The vernal equinox arrived at Bide-A-Wee in the midst of a snowstorm a couple weeks back, and we took our minds off the not-so-springlike weather with a little gastro-tourism jaunt around the magical kingdom of Chibardun (that's the local shorthand for Chippewa, Barron, and Dunn counties, Wisconsin). We wanted to celebrate spring, even if spring was making that difficult. I was thinking lamb, I was thinking green and wild, maybe watercress.
We had in our hands the best guide you could have to finding the best local food in our part of the state, the Farm Fresh Atlas of western Wisconsin. This modest little directory is sort of the grown-up, local food fanatic's equivalent of the Sears "Wishbook" catalog. It lists orchards, cheese shops and dairies, maple syrup producers, pumpkin farms, berry farms, markets, honey makers, sources for beef, pork, poultry, bison, lamb, goat, ostrich, all manner of meat. Local organic farms, a coffee roaster; baked goods, ice cream, jams and jellies. You could spend weeks happily, hungrily wandering the hills and valleys of this beautiful part of the state visiting one local producer after another.
I remember when my sister-in-law Susan Beth, who grew up on the East Coast and now resides in Hollywoodland, came to Iowa (that's where Mary's family is from) for the first time. This being America's rural heartland, she came with idyllic visions of lush green gardens overflowing with all the bounteous variety of fruits and vegetables that nature can bestow, and tables abundant with garden-fresh delights, misty, sun-dappled, sweet and crunchy. So she was unprepared for mile after mile of corn and soybeans, and tables abundant with...Jell-O salads.
Well, Susan Beth, when you come to visit in the summer, we're going to take you around Bide-A-Wee-land, and show you another side of the rural Midwest. (On the brighter side of Iowa, we've just come back from a visit to Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, and that area rates magical kingdom status, too; report to follow.) Once things green up and get growing I'll set out a gastro-tourism loop of our favorite farms, shops, and restaurants in the area.
On our equinox outing North Star Bison , near Rice Lake, was our first stop. Actually, as we arrived at the farm in the midst of a heavy snow squall that had quickly covered the road, we did a slide-by before the stop--I stepped on the brakes, the car kept going. Had to creep down the highway to the next intersection, make a U and go back. Once we had arrived safely we found ourselves in carnivore heaven, and in the welcoming company of Mary Graese. In addition to the naturally-raised, grassfed bison produced at the farm, the shop at Northstar sells local beef, lamb, goat, elk, and ostrich. We chatted with Mary about meat, local foods, local markets, and what-have-you, long enough for the snow to stop and mostly melt. We headed back out onto the highway with a nice supply of bison, lamb, and goat, and visions of grilled chops and braised shortribs dancing in our heads.
The weather wasn't looking sympathetic for a speculative forage for watercress. Farm Fresh Atlas to the rescue. We'd be going right past DragSmith Farm . Mary called and talked to Gail Smith, who runs DragSmith with her husband Maurice (the "Drag" part is a shortened form of Gail's maiden name). She could sell us some good, green stuff. She said meet us at the greenhouse, and we'd go together to their house to do the deal.
I'd been aware of DragSmith for some time, and I had tasted their products at restaurants. You probably have, too, if you've dined at any of the locally-oriented restaurants around here--Craftsman, Corner Table, Lucia's, Heartland, the Creamery, etc. They sell their tiny, delectable "Mississippi Greens" mix, and other things, to all those places. Mississippi Greens are also available at co-ops here in town.
(DragSmith has a CSA, too; you can get a brochure by calling 715-537-3307, or emailing Gail and Maurice at firstname.lastname@example.org .)
We found the DragSmith farm, and from a gray, chill Barron County afternoon walked in to a lush, warm, humid little paradise for eyes starved for green.
Since I'd been served DragSmith produce at some pretty high-toned places, I think I expected that the folks who grew it might come off a little high-brow, as well. I was quickly disabused of that preconception when, minutes after we met her, Gail pretended to be grazing on flats of pea sprouts for a picture.
The grazing pose was her idea, not mine, I should add. After tasting a bite of those intensely pea-flavored greens, we were tempted to do the same, without the pretend part.
They even had artichokes growing in a corner of one of the greenhouses, an amazing thing to see . A chef had asked for them, so they were giving it a try.
These plants had been growing for a couple of years, and hadn't produced a commercially viable crop, but they were making some handsome artichokes.
We left the warm, green surround of the DragSmith greenhouses reluctantly, and followed Gail to their house on the banks of the Yellow River. In their root cellar we had Gail fill a bag with Mississippi Greens for us, and we also were able to stock up on Antigo, WI potatoes--russets, reds, and fingerlings--local shallots, and a few other roots to see us through till spring.
And we met the resident llama, Tahoe, if I recall correctly. He'd gotten out of his pen and gone for a jaunt in the brush down along the river, and had found a prodigious patch of burdock, by the looks of it. His shaggy coat was absolutely thick with burrs. He didn't seem to mind; it looked like he'd had a grand old time.
I am a little nervous around large ruminants, I have to admit. Tahoe was a good sort, for a llama, though.
The greens saw us through a week of happy salads; we served slices of grilled bison sirloin--superb meat--in a maple-shallot glaze over a bed of greens. The potatoes have been fantastic, and the other roots have us set up until the market opens again. The lamb and goat we bought at Northstar were also excellent.
The food is great; we're extremely glad to have these kinds of local products at our disposal, and aware of how fortunate we are in that. But even more important, just about every time we walk outside Bide-A-Wee's door, we encounter wonderful people doing fascinating things. They're doing what they want, and doing it on purpose, and keeping their rural communities vital in the process.
We get to help in that, and all we have to do is eat.
Quick, where's my fork?
Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw