Milk & Honey Market offers fresh, local food in U. City

Posted: January 29, 2010

For those who desire to vote with their food dollars in support of a different food system, Milk & Honey Market at 45th Street and Baltimore Avenue is a good option.

The market focuses on locavore, whose definition depends on whom you ask. For some, it means adding as much fresh and local foods to the shopping cart as possible.

Others have geographic boundaries - eating or drinking nothing that comes from beyond a 150-mile radius or, in the extreme, 50 miles.

I'll admit my bias here. I am a strong supporter of the Buy Fresh Buy Local program and serve on the board of Fair Food. I do try to buy as much local food and products as I can, but I'm not giving up coffee, sugar or imported wine.

For now, supporting small farms and businesses generally means paying more. The reasons are complex and worth an ongoing dialogue, but the question that needs to be examined is: Should our nutrition be cheap?

Proprietor Annie Baum Stein and her professionally certified green-builder husband, Maruo Daigle, wrangle daily with these questions in their aptly named University City market.

For Stein, this is not a new concept. She grew up in a household where the worlds of gastronomy and agriculture intersected. Her mother, Hillary Baum, was an early proponent of public markets and continues to expand the national dialogue about our food system. Her grandfather, Joseph Baum, was the innovative restaurateur who more than 50 years ago, conceived New York's The Four Seasons, the first restaurant to change menus seasonally.

One of the major challenges Milk & Honey faces is that eating locally is much easier if you live in a more temperate climate.

In January in Philadelphia, it's difficult to stock an entire store. For Stein and Daigle it is an ongoing debate to manage mission and marketplace - even with each other. Stay tuned to see if Fair Trade bananas make it on the shelves.

And while some may object to the imported cheeses, they do come from local businesses. And there is always a selection of some our region's finest cheese producers.

Currently, the Chestnut Hill company Cosmic Catering supplies most of the prepared foods. The Chicken Salad ($11.99 quart) is not to be compared to the prepared salads that come out of a tub in most deli cases. This was elegantly poached chicken breast that was lightly dressed. We ate it just as is, but it would make a tasty sandwich or easy, showy appetizer served in a puff pastry cup.

One of the hits was the Italian Wedding Soup ($10 for a quart). If you are serving this as a main dish, you will get just a little over two servings. This seems pricey, but it was studded with tiny meatballs and there was no pasta filler. The local greens added bright taste as well as color.

My tasters and I found the Turkey Chili ($10 quart) had very balanced flavors. This ground turkey had more flavor than most and it married with the black beans, tomato and green pepper. JalapeƱo added just the right amount of heat.

Milk & Honey's biggest offerings are the house-made sandwiches made on Metropolitan breads. Sadly, our salesperson steered us away from the croissants in favor of the panini. I should have stood my ground because I have since heard from several sources that the croissant sandwiches are stellar.

Our favorite panini was the Ham and Cheese ($6.50). This best exemplifies what locally produced products can offer. A simple country ham, Lancaster cheddar and a hit of spicy local mustard showed that if the ingredients are fresh and high quality, less can often be more.

The Turkey ($6.50) was our least favorite. The ingredients - turkey with red pepper pesto, raclette cheese and arugula - sound tempting, but the red pepper pesto overwhelmed the other ingredients.

For simplicity's sake, the Caprese ($5.50) offered a blend of tomato, mozzarella and basil. It was a nice use of sun-dried tomatoes instead of the tasteless winter variety.

Our region doesn't suffer from a shortage of locally made desserts, so if sweets are what you are after, the market offers a few.

The fresh apple-cider doughnuts from Delaware's Highland Orchard were my favorite, however, one of my tasters didn't like the texture and felt they lacked freshness.

That said, I happen to know his mother makes divine homemade potato doughnuts and it hardly seems a fair comparison. Although, one's own kitchen would make it uber-local.

There's also a selection of fudges and cupcakes made by Betty's Tasty Button's and Better Together packaged brownies.

Where Milk & Honey shines is its sourcing of products.

A standout in the freezer case are the Otolith seafood items. Milk & Honey is also a pickup point for the sustainable seafood shares that Otolith offers. This is similar to a farm share where you pay up front for the harvest of a small producer committed to sustainability.

I purchased the Prawns ($20 per pound) and when thawed, discovered the shrimp had roe. While I am familiar with lobster roe, I've never had female shrimp producing eggs. I scrapped my plans to have a shrimp boil and pan-seared so I could capture the roe in a sauce.

The result was sweet meat that could have passed for lobster. This is a taste that can't be duplicated in the mass production of shrimp farms.

A favorite purchase of my local tasters was the bag of Dutch Country Popcorn from Mt. Joy. Coming in at $2.50 for two pounds of kernels, the bag yields mountains of popped corn compared with the microwave brands that are far more expensive and often full of chemicals. A happy reversal of price comparison.

Much like dried beans, popcorn loses moisture, so sitting around in a warehouse or on a supermarket shelf takes its toll. Dutch Country kernels retain that moisture and that's what makes the kernels pop into fluffy corn.

Chapter and verse has yet to be written in the evolution of our food system, but I find promise in that we are adding more venues grappling with the questions.

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