Friday, July 20, 2018
Dining

Quest for the perfect pickle spans Tampa Bay's markets

On a recent Saturday, I woke up and went to the kitchen to check on the progress of my homemade sauerkraut and then headed to the St. Petersburg Saturday Morning Market to grab some pickles from Pickle King. Then, I went to Pinellas Park's Cajun Cafe on the Bayou for a tasting of sour beers — the pickles of the beer world, featuring tart, funky and sometimes even vinegar-like notes.

I'm a bit of a fermented and pickled-food enthusiast. Sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, pickled vegetables, even natto — if it's fermented, pickled, or otherwise a little bit ripe, there's a good chance I've developed a taste for it. But when it comes to pickles, there's one product that nearly everyone can agree on, and that's pickled cucumbers. Whether it's deli-style pickles from the jar, or traditional, barrel-cured pickles at the local market, I love them all, so I set out to find some of the best pickles the bay area has to offer.

Pickles usually are associated with delis, to the point that many feature pickles in the name or business's logo. Does the Lucky Dill Deli in Palm Harbor serve pickles? Even if the logo didn't include a cartoon pickle in place of the letter I, you'd still know the answer. Pickles Plus in Clearwater is another popular deli, and they serve Boar's Head pickles, some of the best on the market.

While chatting pickles with a friend, he mentioned that Jimmy John's has a solid rep in the pickle department, so I took his tip and paid my local Jimmy John's a visit. I received no odd looks for my order of a lone pickle; I was even asked how I'd like it cut. The pickle itself was a massive item, almost a meal in itself. Good texture, crisp, and delicious. Jimmy John's doesn't make their pickles in house, but they're produced exclusively for the company and aren't available elsewhere. For a buck and change, along with the convenience factor, these pickles are a bargain.

Still, I needed a good, homemade pickle. Flea markets and farmer's markets often feature a quality pickle-maker, so I set my sights on Thonotosassa's Big Top Flea Market, where a large, plastic pickle above booth B318 served as a beacon for the market's purveyor of barrel-cured pickles.

The two gentlemen at the booth offered me samples of the two pickles offered — garlic and spicy. For $4, I walked with a bag generously-filled with tasty, garlic dill spears, but I was also impressed with the hot pickles, which left a pleasant, lingering burn for a solid five minutes after eating a sample. "They're good for sandwiches," the man said, and I'll bet he's right.

I went home and did some more research, eventually discovering Grandma Eleanor's Pickles, a vendor that sells pickles at various markets four days a week: Tuesdays at the Gulfport Tuesday Fresh Market, Wednesdays at the Downtown Clearwater Farmer's Market, Thursdays at the Safety Harbor Farmer's Market and Sundays at the Wagon Wheel Flea Market in Pinellas Park.

I visited the Wagon Wheel and met Brian and Jennifer Cramer, the husband and wife team behind Grandma Eleanor's. Brian Cramer told me that their original garlic-dill chips are a third-generation recipe from Germany, passed down to Jennifer by her grandmother. These are available by the jar, along with several others, including the Ditty Mix, featuring mixed veggies like cauliflower and carrots marinated in the same brine used for the garlic pickles; as well as Mern on Fire, spicy chips that get a solid kick from fresh habanero peppers added to the brine. These had a unique flavor that was unlike other spicy pickles I've had. My pick: the habanero version of the Sister Slappers sandwich slices.

While every place I visited had an excellent pickle to share, I wanted to try something new. Garlic dills and New York-style deli pickles are classics, but a little variety is always fun. Enter Pickle King, the pickle vendor at St. Pete's Saturday Morning Market (where, incidentally, you can also buy an excellent pickled Italian olive salad from Jay's Marketplace). With a sign pronouncing if your pickle doesn't crunch, it's broken, I knew that Pickle King was exactly what I was searching for.

This stand had it all: kosher dills, relish, hot pickles and even pickled tomatoes. There was a choice of three different big pickles, which — offering an alternative to the usual N.Y. style — included an excellent Chicago-style pickle. But for $5, I couldn't resist the small pickle sampler, which featured a whopping 10 different flavored pickles, ranging from a seriously spicy hot variety to a classic half-sour to my favorite — a horseradish pickle.

Now I have a fridge full of pickles, from restaurants and vendors across the bay area. One of the best features of pickles is their long shelf life, but I think I'll be enjoying these long before I have a chance to test that longevity.

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