Not long ago, a farmer explained to me that one of the important roles that animals play in agriculture is converting seasonal foods, like grains and hay, into year-round items, like meat, cheese, and eggs. It was a powerful argument not only for small-farm raised meat, but also for off-season shopping at farm markets and farm shops. This isn't as easy as it sounds. In the Garden State most people go to farm stands to buy corn and tomatoes, not lamb or cheese, and when those vegetables are gone the stands usually close and the farmers go away.
Luckily, a few stalwarts stay open and offer their meat, eggs and cheese. Easiest to find—it's a few minutes south of downtown Princeton—is Cherry Grove Farm, a lively operation with almost a hundred cows, 800 chickens, 75 lambs, and a small, on-the-farm shop that offers their output 12 months a year.
The man in charge at Cherry Grove is Kelly Harding. A lifelong farmer from western Maryland—with a mountaineer accent to prove it—he came to New Jersey eight years ago looking for an opportunity to make a difference as a farm manager. It was a smart move: Cherry Grove's owners wanted to take the land out of rental and turn it into a real showpiece for the community and Kelly was able to pull it off. Surrounded by sprawling suburbia, corporate headquarters, and at least one large university, he turned Cherry Grove into a classic grass to retail operation.
No tomatoes or bell peppers are grown here—instead, there's grass to feed the cattle, which are then either raised as grass-fed beef or milked to be turned into cheese. Chickens are free-range (inside a giant tent in the winter) and everything is certified organic.
So what's worth getting in the dead of winter? First and foremost is cheese. Cherry Grove is the youngest of New Jersey's three artisan cheese makers. They've been producing it for three years now. Currently, there are four varieties; Toma, Asiago, Gouda, and Brie, with a fifth—a blue cheese—coming soon. (Okay, not too soon—blue cheeses ripen slowly.) In my experience, Cherry Grove also offers some of the state's best eggs. All come from those free-range chickens out back in the big white tent and have rich, almost red, yolks.
Last but not least is meat. Cherry Grove is Princeton's local butcher with beef, pork, and lamb. In the freezer case, you'll find everything from porterhouse steaks to liver with a few bones thrown in for good measure. There are also some terrific sausages. As with the eggs and cheese, it's all produced right there and certified organic.
This all leaves me a bit dazed. Princeton—a town once known for its sad, bland food scene is blossoming into a sort of artisan Mecca. With some cheese, meat, and eggs from Cherry Grove, gelato from Bent Spoon, a pain au chocolat from The Little Chef, exotic and organic bulk items from Whole Earth Center ("Dispatch" in progress), and produce from Terhune Orchards, not only could a person live there, they could cook and eat there as well.
Cherry Grove Farm
3200 Lawrenceville Road, Princeton NJ 08540 (map) 609-219-0053 Mon. to Fri., 11 a.m. - 6 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.