July 24, 2013
Year-round Stockton Market brings farmers in from the fields in western New Jersey
“There’s a small hotel with a wishing well/I wish that we were there together.”
This catchy tune by Rodgers and Hart was written in 1936, during a stay at the historic Stockton Inn. It’s such a standard, you may be hearing the music in your head as you read this. The fountain is still there, and in two of the dining rooms, there are stunning murals depicting life in the early 1700s, when the inn was built.
The Stockton Inn is at the bottom of Bridge Street; go too far and you’re on a bridge to Pennsylvania. With only a couple of restaurants, a small grocery store, the post office, a gas station, a good wine shop, and maybe a couple of other local businesses, Stockton is not exactly a bustling downtown.
It does, however, come alive every weekend, as hundreds of people come to shop for locally-sourced fresh food in the remarkable Stockton Market. About 30 vendors display produce picked earlier in the day, beautiful just-baked goods, artisanal cheeses, fresh-laid eggs — literally everything from soup to nuts, using only local producers.
Still, this is not a mob scene. It’s calm, laid-back and very personal. Vendors know many of their customers by first names and catch up on families as they fill orders.
Owners Steve Grabowski and Cheryl Olsten have created a visually striking, rustic environment with soaring rafters and an open-air farm-stand experience. You’ll be awed when you walk in the door, just from the glimpse of the food you’re going to want to buy at every station. There’s a lot going on, but it’s well-planned, so it’s easy to maneuver, with roomy aisles and open areas.
“We appeal to real food people,” says Dawn McBeth, the market’s manager. She says the permanent market gives food artisans the opportunity to create products year-round.
Above all, Stockton Market is dedicated to sustainable agriculture, supporting farms and farmers. You’ll find uncommon products and only seasonal goods here, so the selection at the farm stands may just consist of what’s growing that day. Also, please note produce prices change often, so prices listed here may not be what you’ll pay.
I can’t walk by Mushrooms, etc. (609-203-1800), where local foragers stock Stephanie McCue’s large wooden bowls overflowing with wild mushrooms, such as royal trumpet, porcini, crimini, shitake, morels, chanterelles and others found locally (prices range from $6-$20 per pound).
If you think the mushrooms will be perfect sautéed or in an omelet, scoop ‘em up. But don’t pass on McCue’s other pleasures, such as truffle butter, wild mushroom quiche, or sun-dried tomatoes with almonds, sheep’s milk cheese, garlic, parsley and olive oil. She’s always creating new dishes, so if fungi are your favorites, stop here first; she often sells out before the end of the day.
Over at the Gravity Hill Farm (609-737-2834) stand, owners Maria Nicolo and David Earling sell all things organic. Everything displayed is picked that morning on their small family farm. Prices are more than reasonable — actually rivaling costs at my local supermarket. There are great-looking lettuces, kohlrabi, cabbage, kale, okra and Swiss chard. You can plan an entire meal around the carrots and beets, that’s how beautiful they are. Add purple, red or Yukon gold potatoes and call it a feast.
“The permanent market gives food artisans the opportunity to create products year-round. We appeal to real food people.”
Squash blossoms, snow peas, and purple and green beans are also tempting, but I get obsessed with the yellow, intensely flavorful salt and pepper cucumbers. That night, my family eats every single one I buy. I’ve been searching everywhere, but haven’t found any more yet.
Do you know what a garlic scape is? I didn’t until I found them at a few of the farmstands; now I think I’m in love. They’re long, curly stalks of hardneck garlic plants that grow in early summer. While the small bulb is growing in the ground, you cut off the scapes (also called shoots or spears) and use them in any way you’d use scallions, but these aren’t onion-y, they are fresh, vibrant garlic.
After I’ve purchased enough fresh veggies to feel good about myself for a few days, I wander next door to Half Pint Kitchen (609-915-7207) There is ice cream and then there’s Half Pint. Robin Damastra and Jim Salant only make six to nine flavors every weekend, and my first sample is roasted strawberry. I don’t really care for strawberries, but not buying a pint of this passionate flavor seems hopeless. Lemon ice cream tastes so much like the combination of lemon and meringue, samples are just not enough.
There are two on-premises eating venues. One is > than Q (More than BBQ), although the smoky brisket, ribs and pulled pork need no “more” anything.
The other is the Market Cafe, where four vendors vie for your taste buds. If you want to drink healthy, there’s Juice Matters. Go to Button’s Creperie for sweet or savory crêpes, and if you’re going to be too tired from food shopping to actually cook later, try Culinara for good-looking prepared entrees, salads and sides. Last is the Coffee Bar, and you may want to stop here to regain energy so you can go on.
There’s also Carousel Farm Lavender, where the heady scent from huge bunches of fresh lavender perfumes the air.
Tullamore Farms sells their own grass-fed meats; Eat This makes terrific marmalades and spreads; Urbane Tea Co., has lots of loose teas in exotic flavors; and at Crossroads Bakery, the smell of just-baked bread wakes up all your senses.
I would caution you to sample food if it’s offered. I didn’t and by the time I finish. I’m dizzy with hunger. So pace yourself, sit and eat and get out there again. It’s Jersey corn and tomatoes time, and a ride to the country for food this fresh is a great way to spend a weekend. Turn up some Rodgers and Hart to get you in the mood.
by Brooke Tarabour/For The Star-Ledger on July 24, 2013 at 6:00 AM, updated July 24, 2013 at 9:53 AM
photos by Frances Micklow