The Food Lover's Guide to Minnesota
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Best food in the country?
I’ve suspected for a while that Minnesota was busy forging a unique and uniquely excellent food culture. But after spending the last few months searching out the best locally produced edibles in the state, I’m completely convinced we’ve got close to the best food in America. We have some of the best cheeses in the world (like the Dunbarton Blue), some of the best beers in the world (like the Surly Smoke), and some of the best meats in the world (like the hickory-smoked slab bacon from Corner Table), all of which take advantage of our beautiful natural environment as well as our rich cultural heritage. The cornucopia presented on the ensuing pages is meant as evidence to prove my point: We live in the tastiest place in the country, if you only know where to shop. Take a look. But first, a note on my methodology: Most items come from Minnesota, but I couldn’t resist including a few from border states (everything came from within 300 miles of Minneapolis–St. Paul, however). Also, I omitted produce. If you have a methodology for figuring out the best sweet-corn farm within 300 miles, I’m all ears. What’s more, I figured if you can’t find sweet corn in July in Minnesota, well, no magazine article can help you. Now, caveats aside, turn the page—to eat local, and live gloriously.
Eat Local (Dairy, Eggs & Grains)
Milk is milk, right? Wrong.
Taste your way through the nearest dairy case and you’ll find as much difference as if you were sampling vintages of wines. Consider these milk products: For the apex of pure and plain dairy, try CEDAR SUMMIT WHOLE MILK. It’s meadow-scented, fresh as morning dew, and one of the top products in the state—buttercup ambrosia. But KALONA CHOCOLATE MILK is something completely different. Not gummy, not cocoa-ish, it’s like a chocolate milkshake, but more luminous—a chocolate milk for chocolate connoisseurs. Remember the cult yogurt Cultural Revolution? It hasn’t vanished. The Iowa dairy Kalona simply re-branded it to bring the product into harmony with other offerings. KALONA SUPER NATURAL YOGURT, with its thick cream top and pure tang, will get your morning started right, but the KALONA SUPER NATURAL SOUR CREAM will transport you to another realm of food reality. If it’s not the best sour cream in the country, I’ll eat my hat—with a dollop of sour cream, of course. Meanwhile, the local coffee elite are clamoring for AUTUMNWOOD MILK. Why? Because it’s homogenized and has natural biscuity and wheaty notes, which make it perfect for killer lattés. But the cream of the cream? It’s CEDAR SUMMIT CREAM, so complex it has umami meatiness. Use it to top blueberries, or add mustard and salt for an instant pork pan sauce.
Buy it: Cedar Summit Farm—many grocery stores, including Lunds and Byerly’s, Kowalski’s; Kalona—some co-ops and Whole Foods; Autumnwood Milk—some co-ops and Festival Foods. For store and producer details, see our Food Resource Guide.
Eggs and butter can be so much more than eggs and butter.
They can be as different as a dozen shades of white on an artist’s palette, hues that allow you to paint majestic snow or quiet dawn. Here, the best eggs and butter for your palate: JOHNSON QUAIL EGGS are adorable, produced in Mankato, and scrumptious served poached on toast points. AURACANA BLUE CHICKEN EGGS have naturally blue shells and deep orange yolks, and garner oohs and ahs simply served coddled. LTD DUCK EGGS from Osceola, Wisconsin, are much richer than chicken eggs, and make cakes and cookies better than you’d believe. HARMONY ORGANICS chicken eggs get their expansive flavor from the birds’ life in vast green pastures. Like our eggs, local butters reveal profound differences. HOPE UNSALTED makes cookies and bars so good they practically sing, but NORDIC CREAMERY BUTTER is so concentrated and savory it tastes not like a butter but like a stand-alone appetizer. ROCHDALE FARMS HAND-ROLLED BUTTER is a table butter fit for a five-star restaurant.
Buy it: Johnson quail eggs—Valley Natural Foods and other Co-ops; Auracana blue eggs—Heartland; LTD duck eggs—Seward Co-op and other co-ops; Harmony Organics—The Wedge and other co-ops; Hope Unsalted—Lunds and Byerly’s; Nordic Creamery Butter— East-Side Co-op; Rochdale Farms Butter—Linden Hills co-op. For store and producer details, see our Food Resource Guide.
Milling and baking should be out strong suit, but we lost our way for a few decades, settling for generic grain-based goodies.
No more! Check out these delectables: The PATISSERIE 46 MICHE, a long-fermented, part-whole-wheat bread made from locally milled flour, is so intense and meaty it can hold its own with any bread in the world. COUNTRY CHOICE ORGANICS DUPLEX SANDWICH CREMES hail from Eden Prairie, and they fit the recipe for new-wave food: no trans fats, no pesticides, lunch-box perfect. Nutty POTTER’S CRACKERS, from Madison, Wisconsin, are critical for enjoying local cheeses, while the NEW FRENCH BAKERY’S SESAME SEMOLINA LOAF may be the greatest luxury available in local big-box grocery stores. WHOLE GRAIN MILLING COMPANY’S CORN CHIPS made in the southwestern Minnesota town of Welcome are miraculous. Made from high-lysine non-GMO corn (choose yellow or blue), they’ve got complete proteins and are shatteringly crisp and crunchy. BITTERSWEET FARM RUBY RED POPCORN tastes better than regular popcorn, sweeter and rounder, while NATIVE HARVEST WILD RICE is probably the best wild rice on earth—nutty, smoky, slightly cedar fragranced. All proceeds benefit the White Earth Land Recovery Project in Callaway.
ST. PAUL BAGELRY EVERYTHING BAGELS strike the perfect balance of sweet and chewy. Almond-rich, RUSTICA'S BOSTOCK are made from the landmark bakery’s astonishingly good brioche. BIRCHWOOD GRANOLA is light as a feather and as tasty as one of the Minneapolis cafe’s pies. SALTY TART CROISSANTS are airy and scrumptious, while RUSTICA’S BITTERSWEET CHOCOLATE and GINGER COOKIES are so vivid with chocolate (or ginger) that eating one is like taking a dip in a chocolate (or ginger) bath. SURDYK’S PRETZELS are chewy and perfect with one of the microbrews sold by the store, and SUN STREET’S BAGUETTE is the talk of the town, milky and airy inside, perfectly crisp outside.
Buy it: Patisserie 46—Patisserie 46; Country Choice—many local stores, including Lakewinds Co-op; Potter’s Crackers—many local stores, including Valley Natural Foods; New French Bakery—many local stores, including Rainbow Foods; Whole Grain Milling Chips—many local stores, including The Wedge Co-op; Bittersweet Farm Popcorn—Golden Fig; Native Harvest Wild Rice—many local stores, including Linden Hills Co-op; St. Paul Bagelry—many local stores, including Whole Foods; Rustica—Rustica; Birchwood Granola—many local stores, including The Wedge Co-op; Salty Tart—Salty Tart; Surdyk’s—Surdyk’s; Sun Street Baguettes—Sun Street Bakery. For store and producer details, see our Food Resource Guide.
Eat Local (Soft & Aged Cheese)
When people think soft cheese, they think France and Spain, not Minnesota and Wisconsin.
But people are woefully misinformed. The soft cheeses available locally have quietly gone from being unremarkable to truly world class. Don’t believe it? Taste for yourself with a bite of Star Thrower tomme or Crave Bros. Petit Freres—cheese that can stand up to anything made on the other side of the Atlantic. If you don’t agree, you’re not eating with your taste buds. There are also some remarkably affordable local soft cheeses. Buy a stack of Montchevre cheeses and become an amateur affineur. You know, an affineur? A cheese-ager? In some parts of the world, it’s a job. Don’t laugh till you try it! And please do try these soft cheeses: Belmont, Wisconsin is the source of MONTCHEVRE CHEESE LA CHEVRIOTTE, available in both log and rounds. It’s made from goat’s milk that’s tangy and lively. For Camembert-style cheese that’s oh-so good, the ALEMAR CHEESE COMPANY’S BENT RIVER CAMEMBERT, made with Mankato’s cow’s milk, is mushroomy and deep, the pasture-raised milk adding a complexity that unspools beautifully over time. The orange rind of CRAVE BROS. PETIT FRERES is funky and tart, contrasting beautifully with its wild-tasting silky center. Age it long enough and you’ve made something very much like a French Epoisses. STAR THROWER’s raw sheep’s milk Camembert-style cheese tastes Alpine fresh, though the grassy meadows that produce this milk are due west of Eden Prairie. As it matures, the cheese takes on beautiful sherry and pecan notes. BUCHERON, also from Montchevre Cheese, tastes like a tangy chevre within, and Brie-like and creamy toward the edges. It’s a fantastic centerpiece for a party cheese board, not least because your guests will never believe it’s not French.
Buy it: Montchevre cheeses—many local grocery store and cheese shops, including Lake Wine and Spirits; Alemar Cheese—many co-ops, including Mississippi Market; Crave Bros. Petit Freres—Grassroots Gourmet; Star Thrower Cheese—some cheese shops, including France 44. For store and producer details, see our Food Resource Guide.
What are the extremes of local cheese?
The strength of the local-cheese scene is defined by its outliers. Anyone can make commodity cheese, but it takes a cheese connoisseur to invest the time, energy, and money to make them very old or as fresh as milk. Our local extremes, from left, are these: American cheeses don’t get any more profound than LOVE TREE FARMS’ cave-aged cheeses. The nutty and wizened GABRIELSON LAKE has notes of flint, caramel, and dulce de leche, and the ironically named SWEET YOUNG THANG is a fierce, goaty flight of wild and grassy flavors. On the opposite end of the spectrum is CRAVE BROS. MASCARPONE, so sweet, creamy, and light that it makes imported Italian mascarpone taste dim and dusty. CRAVE BROS. FRESH MOZZARELLA and KOWALSKI’S FRESH MOZZARELLA prove that domestic mozzarella can be as dewy and lively as any, while DONNAY CHEVRE is the local goat’s milk cheese to beat, meadow-sweet and firefly light.
Buy it: Love Tree Farms Cheese—St. Paul farmer’s market and Heartland; Crave Bros. Mascarpone and Mozzarella—several local co-ops, including Lake Winds; Kowalski’s Mozzarella—Kowalski’s; Donnay Chevre—at several local co-ops, including the Wedge. For store and producer details, see our Food Resource Guide.