Somewhere in the South of France lies a stretch of country road that winds through vineyards and villages, dead-ending into a creek. At this spot, locals gather to hawk their wares: fresh flowers, pungent cheeses, fragrant incense and purées for sauces. Yeah, well, big deal. The hot and dusty streets of Houston's very own Midtown offer the exact same thing.
Chef extraordinaire Monica Pope -- her very public rent battles with former landlord Steve Zimmerman behind her ("Bye-Bye, Bistrot?" March 6, 2003) -- has created a farmers' market to go along with her new restaurant, T'afia ("Monica Hits Midtown," March 11). And as a result, she's unintentionally delivered our city a ticket to first-class. Okay, so it's not by a creek, but that's not her fault.
The market convenes in T'afia's parking lot and inside the restaurant every Saturday morning from 8 a.m. to noon. Pope makes the people available to her available to you -- the finest local artisans, chocolatiers, bakers and those versed in the art of charcuterie.
This means that if you like what you're served at T'afia on Friday night, you can purchase it the next day from Pope's specialized purveyors. At other restaurants, this concept wouldn't be such a big deal -- after all, you can buy that bag of mesclun you just overpaid for at any area Randalls. But the point is, the food at T'afia is region-specific. You won't find the restaurant's duck prosciutto or organically grown Texas fruit at Fiesta anytime soon. You'd even be hard-pressed to find some of it at Central Market.
The farmers' market is a relatively new concept in Houston, and Pope feels it's vital to the city's culinary growth. "We need places like Central Market and Whole Foods...places that offer an alternative," she says, "but I also think there's a need for what we're trying to do, which is to change the way people live and eat, to bring a real community bent to the market experience that ties the consumer to the land their food is grown on."
The site has become a bustling hub of activity for gastronomes and the just plain curious. With upwards of 500 people packing the grounds each week, it's an eclectic mix.
Some marketgoers approach Pope with tears of thanks in their eyes. The chef doesn't want to be all dramatic about it, but she feels that such reactions show just how hungry people are for what locals are baking, growing and curing.
And there's a lot to eat. Dressings, organic pastries, preserves and marinades are among the products available for purchase. And there are plans to add more edibles once issues with the pesky health department are resolved. Right now, they prohibit the sale of meats, dairy and products containing eggs in an area without proper refrigeration, like, say, a parking lot. For the time being, the fridge-less lot has moved the sale of chocolates, pastries and meats inside T'afia. Pope is working with Mayor Bill White to change the law (or find a way around it) so Houston can join cities such as San Francisco and New York, which pull this same thing off with ease.
Now if you'll excuse us, we're starting to well up.