. "It's surprising, despite all the complexity of the operation, the single thing that has the biggest impact on our success is building strong relationships," Mustin concludes. "It's been a great ride so far."