Thursday, September 8, 2011

Day Five: Patterson's

Sometimes, in the clamor and excitement of all of the new things going on in food, we sort of glance over those classics, those proven winners which have been with us all along. When I tell people I got my peaches at Patterson's Orchard and Farm Market, they look at me, beguiled. 

"Where?" they ask, and I cringe a little.

"Patterson's!" I say again, hoping that they misheard me.

"Where is that, again?" they'll ask, with the tone that the name rings a bell, but I know the truth. They have no idea where I'm talking about.

"Uh, you know... Patterson's. On 124th and Layton."

"Oh! The place with the apple trees!" I roll my eyes in disgust, and continue eating my sweet-as-candy peach.

The Patterson family has been growing some of the finest produce in Wisconsin since the early 1950's, but I'm finding that so many of my foodie friends are completely oblivious to their wares. Why is that?

On my visit, I was lucky enough to strike up a conversation with Jay Patterson, third generation and current owner:

When I told him about the Eat Local Challenge, he lit up. As I took shot after gorgeous shot of the rows of packed apples and peaches, pears and plums, he said, "Hey... do you want to go back in the cooler? I'm sure you can get some good shots in there!" He didn't have to ask twice.

Bin after wooden bin, overflowing with perfect ripe Wisconsin apples. The perfume of apple was like honey.

"Here, check these out," Jay said as we walked over to a smaller bin. "We didn't even really get to put these out this year, there was so many orders for them. This is all that's left." 

I looked down into the bin, only to see the deepest, darkest blue plums I'd ever seen:

"Wisconsin prune plums," Jay said with a grin. "Try one. They're amazing!" And I did try one -- a few, actually. The plums are tiny by commercial fruit standards -- about the size of a silver dollar around, with a thick skin, and giving, intensely sweet flesh. I can see why they sold out so quickly:

I felt like a kid in a produce department, madly shooting every bin with wild abandonment, wanting to catch every single gleaming fruit before this year's bounty disappeared:

Patterson's has limited distribution in the Milwaukee area, but for best results, I highly recommend a visit to the Farm Market, on So. 124th St. in New Berlin, just a half block North of Layton Ave.. You can really take in the full breadth of selection there, see exactly why so many people on the South Side get so excited about harvest time.

Patterson's is only open from mid-August to May 31st -- and they do sell out of some of their 30-odd varieties of fruit they raise -- so don't feel guilty about stocking up if you see a cultivar you like. The fruit grown by the Patterson family is split between a smaller orchard adjacent to the market, and a larger one in the Town of Raymond, near Union Grove. 

Each half peck of fruit looks longing to me, like a puppy waiting to be adopted:

But wait! Apples don't have all the fun at Patterson's... seasonal veggies also make guest appearances from time to time:

I was particularly taken aback by the petite Wisconsin peaches, with their ultra-fuzzy skins (think chenille sweater), soft flesh, and absolutely sugar-sweet flavor. The aroma of "peach" is so strong, it'll make you think they're designed, not grown:

Until Honey Crisp apples are in season, we're able to get Zestar!(s), which Patterson's has in abundance, and I've had more than one person nearly lose their mind biting into one. Megan, a co-worker, nearly ate my entire mid-afternoon snack today, chomping slice after slice of the apple, admitting to me, "Oh, these things are amazing! I stole one from you this morning!" 

If fruit incites grand larceny, you know it's good.

With all of the fantastic new retail outlets we have in Milwaukee for local produce, now more than ever, I believe it's important to support independent farmers like the Patterson's. Knowing that your food came from your backyard is wonderful, and knowing the people behind the food is essential. The Pattersons have been feeding the Milwaukee area with their exceptional fruits and veggies for over 60 years, and it's my wish (for purely selfish reasons: I need good apples like I need oxygen) that they continue to thrive. Take a field trip, bring some cash (no plastic accepted here, kids), and bring home a neat paper sack filled with the bounty of an orchard just a dozen miles away from downtown, but a million miles away from mere supermarket produce.

The Details:

Patterson's Orchard & Farm Market
4607 S. 124th St.
New Berlin, WI