For many years, chefs who made foraging trips to bountiful farmers' markets represented the leading edge of the local food movement. Here in Madison, Odessa Piper, founder of L'Etoile, was emblematic of the quest by higher-end restaurants to find the freshest, tastiest and healthiest locally produced ingredients. I still have a happy alimentary memory of a delicate carpaccio of Wisconsin-raised buffalo she included some years ago as part of a savory hickory nut-studded napoleon.
But it's difficult to make regular trips to L'Etoile, Harvest, Lombardino's and other eateries committed to using local farm products in their cuisine. While they're great for special occasions, they're not quite drop-in-on-your-way-home-from-work kinds of places.
But budget-minded Badgers need not despair. Increasingly, a $7 cafe breakfast or a $25 pizza dinner with the kids after the game is apt to feature a range of local farm goods, all of which have been produced with the health of both the consumer and the earth in mind.
In large part, that's thanks to the work of the Madison-based REAP Food Group, which is dedicated to developing a market for sustainably produced local agricultural products. Through its participation in the national "Buy Fresh Buy Local" campaign, REAP has helped cultivate business relationships between local farmers and more than a dozen lower- and mid-priced eateries. Some goods come from organic farms, but that's not a requirement.
REAP's "Buy Fresh Buy Local" coordinator Rachel Armstrong says the initiative is so popular that farm-fresh options for area diners will keep expanding in every price range. "I haven't had to recruit," adds Armstrong, who works with area farms and restaurants full-time. "People are finding me."
Bitterly cold Wisconsin winters, of course, make it very difficult to keep fruits and vegetables fresh and local. When I went foraging this February for affordable meals that included local ingredients, no one served Wisconsin-grown salad greens or hothouse tomatoes fresh from hydroponic medium. But locally sourced proteins and dairy products were in abundant supply.
"You know we don't eat that many vegetables in Wisconsin anyway," laughs Armstrong. "If we were just limited to vegetables, we'd have a problem. Pork producers, egg producers, beef producers - they have products available year-round."
To their credit, some restaurants don't stop with dairy products and other familiar barnyard proteins. Even when the winter winds are howling, they'll dip into the trout pond, the root cellar and the honey pot for local ingredients. And I appreciated that variety after scanning menus that were heavy on local eggs, ham and cheese.
Still, Armstrong emphasizes that getting every dining spot to cram the stockroom and the walk-in with an array of local farm goods isn't the point of REAP's efforts. She notes that just by signing up with a farmer for regular deliveries of fresh eggs, a restaurant can begin providing customers with fresh food and help support the local farm economy in the process. "We'll work with restaurants wherever they're at," she explains. "We want them to find products that they really feel good about using."
The subterranean Greenbush Bar is the last Italian restaurant in an area that was once the hub of the city's Italian and Sicilian communities. Four years ago, owner Anna Alberici began searching out local farm products that would work well in Greenbush's casual Italian fare. And she's a strong supporter of REAP's mission. Indeed, as you step through the front door of the Italian Workingmen's Club (whose basement houses the restaurant), you're immediately greeted by a colorful "Buy Fresh Buy Local" sign.
The Greenbush's menu proudly announces that the pork, beef, chicken and eggs used in the restaurant's dishes are all locally sourced. Fresh and shredded mozzarella are also from the area, and Alberici transitions to local greens, eggplant and other vegetables when they're in season. Why take the time to deal with the logistics and at times extra expense of getting foodstuffs directly from local farmers?
Alberici says the answer is simple: "Personally, I like to eat like that. I like fresh, healthy food when I go out, and I like to support the community. So when I found that it was actually affordable for the restaurant to cook like that, we started to do it."
For some truly flavorful bird, try the Greenbush's rustic chicken and dumpling soup ($5.25), which reminds the taste buds just how much hormone-plumped chicken breasts have robbed the American palate. Meats from Pecatonica Valley Farm are a mainstay every month of the year, and Pecatonica's John Carr makes some mighty flavorful sausage links from Alberici's special recipe. They're used in both the Greenbush's ample sandwiches and pasta dishes.
Meanwhile, the bulk sausage that goes on the restaurant's crispy thin-crust pizzas also uses Pecatonica pork, but it's made in house and explodes with the flavor of aromatic fennel seeds. A pizza studded with the latter is certain to be devoured in a matter of minutes.
At times, some of the dessert choices scrawled on the Greenbush's menu board also get into the act. The last time I was there, a long wait necessitated by the throngs of Badger fans chowing down on pizza and pasta just before tip-off was all but forgotten after my first forkful of cheesecake made with some creamy Wisconsin mascarpone.
Monroe Street's Brasserie V is less than a year old, yet it already has the feel of an established neighborhood haunt. Judging from the crowds on the weekends, that has a lot to do with the array of Belgian beers on tap at the bar and a very approachable wine list. However, the food's a big draw, too, and much of it is made with local ingredients - on both the lunch and dinner menus.
Fountain Prairie Farm provides the aged Highland ground beef for the V's most spectacular sandwich, the 2/3-pound V Burger ($9), a monstrous comestible offered at both lunch and dinner that's piled high with crunchy fried onions and served with mayo between two slices of bread. The wait staff always notes that the primarily grass-fed Highland beef is best cooked a little rare, and they're right. The meat is so lean that it would lose its slightly nutty flavor if it were served well done.
Other items based on local ingredients include: a seasonal salad that in wintertime, at least, is anchored by root vegetables roasted in thyme and marjoram ($6/$10); grilled Wisconsin rainbow trout from Rushing Waters ($17) topped with hearty creamed leeks; a big helping of risotto made with seasonal vegetables ($15); and a very good Wisconsin apple poached in cinnamon, nutmeg, apple cider and champagne that's just sweet enough to remind you that your meal has reached its final act ($6). Local choices are also available for Brasserie V's attractively assembled cheese boards, including Pleasant Ridge Reserve and several cheeses from Hook's.
At first glance, the nine-month-old Crema Cafe doesn't look like a candidate for destination dining. It's tucked away in an unremarkable strip mall (although it is near Lake Monona, of which glimpses are possible).
But Crema is a real find for locavores in search of a fellow traveler. Proprietor Steve Buccholz spent a number of years behind the grill at Marigold Kitchen, and that downtown mainstay's attraction to fresh, interesting ingredients has definitely rubbed off.
Sugar River Valley yogurt is offered with fresh fruit, Gentle Breeze honey from Mount Horeb and walnuts ($3.75). Lange's ham brightens breakfast sandwiches starring New Century Farms' organic eggs ($4.50), and Farmer John's provolone fills out the veggie-laden Roman sandwich ($6.95). Buttermilk pancakes come with real maple syrup ($4.25). Once the growing season is in full swing, Buccholz also expects to buy the bulk of his veggies from area farms. And he's hoping that one day he can source all his milk products from a local farm-based micro-dairy.
Suffice it to say that the local flavors do make a difference. The cheese, pepper and zucchini-filled Roman sandwich is a winner, and the Ultimate Ham, a ham and Gruyere sandwich brought together with cranberry mustard, is just as tasty. And both are big enough so that moderate eaters are apt to pack half the sandwich home in a takeout box.
I didn't sample dessert at Crema. But the Queen Bee, a very filling cafe latte concoction topped with whipped cream and laced with Gentle Breeze Honey, will sweeten any day.
This is reasonably priced fare - 10 dollars will buy a lot of food here. "I don't try to be pretentious," Buccholz says. "For a while, food was all about organic, but I think it's almost more important to know where food is coming from and how minimally it's processed. Right now, I'm trying to have at least one local ingredient in every item."
Café Soleil, beneath the groundbreaking L'Etoile, on the Capitol Square, was also set in motion by Odessa Piper. The informal sandwich shop and coffee bar has locally sourced ingredients in nearly everything it sells. Some items, like the Jen Ehr Chicken Panini ($8.75) - a tempting mix of bird, bacon, chevre and tomato - even incorporate the names of the local purveyors in their names.
For a bit of summer sunshine between two slices of honey-oat bread, you can't go wrong with the Artesian Farm Trout Salad sandwich ($8.75), with Snug Haven arugula. The same goes for the elemental Willow Creek Ham and Swiss, made with Hook's cheese (it's a simple sandwich, but it's supernal, $9.25). The memorable Fountain Prairie Roast Beef sandwich (also with Hook's cheese, this time cheddar, $9.25) kicks a little, thanks to a generous smear of fresh horseradish dressing.
Café Soleil does pretty much everything right, and even when the ingredients aren't from Wisconsin, they're from sustainable sources. If you're craving good espresso drinks, superior soups, artful salads, or decadent baked goods (try the magnificent, surprisingly light chocolate-filled brioche if it's featured in the glass bakery case), this is the place.
Plus, a very wise person decided that folks out there in watch-your-waistline land really ought to have the option to purchase just half of any cold sandwich on the menu.
Again, it's no secret that Café Soleil embraces local, sustainably grown food. A big, colorful poster attached to the front counter proclaims the cafe's allegiance to that earth-conscious foodie philosophy.
But out-of-towners and fresh-food neophytes shouldn't worry about getting a dose of dogmatism with their country ham; Café Soleil is waging a gentle revolution. Take one bite of the cafe's fare, and you're likely to join it.