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February 1, 2012

Stockton Market

Every year around this time I begin to suffer farmers market withdrawal syndrome. It’s not that I’m yearning for sun-ripened Jersey tomatoes and just-picked corn. No, I mourn the loss of weekly interaction with my favorite farmers, and the introduction to, say, a new variety of squash or a surprising source for mutton. The Trenton Farmers market helps a bit, and I’m glad to see more pop-up winter markets than ever to tide me over, including those of Slow Food and Princeton. (See listings in the events calendar at princetoninfo.com)

But for sheer variety, quality, and vibrancy, my favorite year-round farmers market has become the one in Stockton, across from Meil’s and next to Phillips’ Fine Wines. Not only is it indoors (no small consideration), open every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and situated in a charming old river town, but it continues to attract an ever growing list of varied and first-rate vendors. Last fall I spotlighted one of them in my column — chocolatier Tom Sciascia of The Painted Truffle (November 11, 2011), whose fabulous truffles, cordials, and macarons were going to be offered at a Junior League of Greater Princeton fundraiser. Although his confections command premium prices, he enjoys no dearth of takers: on my last visit it took me three tries to get close enough to the counter to wrangle a bag of dark chocolate bark.

The same price-to-quality ratio can be said for many of the market’s wares, be it the sushi- and sashimi-grade fish at the Metropolitan Seafood counter, the cold pressed Tunisian olive oil of Abdel Bensalem’s Mediterranean Delicacies, the jar of Meyer lemon-lavender marmalade at the Simple Living 101 table, or the pristine lamb and other meats of the aptly named Purely Farm. One stop I always make is to Chetties Mushrooms, not only for the now-plebeian portabellos, but also stunningly fresh and ever-changing exotics like the clump of blue-gray oysters, the size a football, that I saw there recently. Two weeks ago Chetties even had fresh black truffles.

Another of my must-stops is Mighty Quinn BBQ, for its deeply smoky, succulent, flavorful pork and beef, and all the fixins. A pulled pork slider for $5 makes for a great introduction.

Some vendors will be familiar to those of us who patronize seasonal farmers markets in the greater Princeton area. These include Jonathan and Nine White’s Bobolink Dairy & Bakehouse, known for its artisanal cheeses and breads and Titusville’s Gravity Hill Farm and WoodsEdge Wools Farm. At the Highland Gourmet table — Highland Gourmet has its own sprawling, excellent store just up the road — you will find Valley Shepherd cheeses, including the Nettlesome, my personal favorite. But most vendors hail from Bucks County and are not known entities around these parts. They are worth getting acquainted with. Brenda Slack of Milk House Farm Market, for example, offers cornmeal in several grinds and dries her own heirloom beans, such as Jacob’s cattle.

Not all vendors are there every week, but new ones pop up all the time. I came across two unexpected gems on my latest visit. First, I took a gamble on a pint of plain cow’s milk yogurt from Flint Hill Farm and Educational Center, located in Lehigh County. In the days that followed, I could be found surreptitiously downing spoonfuls day and night directly from the container, refrigerator door open. Not only is the yogurt thick, tangy, creamy, and with that incomparable fresh dairy flavor, but it has super-rich pale yellow skin on top, like “real” milk did in days of yore. The yogurt also comes in cherry vanilla. I’m trying that next time, along with one of Flint Hill’s small ovals of fresh goat cheese.

The other unexpected find was only in their third week at the market. The young couple behind Sweet Fusion offers buttery savory pies with rich, surprising fillings like creamy lime and chicken, and short rib in red wine-thyme sauce. That day they were also selling frozen mochi (a Japanese dessert — imagine a bite-sized scoop of ice cream wrapped in soft dough), one filled with toasted coconut lemongrass ice cream and the other with cherry passion fruit sorbet. My three companions and I almost came to blows over which was better, before settling on a draw. Sweet Fusion also sells its wares in season at the weekly market called Smorgasburg at the Brooklyn Flea (which the New York Times calls “one of the greatest urban experiences in New York,” located at 178 Lafayette Street), as does Mighty Quinn BBQ.

As good as the Stockton Market currently is, plans are underway to make it bigger and, it seems certain, even better. The building was purchased last July by husband and wife team Cheryl Olsten and Steve Grabowski. For 11 years, Olsten was the publisher and Grabowski the chief financial officer of New Jersey Life magazine (in its final years, called New Jersey Life & Health), which ceased publication last fall. The market’s manager, Dawn McBeth, told me that the couple snatched it up when they heard that the property was being seriously considered by a group of real estate capitalists who would not have kept it a market. Upgrades are being made to the electrical and heating systems and to the parking lot, McBeth says, and an attractive new facade and wooden sign out front are already in place.

One of the biggest changes is the installation of a cafe in the large space that had been the art gallery of the building’s previous owner. Work is already underway on a long wall of banquettes and a full-service coffee bar. The cafe will also sell baked goods and prepared foods and will be open seven days a week year round. McBeth estimates the cafe should be up and running by March. Other plans include building a demo kitchen in the rear of the market and bringing in restaurant chefs to conduct cooking lessons.

Among the current but ever-morphing list of participants are several more farms and vendors that sell pickles, premium coffees and teas, artisanal baked goods, ice cream, and even handmade Italian pasta and Mexican tamales. Those hawking non-food items include a basket maker and decorative woodworker, whose hefty cutting boards are exquisite.

Stockton Farm Market, is 19 Bridge Street, Stockton. Open year-round Friday, 1 to 7 pm (with limited vendors); Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information, directions and a complete list of vendors visit www.stocktonmarket.com.

by Pat Tanner