The Hippest Little Culinary Hub on the Canadian Prairie

By Liza Weisstuch
September 5, 2017
Liza Weisstuch
From homemade pierogies to farm-to-glass gin, bison everything and berries galore, Saskatoon should be every foodie's next destination.

Louise Black loves cheese. Like, really, really loves cheese. She talks about it with the mastery of an academic giving a dissertation, and also with the enthusiasm of a parent describing her kid's first homerun. As general manager of Bulk Cheese Warehouse, she oversees the daily bustle at the shop near the South Saskatchewan River. Despite the store's name, it's actually a modest size, and every square inch of every shelf in every case is occupied by cheese. For the most part, they're organized by country--French, Italian, Danish, English. I cannot show you what it looks like, though. There's a strict no-photo policy. Louise deems the store a "diamond in the rough" and she likes to keep it that way. (She's not kidding. Search for photos online. You'll find two images of the shop's interior. Clearly shot on the sly.)

Sampling is encouraged here. Ask for anything, she's happy to cut you a piece. She wants you to love cheese as much as she does. When I visited the store on a sunny July morning, she started waxing poetic to me about Chateau de Bourgogne, a triple cream cheese from Burgundy, France, and was nearly offended when I told her I've never had it. She immediately went behind the counter, spread a dollop on a cracker, and pushed it towards me. "It's triple cream heaven!” she exclaimed. "It’s just butter. When God created this, man, oh, man, step back!” 

Louise’s passion is merely a small sampling of the excitement that courses through this small yet vibrant city, an urban enclave surrounded by prairies and wheat fields smack in the middle of Canada. It’s a city with culinary traditions that can be traced back thousands of years to when the native people lived off the land straight up to today, as entrepreneurial types showcase their creativity at restaurants, cafes, distilleries, shops, markets, and farms.

Saskatoon-River.JPG?mtime=20170905005357#asset:97558The South Saskatchewan River cuts through the city, a culinary oasis in the middle of the Canadian prairie.

Those ancient traditions are on display at Wanuskewin Heritage Park, a sprawling, majestic site with a vast crater used millennia ago for bison jumping. Native people occupied the land up to 6000 years ago (that’s about 3000 years before the Egyptians built the pyramids, by the way) and today it’s known as Canada’s longest-running archaeological dig. It’s a cultural center today where you can camp out in teepees, roam the museum-meets-art-gallery space, or try smoked bison. When I visited on a sunny day in July, I watched a descendant of the native people effortlessly slice and smoke the meat in a minimalist smoker pit the way her father taught her. When I asked whether she ever uses any seasoning, she looked at me suspiciously and retorted “You don’t disrespect the meat that way!” I tried a piece that had been over the fire for three hours. Then I understood her reverence.


Wanuskewin Heritage Park staff demonstrates ancient methods of cutting and smoking bison meat.

She also told me about Bannock, an ancient food made from Indian bread root, which I sampled with a lunch of bison burger and Three Sisters soup, another customary food made with corn, squash, beans, and a medley of vegetables. Dry and crumbly, it was utilitarian, to be diplomatic. It's easy to understand why so many people lived by a paleo diet millennia ago.

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My carb-fueled cravings were filled later that day on a visit to Night Oven, a small but bustling bakery with piles and piles of cookies, grainy loafs of bread, baguettes, brioche, croissants, and sundry pastries stacked up in pyramids. Nearly everything is made with heritage grains that the soft-spoken owner, Bryn Rawlyk, sources from area farmers and mills in-house on a 30-inch stone mill he constructed. But to say Bryn is handy would be an understatement. Behind the cases of sweets and racks of bread, the bakers scurry around in a compact space anchored by a hulking brick oven, which Rawlyk built. It has a 9-foot dome that, he explained as I savored a gingersnap cookie, bake the loafs with radiant heat stored up in the bricks from the wood-burning fire. It imparts an only subtly smoky flavor to the bread and, you might say, a sense of heritage.

Heritage is the cornerstone of Baba’s Homestyle Perogies, a no-frills perogie joint on the side of a busy thoroughfare. There’s the option to order at the drive-through. Or you could eat in the small canteen-like eatery. The perogies are served on Styrofoam plates on plastic cafeteria trays. They are the best perogies I have ever had. (And I come from an Eastern European heritage.) Owner Rob Engel told me that he became obsessed with the dumplings through his wife’s Ukranian family. His obsession has become a wildly popular business. 


The unassuming Baba's Homestyle Perogies turns out some of Canada's most exquisite from-scratch perogies.

He took me into the sweeping warehouse-esque kitchen behind the dining area, where two Ukrainian women were industriously scooping dough, flattening it in their palms, topping it with a potato and cheese mix, and pinching it shut with jaw-dropping speed and efficiency. They make seven different varieties. They offered—nay, forced—me to try it myself. It’s not easy, to say the least. When Rob told me that they make 5,000 to 8,000 perogies a day most days, and 12,000 to 15,000 a day during the holidays, I nearly passed out. A plate of warm Saskatoon berry perogies topped with vanilla ice cream helped revive me.

Saskatoon berries are, as you might guess, unique to this region of prairieland. Their relatively short growing season makes them a prized bounty, one worthy of celebration. My late-July visit was perfectly timed to the Saskatoon Berry Festival, which takes place at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market, a year-round bazaar that's featured the local bounty and baked goods since 1975. I stopped by expecting to wander around for an hour or so. I left four hours later. Saskatoon has that classic small town atmosphere of coziness and warmth, which is to say that conversation flows easily among strangers. Wandering through the marketplace, I spoke to a woman known around town as the Prairie Pasta Lady, who offered me a sample of her signature pasta pudding, a delectably gooey concoction that could stand up to the finest bread puddings the American South. I took a photo of the recipe, but I’ve yet to try to make it myself. Some things are more delicious when you’re not aware how much heavy cream is involved.


The Prairie Pasta Lady, a fixture at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market, is known for her variety of homemade pasta.

I chatted with a woman who sells dips and spreads inspired by her Polish parents who served dill dip with every meal when she was growing up. That day she had Saskatoon berry cream cheese on offer alongside her own rendition of her mother’s dill dip and a few other savory spreads. I was regaled with the various health benefits of sea buckthorn berries, acidic orange morsel that grow on shrubs in Canada, Russia and China. The superfood is the calling card of local company NVigorate, which uses it to make juices, jams, vinegar, syrup, and lotion.

But it was what appeared to be the most unassuming-looking women that left the biggest impression. Jean, who has short-cropped hair, cat’s eyes glasses, and a wide toothy grin, was busily organizing jars of salsas and sauces on her table while two young teenage boys clowned around behind her. She firmly warned them to settle down. They did. When your aunt the kind of woman who buys thousands of pounds of cabbage at a time and ferments it for three weeks to make sauerkraut or shows up to the market each week with anywhere between 33 and 50 cases of mason jars of her handmade condiments, from her “million-dollar relish” to an array of salsas to the crowd-pleasing red pepper variety, you listen when she tells you to behave.


Sisters-in-law Jean and Dorothy sell baked goods, homemade salsas, relishes, perogies and more each week at the Saskatoon Farmers' Market.

"They’re my nephews, I want them to learn. If they wanna earn money, they’ve gotta work for it,” she told me as I browsed her offerings. Jean lives on a farm where she grows wheat and grain and fruit and if anyone can teach work ethic to young people, she can. Jean told me that she has a computer in her house but she hasn’t used it in three years. She works 12 to 15 hours a day except on Sundays. “That’s when I nap,” she concedes. Also, Jean is 74. She did, however, work the prior Sunday because she had to pick 24 pails of Saskatoon berries in a day in preparation for the weekend's festival. She pointed to the other end of the table at a tall woman with high cheek bones and auburn hair done up tidily. That’s her husband’s sister Dorothy, a former professional ballroom dancer and flight attendant. She made 175 Saskatoon berry pies for this weekend, baking them 35 at a time. Dorothy is 87. 

Jean's farm is over an hour away, but Black Fox Farms, which was selling gins and liqueurs at a table nearby, sprawls out across a valley alongside the Saskatoon River. It's just a quick drive from the center of the city, but I would have willingly spent lots more time on the road to get there. For husband-and-wife owners John Cote and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote, running the 80-acre farm is something of a homecoming. John started his farming career 100 miles north, then moving to Mexico and then to Chile, from where he commuted to Kazakhstan. True story. Barb, meantime, is an award-winning soil scientist. 

Little wonder that John waxed rhapsodic about a head-spinning array of topics when he guided me and my friend across the property: the misconceptions of organic farming (“The truth lies somewhere in the middle—it’s not just about organic farming, but also using good genetics.”); grape breeding (“My job is to kill them. If I can’t kill them, they’re pretty hardy. It’s old-fashioned breeding. We’re just guessing.”); the start of their floral business (Barb got 30,000 daffodil bulbs at an auction. They grow about 12,000 lilies annually and hold a Lily Festival each July to celebrate. Peonies are their biggest crop today.); and haskap berries, a tart pod that looks like a cross between a blueberry and a tiny sugar snap pea and tastes like the platonic ideal balance of sour and sweet. (They’re made from two flowers blooming on both ends and they can take a frost of minus-8 degrees.) And so on. 


Veteran farmers John Cote and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote, blend traditional and progressive farming methods on their 80-acre Black Fox Farm, where they grow about 90% of the ingredients they use to make gin, liqueur, and whiskey in their distillery.

All that farming has led up to the couple’s newest endeavor: Black Fox Farm Distillery. Nearly 90% of the ingredients they use in their three gins and various liqueurs are grown on the property. “Anything edible is likely to be pickled and used in a gin recipe,” John told me, ticking off calendula flower, rhubarb, to name a few. One of the gins he produces, the lightly aged Oaked Gin Barrel Two, won top honors at the 2017 World Gin Awards. I picked up a bottle of it as well as a bottle of Saskatoon berry and wildflower honey liqueur and a jar of unpasteurized, unfiltered honey. I couldn't wait to get it home and share it with my friends. It was the least I could do to spread Saskatoon's bounty around. 

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Book a Great Hotel Deal Right Here at

Where are you going this fall? At Budget Travel, we’re all about inspiring you to “see more for less” and to discover great new affordable destinations. Now, we’re upping our game: Our new “Book a Hotel” page allows you to book great hotel deals through our partners at I took our new “Book a Hotel” page or a spin, planning some fall travel for me and my family. Some highlights include: Select a Destination and Travel Dates. On the left of the page, type the name of the destination you’re thinking of visiting. The database will almost certainly recognize even the most far-flung places (I tried to play “stump the database” with some islands in the South Pacific, and it recognized every place I could think of, including tiny Cooke City, MT, a cool small town with a population under 100). With leaf-peeping season coming soon, I searched for hotels in Bennington, Vermont, one of Budget Travel’s “51 Best Budget Destinations in America.” Get Inspired. Even if you’re not sure where you’re going next, our “Book a Hotel” page can help you make up your mind, with recommended destinations along the right-hand side of the booking tool. The more you use the tool, the better the page will get at making appropriate suggestions for you. In my case, it has already figured out that I’m interested in family-friendly weekend escapes in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Review Available Lodgings. Hit "Search" and a list of available lodgings appears within a second or two, and, using a menu at the top of the listings, you can order the lodgings by price (low to high is what most of us Budget Travelers prefer), or starting with "top picks," which are frequently booked and/or highly recommended properties (an especially good idea the farther your destination is from your cultural or geographical comfort zone). When I searched hotels in Bennington, Vermont, I was pleased to find rates in early October starting as low as $85. Get Picky. Using a menu to the lower left of the hotel listings, you can get a bit choosy, filtering using criteria such as price range, breakfast included, free Wi-Fi, and even kitchen facilities. For my leaf-peeping search, I filtered for breakfast included and free Wi-Fi (because my trip will be in October, I didn’t filter for “swimming pool,” but it’s nice to know I can do that for summer travel): I was psyched that, post-filtering, my $85 deal was still available. Read Customer Reviews (and the Fine Print). Your lodgings list will give preference to properties that have received good reviews, but you can dive into the world of customer reviews if you’re curious about details. As I started to read the (glowing) reviews, the fine print about check-in and check-out, and some additional helpful info about nearby landmarks, I realized that the $85/night hotel in Vermont was actually a property I’d already taken my family to a few years back - and we’d thoroughly enjoyed the place. That was an unexpected, and welcome, confirmation that our new booking tool was steering me in the right direction! Reserve It. Selecting a room and making a reservation takes just a minute or two, and you don’t have to share credit card information or set up an account, just your name and email address. I found the experience inspiring and refreshingly easy. Ready to explore some affordable fall travel ideas? You’ll find a “Book a Hotel” button on the upper-right corner of the homepage. Or just CLICK HERE.


Walk This Way: Meet the Next Generation of Audio Tours

If you’re one of the thousands upon thousands of travelers and commuters who’ve walked across NYC’s Brooklyn Bridge and thought to yourself, “Wow, this bridge is amazing. I wish I knew more about it,” there’s an app for that. Thanks to Detour, you can traverse the span across the East River with a self-guided audio tour narrated by Ken Burns, the award-winning filmmaker who wrote and directed a groundbreaking documentary film about the iconic bridge. A great self-guided audio tour can add depth and authenticity to your vacation, and the San Francisco-based Detour offers an immersive experience, using your phone’s GPS to give directions and deliver location-based information with each step. And with 150 offerings at $5 apiece in cities from Savannah to Seoul, you’re bound to find a walk to suit your interests. Browse by theme or place, or choose the voice you’d like to hear in your headphones: In New York, Burns will take you over and around the Brooklyn Bridge (and remind you to look both ways before crossing the street), while Broadway legend Joel Grey spills the dirt on his time on the Great White Way. Actor Peter Coyote leads you through San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and shares his memories of the famous Summer of Love, and over in the Castro, activist Cleve White details the city’s fight for gay rights. You can also set your itinerary around an iconic location. Stop by Checkpoint Charlie and learn about life in divided Berlin from a Cold War-era spy, or visit Fenway Park in Boston for a fan’s-eye view of the stadium. If food is your thing, there are delicious options—in Charleston, retrace the steps of Nat Fuller, an enslaved chef who hosted a reconciliation feast at the end of the Civil War, check out Los Angeles’s Koreatown with the editor of Eater LA, or get boozy with a New Orleans absinthe tour. Because of the detailed, hyper-specific knowledge on display, travelers aren’t the only ones who will get something out of a Detour experience. “My friend was visiting Oakland, and we decided to do the Black Panthers history tour of the neighborhood where I live,” says reviewer Lizzy Go. “It was full of mind-blowing anecdotes from the ‘70s that totally transformed my perspective of the places I walk by every day. Now every time I pass the stoplight on Market and 54th, I have this mental image of Panthers in their black leather trench coats serving as crossing guards for the elementary-school kids.” At five bucks a pop, you can’t ask for much more.


Locals Know Best: Fargo, North Dakota

If you’re a student of American trivia, you might know that Fargo, North Dakota’s most populous town, which sits on the Red River Valley of the Great Plains, is named for William Fargo, the founder of the Wells Fargo Express Company. Or you might know that it was referred to as the “Gateway to the West” once the Northern Pacific Railroad was up and running through the area. Or that it was essentially rebuilt after a massive fire decimated 31 downtown blocks in 1893. But chances are everything you know about Fargo you owe to filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, whose 1996 kooky crime drama (and present FX series of the same name) gave the town pop culture street cred. Today, Fargo is an energetic hub of creativity with a youthful vibe. In 2014, Forbes magazine ranked it number four among the fastest-growing small towns in the US. To get the lowdown the town, we checked in with Alicia Underlee Nelson, who curates, a site that focuses on what's unique and local in the upper Midwest and Canada's prairie provinces. She's also the author of “North Dakota Beer: A Heady History.” She grew up about 45 minutes away and just moved back after 12 years in Minneapolis. She’s seen the difference the relatively few years can make.   ARTS & CRAFTS Fargo’s amazingly well-preserved downtown has undergone changes in the past few years, but none of them have impinged on its historic integrity. Where people once went there for basic shopping needs, it’s evolved into an arts and culture district. The Plains Museum is a major local art institution, what with its collection of 20th and 21st century works. But Alicia always tells people to hit the various galleries when they come to town. Gallery 4, which was established in the 1970s and is one of the oldest coops in town, and the sweeping Ecce Gallery have great openings each month, Alicia notes. Translation? Free party. Both feature regional artists and bill themselves as springboards for new talent. But art here is not constrained to the confines of four walls. Or passive viewing, for that matter. Anyone who has chalk or pastels or spray paint can make his mark on the public art wall, a blast of color tucked away in an alley. “Basically, there are very few rules,” Alicia says about it. There’s a longstanding local pride in time-honored crafts here, too. “North Dakota is not pretentious at all. We’re super-open and welcoming and friendly. There’s a strong tradition of craftsmanship here. A lot of people quilt and paint and make their own furniture. There’s a real appreciation for people who make art,” she says. But if classics crafts aren’t your thing, she’ll point you to Unglued, a shop where you can pick up any and all kinds of modern indie crafts from region. Case in point: upcycled bowties by local artist Ashley N. Dedan, who makes accessories with clothing scraps under the label Aendee. Alicia also recommends downtown institution Zandbroz, a mashup of a bookstore, a variety shop, and jewelry purveyor. Browsing around here might seem akin to poking around a museum of curios. Or you could pick up some local goodies at Sweet Dreams Confections. Go for the homemade fudge, gelato, and sodas, stay for the from-scratch soup and salad at the shop's cozy, chill coffee bar.  READ: Locals Know Best: Savannah Maybe the Coen brothers, who are known for their wacky, if often dark, sense of humor, were drawn to Fargo for its quirk factor, and there are indeed a few unusual places to visit. Alicia calls out Scheels, an outpost of a national sporting goods chain, but this locale features an indoor ferris wheel, shooting games, and--wait for it….. statues of US presidents. “You can go for a ferris wheel ride in the middle of winter. You wouldn’t think it if you were going in to buy basketball shorts, but you can. It’s a strange place,” she said, noting that you might spot a bride and groom getting their wedding photos taken there. It’s also the place to go for North Dakota State University gear. The team plays across the street in the Fargodome, but regardless of whether you’re a football fan, if you’re in town during a weekend game, make sure to hit the tailgate party. “It’s seriously one of the best parties in town. There’s a marching band and free games. Plenty of people don’t go to games, they just go to hang out.” NOW THEY’RE COOKING The creative vibe shines through in the restaurants here, too. Rhombus Guys Pizza might throw you for a loop if you go in expecting you basic average pie. Among their extensive veggie pie options is the tater tots hot dish pizza, which Alicia swears is better than a plate of perfectly fried tater tots. Its upstairs patio is another reason it’s worth visiting. Locals here are obsessed with their patios in the warmer months, which Alicia attributes to the winters being treacherous. Blackbird sits on the slightly less eccentric side, offering wood-fired pizzas that are locally minded down to the flour. (“The guy’s obsessed with dough,” Alicia says.) READ: Locals Know Best: Sacramento For something a bit more high-end, Mezzaluna comes highly recommended. But despite its fine dining appeal, the restaurant also offers excellent late-night happy hour regularly and a midnight brunch on occasion in the colder months. “They announce it online, and it’s worth stalking their website for when they announce it.” Speaking of late-night, no matter how fun it is to get caught up in the hype of trendy restaurants, diners remain a beloved here. Krolls Diner, an outpost of a small chain, is a retro dining car where you can kick back in a sparkly booth and order classic diner grub or German staples, like the beloved knoefla soup. The fact that its website is should cue you in to the light humored attitude of this joint and its heavy food. German food is also the star at Wurst Bier Hall, which has tons of beers on tap and communal tables. When your sweet tooth gets the best of you, the best dessert in town are found at Sandy's Donuts, which has two locations in town. “Everyone says their own donut place is the best, but this really is,” Alicia declares. “Just get there early,” she advises. The flavors rotate all the time and include special creations for game days and holidays. There’s also an impressive lunch menu of salads and hot and cold sandwiches at the downtown location. And best of all, each meal comes with a free donut. WHAT’S BREWING In summer 2017, Alicia published her book "North Dakota Beer," so she is intimately acquainted with craft brewers in her hometown and beyond. For an understanding of what’s become a strong craft beer scene in North Dakota, you’ll want to pay a visit to Fargo Brewing Company, the first in town. Located about a 10 minute walk north of downtown, it remains a local favorite, drawing people not only for the excellent beer, but also for the food trucks, the chill industrial vibe, and frequent tasting events. Then later, in 2016, they opened Fargo Brewing Company Ale House in South Fargo where they serve food designed to pair with their brews as well as some quirky bites that only true suds lovers could dream up. Case in point: an ice cream sandwich with the cookie part made with spent grains from the brewery. Drekker Brewing, located right downtown, has a more polished appearance. Alicia recommends taking their grain-to-glass tour, not least because all the proceeds go to charity. The brewers’ interest in artistry extends far beyond beer. Local art adorns the walls in the taproom as well as their packaging. (One of Alicia’s favorite local artists, Punchgut, created the dynamic graffiti-style cans for the brewers.) They also host live music each weekend, game nights, and late-night craft fairs. Needless to say, it’s a lively hangout. And although they only have a small snacks menu, you can plan to stay for a while since they encourage ordering from outside restaurants. Kilstone Brewing is less flashy and more tucked away in a low-profile space in an industrial near the interstate highway. Once you’re inside, though, Alicia says it’s really accessible and, what’s more, "they rock bingo," she declares. Speaking of tucked away, if cocktails are more your speed, The Boiler Room is a chill hotspot that draws revelers for its craft cocktails and creative American fare. The basement locale, which you enter through a back alley, also offers cocktail classes.


Get to Know: Indianola, MS, One of the Coolest Small Towns in America 2017

Indianola, Mississippi, is no. 10 on Budget Travel's list of the 10 Coolest Small Towns in America 2017.  Asbury Park, New Jersey has Bruce Springsteen; Muscle Shoals, Alabama has Lynyrd Skynyrd; and Indianola, Mississippi has blues maestro B.B. King. It seems like the entire city, which is known as the Crown of the Delta and measures less than nine square miles, is a shrine to him. First and foremost, of course, is the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, a $14 million institution that opened in 2008. In addition to being a tribute to an American legend, who’s buried in the museum’s memorial garden, the exhibits chronicle an entire history of the blues. If you’re not there during the museum’s B.B. King Homecoming Festival each May, there are plenty of clubs around the city, some of which are so old school they don’t even have websites, where you can see—rather, hear— King’s legacy in action. Even the streets here are named after him and Lucille, his guitar. But blues isn’t the only history to learn here. The town’s historic district, a showcase of Victorian era-style and Tudor Revival homes, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009. Like nearly every city in the South, Indianola delivers on meals to remember. The Blue Biscuit is easily one of the most visited joints, what with its high-profile location across from the museum, and Betty's Place is a classic, historic diner, but veer off the well-trod path and chances are high you’ll be richly rewarded.