Monday, January 4, 2010

In Northern Ohio, Shop at the Vermilion Farm Market

Well, I’ve reviewed restaurants, why not review some grocery stores, too? Like I told you, we spent Christmas with Sue’s family in northern Ohio. I’ve been visiting up there enough years to get a real feel and appreciation for the regional specialties. One thing that strikes me as unique—compared to here in Central Missouri—is the blend of the “Firelands” New England–types with a large population of Eastern Europeans.

There are several cultural commonalities between here and there, however, including many ethnic Germans and some relatively large Amish communities.

In the rural landscapes between Sandusky and Cleveland, where we spend most of our time, there are miles of country highways past colorful orchards and truck farms, vineyards and wineries, dairies, horse breeders, and plenty of cornfields. And compared to here, the farms are tidy. It looks like the landowners must spend a lot of time with weed-whackers and lawnmowers, and buckets of paint for touching up the barns and fences.

Because of the proximity to Lake Erie, there is a healthy freshwater fishery, providing good walleye, perch, and more, fresh to an appreciative population. This region is often called “America’s North Coast,” and for good reason. Summertime lake tourism is a major industry here.

So it comes as no surprise that there’s a kick-ass farm market in Vermilion, Ohio, which is right in the thick of all this good farmland and shoreline, and all these people who demand fresh, good products.

First, here’s the official Web site for the Vermilion Farm Market. They are located at 2901 Liberty Avenue, in the town of Vermilion, Ohio.

You know how I feel about locally owned, non-mega-chain places, and this is one. This store is unique and directly reflects the needs of its actual customers. Its owners and workers are friendly and knowledgeable. If they don’t have an answer for you, they’ll find one. If you have a store like this nearby, buy your stuff there. Help them stay in business.

The Vermilion Farm Market boasts of its “Gourmet specialties, extended wine selection, and full-service bakery,” but truly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of stores can tout these things. But what sets this grocery apart is the ratio of interesting things to the square footage of the store. This ain’t no Walmart.

The place is packed with goods without being cramped, and all the displays are tidily arranged. And despite all the meat and fish they sell, it doesn’t smell bad in there at all; neither does it smell like disinfectant. It just smells like a market.

Practically everywhere you look, from the Amish cheeses to the Polish sausages, you see something that reflects the region, its specialties, the preferences of the local palates, and ethnic traditions.

Here’s a list of some of the things I noticed. Most of these products I just don’t see here in Central Missouri—so when I saw them in Vermilion, I knew I was in a real market, and not some dreadful mega-food-industry clone.

Pierogies (and not just the nationally marketed Mrs. T’s brand). Here, they carry Sophie’s Choice pierogies, which come in a joyous array of flavors: potato, cheddar, sauerkraut, cabbage, apple . . . prune . . . apricot. . . . I’m not kidding you! These puppies are good! No matter what your ethnic heritage, these ravioli-like packets will holler “mom-food” to you, and “home.”

Sauerkraut Balls. Another regional dish; I’d never heard of it until I went bowling with Sue’s family one year. These things are delicious! I’m sure they’re not perfectly good for you, but still, if you haven’t tried them, you really oughta. They’re in the frozen food section. Oh, they don’t have these at Walmart? Huh! Wonder why?

Meats and Smoked Fish. A full-service meat counter; they know what they’re doing here. Do you know what Kizka is? It’s an Eastern European beef blood sausage. Same with Hurka, I guess, though I’m not sure. They had both. There was also Baccala (salted cod—a traditional Italian Christmas Eve dish), as well as a fine selection of dry-smoked trout, carp, salmon, and other fish. No, they’re not much to look at, but neither is bacon, and you know how good bacon tastes.

Mrs. Miller’s Homemade Noodles. Amish-style egg noodles (plus no-yolk, veggie, and organic ones) produced by a small company in Fredericksburg, Ohio (which is in the Amish country south of the city of Wooster). Nice wide noodles, kluski, pot pie squares, etc. The same company also makes a full line of pasta sauces, jams and jellies, and other preserves.

Bell-View Specialty Foods. Another regional company, a fourth-generation family business based in northern Pittsburgh. They specialize in pickles, preserves, mustards, dressings, and so on. Sue’s brother-in-law pulled me aside and pointed at a big jar of hot pepper rings: “These are the best I’ve ever had. They retain a good crunchiness, have excellent heat, but pack a good flavor as well.” I declined to try to carry a big jar of peppers home with me on the plane, but after he gave me a sample the next evening, I’m regretting my decision now.

Ballreich’s Marcelled Potato Chips. I’ve told you about these before. These are the best chips in the universe, made by a family-run business in Tiffin, Ohio. I don’t know why they’re so good; you don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Ballreich's are available all over the region, but why not pick up a bag while you’re here?

The Bakery. Of course this is another section where ethnic colors shine brightly. I noticed Italian breads from Cleveland’s Orlando Bakery (which was founded by Italian immigrants) and “Charlie’s Kolachi,” which are festive nut rolls, another Eastern European specialty—apricot filling, walnut filling. And the market has its own in-store bakery, so the goods are fresh and delicious.

The Produce. Though the selection isn’t mind-blowing, it is ample, fresh, and well-tended. There are enough special items to keep it far from average, and I noted—or perhaps by now I was looking for it—a certain slant that said “ethnic tradition” to me. Plenty of turnips and beets, for instance. And packages—nice big packages!—of fresh dill. Someone’s making home cooking with these, and it’s like nothing you’d find at a Rubee Tewsdee’s.

Wines. Naturally, there’s a good selection of domestic and imported wines here, but even more exciting, you’ll enjoy exploring the great selection of local wines produced in northern Ohio and the Lake Erie islands—including Catawba Island (which is not really an island, but you might recognize the name anyway). Grapes have been grown in this region for generations, and you can find excellent Niagaras, Catawbas, Concords, Sauternes, Rieslings, Cabernets, and late harvest wines among their products.

Indeed, here are some of the wineries represented at the Vermilion Farm Market: Lonz, whose historic winery is located on Middle Bass Island; Mon Ami, on the mainland at Port Clinton; Pelee Island Winery (Pelee’s across the border and belongs to Canada, but on a good day you can see Pelee from North Bass); and Quarry Hill Winery, located in good ol’ Berlin Heights, my sweetie’s hometown.

Sigh. . . . I never quite know how to conclude these “reviews,” since by now it’s pretty clear that I’m telling you to go there if you can. I know it’s really a cheerleading session about local color, ethnic diversity, and small, family-run businesses.

As I explored the store on my vacation and photographed the aisles here and there, a fellow approached me and asked what I intended to “do” with my pictures. Well, I, uh . . .

Okay, I put them on my blog.

. . . I hope he doesn’t mind.

Vermilion Farm Market
2901 Liberty Ave.
Vermilion, OH 44089
(440) 967-9659

Monday–Saturday: 8–7
Sunday: 10–6


Anonymous said...

I never thought of a grocery store as a tourist destination. I am sure the guy, if he is the owner, will appreciate your efforts. Have you heard from him?

Julie said...

Thanks for your comment, Anon.

I guess I have a pattern at this point of enjoying grocery stores as fun places to visit when traveling. In the late eighties, when I first started visiting Arizona, for instance, Gentle Strength Cooperative was a favorite place to visit, as well as a source for snacks and beverages for the rental car.

A few years ago when we visited Paris with a tour group, we were asked to provide names of places we particularly wanted to see. The tour guide did a wonderful job of fitting in nearly all of our wishes. My wish was to visit an open-air market! And voila, we got to see the glorious Rue Mouffetard! (,_Paris)

I haven't heard anything from the Vermilion Farm Market, and that's okay. I'm not expecting any feedback from them--they're busy enough running the store!