The shelves of the Palate Gourmet Kitchen Store (W12102 Hwy. 35, thepalate.net, bottles of olive oil from $20) in Stockholm, Wis., are lined with the kind of specialty items only a true foodie would love (or know how to use): Asaro-brand orange-flavored olive oil, La Perruche cane sugar, Comptoir de Famille cheese knives, etc. "If we carry it here, then we've tried it, we've cooked with it, we've tasted it," says Nancy Fitzsimons, a former home-ec teacher who owns and runs the Palate with her daughter, Shana Finnegan. "Of course, you could buy all these things at a lot of other places. But some people want a little service and advice from someone who really knows the products—those are my people."
That a small, family-run shop like the Palate can survive here, in the Upper Mississippi River Valley just south of Minneapolis, is no small feat. Not because the Twin Cities are lacking for foodies, but because the area has a sweet tooth for big-name stores. The first shopping center in the country debuted in 1956 in sleepy Edina, a Minneapolis suburb, and the 520-store Mall of America opened its doors in nearby Bloomington in 1992. Today, the Mall alone attracts more than 40 million visitors a year. The population of Minnesota: 5.3 million.
But a funny thing happened in the shadow of all those superstores. An easy drive south of the Twin Cities, old-fashioned boutiques like the Palate are thriving. Of course, you have to get out of your car every so often to get to them. But what you lose in convenience by escaping the mall is more than made up for by what you see along the way: the rolling farmland and lost-in-time towns that converge upon the Mississippi River. The 140-mile-long corridor straddling the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin is especially beautiful, with towering limestone bluffs and deep, verdant valleys—sights unseen in the otherwise pancake-flat upper Midwest.
Lured by the promise of spectacular countryside and homespun charm, I set out from Minneapolis on Highway 52, past exurban outposts like Amish Furniture Store and Jake's Totally Exotic Dancers. Before long, the freeway gives way to cornfield-lined roads, and I pull into Red Wing, a treasure trove of late-19th- and early-20th-century architecture. A stroll in almost any direction will lead you past handsome examples of Victorian, Italianate, and Gothic structures, such as the 1876 Pratt-Taber Inn and the 1909 First United Methodist Church, both made from river-bluff limestone.
Red Wing's shopping options are equally varied. At Hallstrom's Florist & Greenhouses rows of potted petunias vie for space with canisters of black licorice and freezers full of Door County cherry ice cream, a local favorite (317 Bush St, hallstromsflowers.com, Door County cherry ice-cream cones from $2.25). The nearby Uffda Shop specializes in Scandinavian imports, such as aebleskiver pans (for making Danish apple pancakes) and textiles, including brightly colored dishcloths (202 Bush St, uffdashoponline.com, Scandinavian dishcloths from $26). There's also the original Red Wing Shoe Store, founded in 1905, which carries heavy-duty footwear that's sold around the world (315 Main St, redwingshoes.com, factory-tour admission free). They display what they promise is the world's largest boot, a comically outsize model—16 feet tall, 20 feet long, seven feet wide, and size 638.5-D, for the record—that's become something of a roadside attraction. Between May and October, you can also tour the Red Wing Shoe factory, slightly west of town. "It's not like a car plant, where you'll see a bunch of huge machines simply rolling out parts," explains Red Wing spokesman Peter Engel. "This is true craftsmanship. There are 239 steps in the process of making every single shoe, and a lot of the procedures and the machines are the exact same today as they were 100 years ago."
That preservationist spirit is even more evident in Old Frontenac, a former trading post on the river, a few miles south of Red Wing off of Highway 61. Old Frontenac was preserved almost by accident, after the railroads built in the mid-1800s bypassed it. Even today, the Civil War-era village is served by only one paved road; all the others are gravel. There's not a single street-light, stoplight, or chain store in sight. Instead, you'll find idyllic white clapboard churches and rambling Italianate-style homes, typically painted white with green shutters and offering knockout views of the river. This is the kind of postcard-worthy place that inspires real-estate lust.
You know you're in Cheesehead territory when you drive across the Wabasha-Nelson truss bridge and walk into the Nelson Cheese Factory (S237 Hwy. 35, Nelson, Wis., nelsoncheese.com, "traveler's chubs" from $3.50). It's a dairy lover's dream, selling "traveler's chubs" (half-pound chunks) of dozens of cheeses, both typical (pepper jack and Colby) and artisanal (including Amish Gorgonzola and Valdeon, a Spanish-style blue). From there, meandering Highway 35 snakes around limestone bluffs and leads to Pepin, home to a Laura Ingalls Wilder museum. The author was born near here, and the town now hosts the Laura Ingalls Wilder Days every September, a two-day festival with bonfires, fiddle concerts, and a Laura Ingalls Wilder trivia contest (306 Third St., lauradays.org). Open from May through October, The museum's artifacts include her needle-work, metal stocking stretchers, and school records. Pepin is also home to the area's most renowned restaurant, the 31-year-old Harbor View Café (314 First St., harborviewpepin.com, open mid-March through first Sunday before Thanksgiving, entrées from $14). In the summer months, you'll often find a line out the door for dishes such as Alaskan halibut in a black-butter caper sauce or braised pork in a seasonal-fruit glaze.
Six miles farther, in the town of Stockholm, I check into the Spring Street Inn, a charming but somewhat tattered 1879 cottage with a sunken butterfly-and-bird garden in the yard (N2037 Spring St., 651/528-9616, doubles from $100). The walls of the house are two feet thick and made entirely of stone, and except for the occasional whoosh of a Twin Cities-bound train on the tracks nearby, it's utterly silent.
The next morning, I'm tempted by Spring Street's complimentary breakfast, but I have bigger plans in mind, namely a visit to the Bogus Creek Café & Bakery, just down the street (N2049 Spring St, 715/442-5017, breakfast from $7). The restaurant serves breakfast all day on a sunny garden patio, and I'd heard good things about their Swedish pancakes with lingonberries and bacon. Ultimately, though, I give in to their signature dish, the "Bogus hash": grilled hash browns mixed with eggs, peppers, scallions, sausage, and cheese.
Set beneath picturesque Maiden Rock bluff, tiny Stockholm (population: 97 or 82, depending on which sign you read) has better shopping than a lot of towns 10 times its size. (Spring Street, for instance, has eight shops and galleries alone.) But what really sets the retail here apart is that many of Stockholm's boutiques go beyond selling wares. They serve double duty as Scandinavian cultural centers. The town was founded by Swedish immigrants some 160 years ago, and the Scandinavian influence is still prevalent.
Not far from the Palate Gourmet Kitchen Store, the Stockholm Pie Company sells a veritable smorgasbord of baked goods, from classic fruit-and-nut pies like apple pecan to savory options like spinach-and-mushroom quiche (N2030 Spring St., Stockholm, Wis., stockholmpiecompany.com, desserts from $2). Nearby, Ingebretsen's av Stockholm is chockablock with Scandinavian imports, such as Swedish wooden candleholders, hand-painted bright red with floral accents, and gray hand-knit mittens from the Arctic Circle (W12092 Hwy. 35, ingebretsens.com, hand-painted, wooden candleholders from $26).
The family-owned, third-generation shop also offers Scandinavian-themed classes on crafts (a recent series highlighted Swedish folk painting, or dalmalning) and cooking. "A lot of people in Stockholm grew up with Swedish recipes in their family," says Carstens Smith, the class coordinator. "But you know, Grandma doesn't always write down each and every step, so we help them fill in the blanks." The tutorial on baking kransekake, an intricately constructed iced almond cake, is particularly popular with locals, Smith says. "It's not the kind of thing you can just pick up in any bakery," she points out. Or-for that matter-in any of the 520 stores at the Mall of America. Shops like Ingebretsen's are worth the drive indeed.
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