The farmers' markets and culinary shops of Madison are a wonderful resource, but if you're craving farm-grown or specialty foods this summer and don't want to factor in weather, may I suggest grabbing a cooler and heading down I-94 to the former parking lot now home to Milwaukee Public Market.
The market opened in October 2005 and, according to general manager Meg Rauschenberger, has worked through most of its growing pains. "We are doing quite well - especially since the last few months under new management," she says. "We have many areas that we are working on as far as improvements and enhancements, and have executed many of these already in the past three months." Even so, when I stopped by on a rainy Monday afternoon, the place wasn't exactly hopping.
The market has two floors, which segregate vendors on the 22,000-square-foot first floor from the seating and dining area above, where one can look out over the market. I personally would have preferred an eating area on the main floor, where I could be near the sensory action, but that's just me.
The market's 18 swanky vendors will have you converted into a foodie before you can sign up for a serious cooking class in Madame Kuony's Kitchen, also located in the market. The vendors mostly sell specialty items and niche products, though produce is available at El Rey Productos and Fields Best. On Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., through October, there also is an outdoor market on East St. Paul Avenue, with a much larger farm-fresh produce selection.
Let's begin the tour with Kehr's Candies, which has been in the biz for three generations and has its old-fashioned sweets down. Kehr's has Russian mint meltaways, old-country truffles and chocolate-smothered cherry cordials, to name a few. You can wash those down with the wares from Sheridan's Finest Wines & Generous Spirits. Claiming to sell wines you won't find anywhere else, Sheridan's also has weekly wine tastings.
Ceriello Fine Foods, a high-end gourmet importer with eight stores out East (including one in New York's Grand Central Station), offers gourmet goodies like vodka sauce, aged 10-year Modena balsamic vinegar, stuffed eggplant rolettes and an Italian deli showcase. Ceriello recently expanded with a full-service butcher shop that offers prime dry-aged steaks, all-natural, grain-fed pork and homemade Italian sausages.
And for Viking descendants, we have goodies from St. Paul's Fish Company, where there is a fine fish case, as well as an oyster bar and a grill counter featuring some dynamite sandwiches. Classic Southern po'boys, with fried catfish, oysters or shrimp, are served on toasted hoagie rolls topped with shredded lettuce, tomato and remoulade sauce. Or perhaps a grilled ahi tuna burger with ginger mustard sauce, or just a lowly blue crab cake?
St. Paul's is the only place where you can take a load off on the main floor. Otherwise it's upstairs to the mezzanine with your meal. Other ready-to-eat places include Sushi-A-Go-Go and Aladdin Tastes of the East, with treats like stuffed grape leaves and falafel.
Hoagie rolls for the po'boys are purchased from fellow market vendor Piacentines Artisan Breads. At Piacentines, daily selections vary, but quality doesn't. Depending upon when you're there, the offerings include old-world sourdough, stromboli, sauerkraut rye, blue cheese walnut, challah, roasted garlic and Asiago cheese foccacia and olive bread.
Over at C. Adams Bakery, owner Lisa Crum's display case tantalizes with treats like butter-toffee brownies, orchard-fresh streusel bars, white-chocolate toasted coconut cream pie, and cookies whose size defines generous.
Meanwhile, Taste of Wisconsin sells a multitude of products that even I didn't know were produced here, and the exceptional Spice House gives Penzey's a run for its money. The public market also boasts a florist - and the obligatory cheese and sausage shop. Checking out the size of the cheese wheels there is worth the trip alone, especially if you get a flat on the way down.
ou may have heard that here in Madison, a study is under way to assess the feasibility of a comparable public market. "I think a public market would be a tremendous asset to the community," says Marianne Morton, executive director of Common Wealth Development, one of the groups working on the project.
A Madison public market "would be a vibrant public space celebrating diversity, and an expansion of the regional food economy," she says. The market also "could generate significant economic development - more jobs." The feasibility study is about 80% complete.
How soon could a Madison market open? "We're figuring it will be two years of heavy-duty fund-raising," says Mark Olinger, city planning and development director, "with the idea of, maybe we start sometime in 2009, for occupancy sometime in 2010." A potential site, he says, is the Brayton parking lot on East Washington Avenue, between Butler and Hancock streets, "although we are looking at a number of sites."
That's three years, if we're lucky. So for now, find your way down to Milwaukee and make a day of it. Lots to smell, touch and taste, and don't forget that cooler.
Milwaukee Public Market
400 N. Water St., Milwaukee, 414-336-1111
10 am-7 pm Mon.-Fri., 8 am-5 pm Sat.-Sun.