Announcing 2nd Annual Local Hero Award Winners
By Wendy Allen | Illustrations By Bambi Edlund 0
As a “people’s choice” award, the winners were nominated and voted on by you, our readers, which makes this award all the more meaningful to the recipients. Thanks to you for recognizing the hard work these organizations and businesses have put into championing farm fresh, locally-produced food. Each of them fosters a sense of community in what they do. Join us in celebrating these very special local heroes.
Honoring the region in which they farm with their name, Driftless Organics is committed to preserving our special “Driftless” bio-region of Southwest Wisconsin through sustainable organic farming. Brothers Josh and Noah Engel started growing potatoes when they were pre-teens, evolving their business from “Rainbow Potatoes” into the 86-acre certified-organic enterprise it is today, located near Soldiers Grove, Wis. They took on business partner Mike Lind in 2006 after discovering his affinity for graphic design, marketing and sales. Since then, Driftless Organics has become a well-known name in the local area for their high-quality farm products.
They each have drifted toward their unique skills and passions while also working together to keep it all running smoothly—a quality tantamount to any successful partnership. Their organic sunflower oil (“the olive oil if the Midwest”) and other biodiversity and biofuel projects are the brainchild of Josh. Mike heads up the community supported agriculture (CSA) program plus design and marketing (along with his Big River Beef grass-fed beef business at his own farm). And Noah’s childhood love of tractors has evolved into an innate knack for the farm technology constantly running behind the scenes, from irrigation to washing and packing to, yes, tractoring.
After a fire destroyed their first restaurant, the industrious crew from Underground Food Collective (UFC) rebounded in killer fashion—no self-pity, no time off, no accepting hand-outs; all they requested from their loyal following was work to help themselves move forward.
Moving forward happened only a year later, with the opening of Forequarter in the Tenney-Lapham neighborhood of Madison. The restaurant is intentionally very small (about 35 seats) and is meant to cater to the community; however, its fame spread beyond the neighborhood in less than six months. Get there right at opening or risk waiting the rest of the evening. It’s a tight fit, but the mood is pleasantly boisterous and neighborly with a hint of UFC’s hipster style.
The UFC crew has a special passion for local meat, especially pork. They butcher and break down their own animals, stuff their own sausages, and cure their own salami using traditional techniques (they even offer workshops teaching most of these skills). These products end up on the tables of Forequarter and other area restaurants, crafted into dishes that honor the taste of place.
After the kitchen closes, stick around for farm-fresh mixology at the bar, where they focus on Collins, Aperitifs and Amaro, as well as other unique combinations when the bartender is feeling creative…which is most nights.
708 ¼ E. Johnson Street, Madison
This little shop packs more than cheese between its walls, hence the “perfect companions” part of Fromagination's tagline. There’s so much to look at upon crossing the threshold—jams, dipping oils, cured meats, cheese cutters, cutting boards, candied nuts, cheese tasting labels and plates—but it’s the cheese display case that irresistibly draws one’s eye.
Pile upon artful pile of giant rounds, small rounds, halfrounds, wedges; holey Swiss, beautiful blue veins, all shades of creamy yellows and whites; a scent of brie and perfectly-aged cheddar and fresh bread in the air. The selections focus on Wisconsin’s artisanal cheeses while also paying homage to fine offerings from around the world.
Grab a sammie for lunch; or even better, grab a friend, take a warm spring afternoon off work, and enjoy a wine and cheese platter on the sidewalk overlooking the Capitol.
You’ll have no trouble getting advice from the staff or owner Ken—they are all self-proclaimed cheese “evangelicals.” They teach how to taste, pair and care for cheese with contagious passion; they cause you to crave the story behind the cheese.
12 S. Carroll Street, Madison
Gail Ambrosius has some firm beliefs about what constitutes great chocolate—all the better for those who eat it! Chocolate should not be overly sweet, for one thing. “Real chocolate is strong, earthy, fruity, floral… a whole world that unfolds on your palate,” she writes on her website. Chocolate is mysterious and complex, and Gail plays up these qualities in every truffle recipe.
Her inspiration was a trip to France at 17, and after a couple decades taking the “safe” route through life, she finally decided to take the leap into her passion. She went back to school and back to France, returning home with nearly 50 pounds of chocolate. Over the years, she has traveled to cacao farms to observe their farming practices and believes in using quality chocolate without chemicals.
Gail and her ten employees make their chocolates by hand, and with every batch she understands a bit more about chocolate and its whims. Rather than blending the chocolate to make it taste a certain way, she instead crafts a recipe that plays up the unique flavors of where the chocolate came from—its special terroir. The next time you try a Gail Ambrosius single-origin chocolate, savor the experience; try to pick out the distinct flavors of land and climate and sense the passion and care that went into each dark piece of bliss.
Gail Ambrosius Chocolatier
2086 Atwood Avenue, Madison
REAP Food Group has long been a driver of local food education and change in the Southern Wisconsin region. They run the Southern Wisconsin Buy Fresh Buy Local program, which builds networks of producers and buyers to help bring more local foods to consumers, and a thriving Farm to School program that brings chefs, healthy snacks and educational programming into the classroom. They also publish the annual Southern Wisconsin Farm Fresh Atlas, a wonderful resource for finding local foods throughout the area.
They host two of the most unique food events in Madison—“Burgers and Brew” and “Pie Palooza.” Who can resist a summer afternoon of locally-sourced burgers paired with Wisconsin’s incredible local beers, or enjoying a crisp fall morning with pie for breakfast? Then there’s the annual educational Food for Thought Festival, a free event hosting food workshops, a “chef showdown,” kids’ activities, tastings and more.
No matter the type of fun being had, a single mission permeates everything REAP does: “Nourishing the links between farm and table”—a Tweet-length statement encompassing everything from shortening the distance from farm to table, supporting small family farmers and promoting sustainable farming practices; to preserving food diversity and addressing food security issues in our local communities.
This year's Local Hero Awards were sponsored by Organic Valley, a farmer-owned cooperative located in La Farge, Wis., which shares Edible Madison's values of supporting the local, organic food and farming movement in southern Wisconsin. Read more about Organic Valley's work here.