Monday, April 27, 2009

Time to Get Cheesy in Madison

Another springtime rite is here: the Dane County Farmers' Market, which overtakes Madison, Wisconsin's Capitol Square every Saturday from 6am to 2pm through early November.

It's the USA's largest producer-only market, which means the 150 vendors have personally grown or made the goods they're selling. Cheese and fresh vegetables are the most plentiful wares, but meats (bison and free-range emu, among others), flowers, maple syrup, and eggs also fill the stalls.

Keep your eyes peeled for one man in particular: Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy, who makes fantastic cheeses in his wind- and solar-powered cheese bunker, but in limited quantities. The farmers' market is your best chance to get your hands on his creations. If you miss him though, you can fill in the dairy gaps at Fromagination, just around the corner at 12 S Carroll St in Madison. It carries small-batch and hard-to-find local artisanal cheeses, as well as loads of information on wine and cheese (and beer and cheese) pairings.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Dark Lord Day

Are you prepared to meet the Dark Lord on April 25? You'll need a Golden Ticket to do so and to imbibe his black elixir.

We're talking, of course, about Three Floyd's Brewery's par-tee when they release their limited batch Dark Lord beer, a Russian imperial stout with 13% alcohol, a motor oil consistency, and hints of bourbon, chocolate, and black licorice.

Fans in the past have so overwhelmed the small Munster, Indiana brewery on the one day per year they offer Dark Lord, that Three Floyd's this year instituted its Willy Wonka policy. It put around 2000 Golden Tickets for sale on its website in March. Fan who got them are guaranteed to chance to buy a few Dark Lord bottles at Saturday's event. The tickets sold out in four hours.

Even without a Golden Ticket, you can still attend the festival, which features bands, barbecue, and plenty of other craft brews. The suds swirl from 11am to 11pm.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Wrigley's Knothole, Harry Caray's Bud

So it's gray, rainy, and practically snowing. But nothing says 'springtime!' like Opening Day at Wrigley Field.

Built in 1914, Wrigley – named after the chewing gum guy – is the second-oldest ballpark in the major leagues (after Boston's Fenway). Getting tickets is near impossible, but you can always watch the game via The Knothole, a garage-sized opening that let's you peek onto the playing field from Sheffield Ave.

One thing you should know before standing here and getting your hopes up: the team in blue pinstripes is suffering from the longest dry spell in US sports history. The hapless Cubbies haven't won a championship since 1908, a sad record unmatched in pro football, hockey or basketball.

Statistics over the decades show the Cubs have just a 46% chance of winning the game you're watching. Which is why you may want to head over to Harry Caray's, where you can at least sit in warmth while drinking away the pain. And if something feels familiar, almost game-like, while you're bellied up to the 60-foot-6-inch bar, well, that's the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Cardinal George's Crib

Poor Cardinal Francis George. He should be eating cake, celebrating his 12th anniversary as Chicago's Archbishop (Pope John Paul II appointed him on April 8, 1997). Instead, George is fending off bad press from the Notre Dame debacle, when he said President Obama should be banned from giving the university's commencement address due to his unholy views on abortion.

Ah well. George can always lay low in his mansion 'til things cool down. A sweet perk of being the 'Bish is living in the $15 million, Church-owned abode at 1555 N. State Pkwy. The house is famed for its chimneys. There are 19 of them, which makes Christmas-time stocking-hanging a real chore.

George considered selling his crib a few years back, saying it was more than a humble servant of God needed. But jeez, if he sold, how would he entertain? Everyone from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Pope John Paul has crashed here over the years. And they're not going to like moving down the road to the Comfort Inn.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Foodies Dine Underground, Farm-to-Fork

Underground dining clubs have burrowed into the Chicago scene, as they've done in New York and San Francisco. Here, rogue chefs cook high-end, locally grown chow, and serve it in funky, changing locations such as galleries, warehouses or even the chef's home.

Foodies are eating it up, since it costs less than a restaurant (multi-course meals run $50-80, and you can bring your own booze). It also has an "underground" feel, since chefs don't reveal when/where their events take place until the last minute. Three groups have sprung up - Clandestino (which is hosting an event tonight southwest of the Loop), Sunday Dinner, and X-Marx. The hungry go to the groups' websites, get on the mailing list, and grab a spot when they send out event invitations. Chefs typically serve 20 to 40 diners at communal-style tables.

A riff on this theme is "on-the-farm dining." Several groups now offer city slickers the chance to go where the chickens roam. Again, chefs emphasize local, sustainably harvested foods. They're served outdoors, with tables set up amid the fields. At least three groups do it, all within a few hours drive from Chicago: City Provisions, Prairie Fruits Farm, and Learn Great Foods (which also goes into southern Wisconsin).