It occurred to me recently that if suddenly every road and airstrip leading to Winona was shut down, we would still be eating pretty well here. Strange thought, I know, but stay with me. No, I wasn’t watching Doomsday Preppers, that bizarre show where paranoid people prepare for Apocalypse by building bunkers and canning potatoes (listen, do not send me letters if you love this show. It’s weird.) I was actually stuffing my face full of the most delicious grass-fed lamb you’ve ever had – raised on the hills right outside Winona. As I sat there with my eyes shut blissfully chewing, I realized that the food available here in this Mississippi River hamlet is perhaps the most under-appreciated attraction we have.
At the top of that list is Signatures Restaurant and The Grill – its newly spawned casual eatery in the bar area. The lamb I was drooling over was off of the new Signatures menu, and it was sourced from the O’Neil Family Farms just outside of town. And let me tell you this – I know lamb – my family raised sheep for decades, and I grew up eating it like other people eat beef. So it is with a certain amount of authority that I say this was completely fabulous and I promise you, I didn’t even have better lamb at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco – an impossibly swanky restaurant with a celebrity chef and everything. Seriously. If you put my two meals side-by-side, that guy doesn’t have a thing on Jeremy, Rico, and Joe back in the Signatures trenches. OK – I’ll stop fawning – in a minute. The lamb shank was accompanied by other deliciousness – port-poached pear, roasted vegetables, horseradish-havarti potatoes… mmmmmmm. This was sexy, delightful food, and anyone who thinks they need to drive to a bigger city to find gourmet fare is craaaazy.
But what is especially awesome to me about a meal at Signatures is that the chef can tell you where everything on the menu came from, and much of it comes from right here. That’s cool.
Even cooler – if you want to make the food for yourself, you just need to go to the Winona Farmers Market for a dazzling array of locally grown goodness, from vegetables to the O’Neil Farm’s incredible lamb. Oh yeah, and honey, local jams, herbs – you can feed yourself awfully well after a trip there, even in the winter. What’s that you say? A Farmers Market in the winter? Well yes, twice a month even, except it’s inside the Winona Mall for your shopping comfort. Check it out: www.winonafarmersmarket.com/
You can also find a whole lot of local products at Bluff Country Co-op – which has a mission to buy the “least traveled” products available. It’s a double-win: you get the freshest stuff out there because it came from 12 miles away instead of 2,500, and you help a local grower, which gives you good karma. And who doesn’t need a little more of that?
And you don’t even have to go shopping if you don’t want to – you can have someone just put fresh produce in a box for you to pick up. No, seriously. You can buy into Herbal Turtle Farms, and then every week for 20 weeks of the growing season the farmers will box up a collection of the freshest produce off the farm and bring it into town for you to pick up. Wow. Eating delicious local food couldn’t possibly require less effort than that – unless maybe they’ll bring the box to your house. And cook it for you. Just kidding – I don’t think they do that, but hey, you can ask. herbalturtlefarms.blogspot.com/
Oh yeah, and we’ve got a bison ranch on top of the bluffs too, and even local school kids are eating burgers from Rockie Hill Bison Farm. And apples from the area’s orchards. And vegetables from local farms. If buying local creates good karma, then the food service director for the public schools here is going to heaven for sure.
In town we’ve also got Bay State Milling grinding up local grains for flour products and mixes, as well as a whole bunch of home-grown restaurants that get some of their menu items from right here in our beautiful little corner of Southeastern Minnesota. So go ahead and shut off the roads – we’ve got fresh food down here to last us for a millennium, and the people who know to cook it. I’m just kidding – about the roads I mean. Please don’t shut them down. We have places we need to be, and we want people to come visit. And for those of you who do, come hungry for a taste of Winona – we’ll have it ready for you.