Saturday, September 13, 2008

New at the Market

Remind me, please, what city I live in! At the farmers market today, I bought cheese, butter, eggs, marmalade, a tall brioche and little spinach quiche, beans, heirloom tomatoes, nectarines, pluots and cookies.

Is this really San Diego? The San Diego I've lived in for close to 20 years? Well, it is now. Far from being depressed after visiting the astounding Ferry Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco, I'm feeling energized about what's happening in San Diego when it comes to food.

I went back to the Little Italy Mercato this morning, mostly because its manager, Catt Fields White, regularly sends beautiful, informative email newsletters about all the latest additions she's making to the market. She, too, looks to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market for inspiration, hoping, she told me this morning, to build something similar in Little Italy. The market has only been open since June and she's at a fast pace making that happen. I can only hope that other market managers follow her lead and do a little more to promote their markets, help their vendors with more traffic and build our 30 markets into strong, indispensable community presences.

So, the items I bought and the vendors I spoke with in Little Italy this morning represent a larger picture of possibilities for San Diego. Some of these vendors have started in Little Italy but are also adding other markets to their rotation. And, Catt has some new folks coming in shortly, including the folks at Sea Rocket Bistro. Yes, they'll be grilling their marvelous sardines at the Mercato for you to munch on while you shop.

Let's start with the cheese. We don't have any local cheesemakers I'm aware of, but Spring Hill Jersey Cheese from the Petaluma area in Sonoma County is now selling at the Little Italy Mercato. (They're also found at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.) San Diegan Rachel Peter, niece of owner Larry Peter, is running the operation down here. She's just started selling at the Coronado farmers market and you'll find her and her cheeses and butter (Butter!) at the Hillcrest farmers market as of Oct. 5. The plan is also to sell the cheese at The Ocean Beach People's Food Store.

Spring Hill has a long tradition in Petaluma. Peter has been running the dairy for more than 20 years. He has 400 head of Jersey cows whose milk produces higher butter fat than the familiar, more prolific Holsteins. The cows are pasture grazed six months of the year and the other six months they eat a forage mixture harvested from what Peter plants. The resulting cheese is certified organic.

And, they don't just sell cow's milk cheese. They have a very interesting collection of organic goat cheeses made from milk that comes from goats owned by the nextdoor neighbors. The cheeses include white cheddar, sage cheddar, garlic cheddar, feta, peppercorn dry Jack, brie, Teleme and dry Jack. The list of cows milk cheeses is long, but includes a variety of cheddars and Jacks, feta, dry Jack and Teleme. They have fresh curds, quark (a soft, unaged, cream cheese) and, of course, the butter.

Rachel has a lot of samples to try, which I dug into. Ultimately I bought the goat Teleme, which is creamy with that distinctive goat flavor, perfect with sliced heirloom tomatoes and fresh basil; the garlic cheddar (give me garlic anytime; this combination really works) and a stick of fresh unsalted butter. When I got home, I enjoyed the butter with an unusual tall brioche studded with golden raisins that I bought from chef Michel Morlas at Patisserie du Soleil (and June Taylor's stunning Meyer Lemon marmalade).

Well, let's talk about Patisserie du Soleil. This European-style bakery has been in operation since 1993 and makes desserts for a number of restaurants and resorts in San Diego from home base on Sports Arena in Pt. Loma. The selection is broad and satisfying. I tried a sample of Morlas's flourless chocolate cake, to which he adds no additional sugar beyond what is already in the chocolate. The result is a light, delicate and just-sweet-enough cake that would be perfect with a cappuccino. He's got bread pudding made with his brioche, a tiramisu terrine and two styles of spinach quiche -- an individual one in a very flaky crust that I bought and loved and a tall, creamier crustless quiche sold by the slice. It's a pretty large display you have to see.

I met up with Dave Heafner of Da-Le Ranch. I had mentioned earlier that he would be at the market with his meat. Today, he was grilling pork and chicken breasts to give out as samples. Soon, he'll also be bringing meat from NTM Livestock (near Lake Elsinore), as well as lamb and rabbit. You can buy the fresh, organic meat by the individual cut or by meat package that could include ground beef, pork sausage, lamb sausage, chicken, pork cuts, lamb cuts, beef cuts and smoked ham bacon. The packages come in 25- or 50-pound weights. I didn't buy any today but what Heafner was grilling was very tasty.

As long as I was at the market, I stopped by one of my favorite vendors, Schaner Farms. Once again, I bought some gorgeous heirloom tomatoes and the lovely chicken eggs.

This time, I also bought a jar of tangelo marmalade made by Adina Rimmon in Los Angeles. Rimmon sells Schaner's wares at the Santa Monica farmers market and uses the fruit to make a variety of marmalades, such as pomagrante, 3 citrus (grapefruit, orange and lemon), blood orange and the tangelo I bought. Since I'm doing a piece for the U-T on preserves this was, of course, research ;)

Finally, I stopped by a booth operated by Chi Chocolat and The Cookie Chew. Chi, of course, has a shop nearby, and had a number of delightful sweets on hand. But, I ended up being more interested in accountant turned baker Liz Chou's cookies. She has cookies she stuffs with decadent fillings that she calls truffles -- some propped on sticks like lollipops, others in little cellophane bags.

I tried the peanut butter and it was a luscious, creamy experience in the mouth. I can't wait to try the Chocolate Toffee Crunch and the Orange Chocolate Coconut.

I also bought a quarter-ounce bag of cookie cubes, little squares at most an inch but most smaller in flavors like classic chocolate chip, oatmeal peanut butter chip, Cosmo (orange, cranberry, white chocolate oatmeal), white and dark chocolate raspberry martini (chocolate raspberry cookie with white chocolate) and White Russian (Kahlua cookie with white chocolate). See a theme here? I particularly enjoyed the Cosmo with its mix of textures and flavors. It's a nice little treat you can almost guiltlessly pop in the mouth.

As Catt and others add more vendors and, especially, more unique vendors to their markets I'll keep you posted.

The Little Italy Mercato is on Date St. between Kettner Blvd. and Union St. It's open on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

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  1. Hey, I saw your post on Lebovitz's site and glad I stopped by. I just moved to San Diego from Chico, CA, and I cannot believe what great farmers markets are around here. You can find everything wonderful and delicious at many of the farmers markets. I can't wait to check out Little Italy Mercato. Thanks.

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