As any avid Parks and Recreation fan knows, February 13th is Galentine’s Day, a day for “ladies celebrating ladies,” in the words of Leslie Knope. This past Friday, February 13th, was also the date of Common Ground Food Co-op‘s annual Viva Local food tasting event. And so it made almost too much sense to take my lady friend Kaia out for the evening to the Viva Local event and the Wine Extravaganza tasting. We saw the sights, tasted the tastes, and now I am here to tell you all about it.
Viva Local took place in a multi-purpose room (likely an former store, now empty) inside Urbana’s Lincoln Square shopping center. Kaia and I entered through Common Ground, where we were greeted by an affable coop employee who offered us chocolate-covered fruit (dried apricots, dried pineapples) and advised us to “follow the pink arrows” to the event itself. I love life-sized board games, so we set off on our journey with gusto. Along this special guided walk were a handful of other chocolate-covered fruit stations, all of which we visited. Maybe this makes me basic, but the chocolate-covered strawberries were the best.
The room itself was festive, with twinkly lights strung up around the perimeter and the Champaign band Tara Terra supplying mellow jams. Kaia and I were informed that there was technically no actual line, and that attendees were welcome to approach each sampling table in whatever order they saw fit. We attempted to navigate the tables in a more randomized fashion, starting with Autumn Berry Inspired from Urbana, IL, which offered a variety of flavored cream cheeses to sample, as well as a scoop of autumn berry ice cream in a folded fruit leather “cup.” It was fun and delicious, and as local as it gets.
Thirty-thirty coffee from Peoria, IL was pouring their Guatemala Maragogype Fto, a spicy citrusy brew. J&K Meats from Greenup, IL was sampling four different sausages, including a turkey sausage that Kaia remarked was perfect for a nice breakfast and a jalapeño cheddar sausage that will be featured prominently at my next barbecue.
By this point, a clear line was beginning to form at the door, so we stood in it and sampled the rest of the things in order.
First up inside the door we met Farmer Katie from PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, IL serving a beet walnut dip with cut up carrots, black radishes, and diakon radishes.PrairiErth is a USDA certified organic family farm that produces meat, produce, and grains. Their dark red beet walnut dip was a pure delight, earthy and vegetal with a creamy consistency. It paired especially well with the diakon radishes, which had a spicy crunch. This recipe and more can be found in PrairiErth Farm’s own cookbook, which you can read more about on their website.
After our beet dip experience, we sampled pork tenderloin from Kilgus Farmstead located in Fairbury, IL. Kilgus Farmstead specializes in dairy products, beef, pork, and goat meat. The pork tenderloin was perfectly seasoned and slow-cooked to a shredded consistency. For those invested in consuming more ethical meat, the pork tenderloin is perfect for the occasional special dinner at home.
Ludwig Farmstead Creamery from Fithian, IL was next, offering a dazzling assortment of cheeses to sample. We sampled different flavors of their Jake’s Wheel creamy havarti-style cheese. The best by far was their new “Jake’s special herb blend” flavor, which was both special and herbal, as the name implies. I am also a longtime fan of their more assertive mustard flavor, which would be an excellent addition to your next cheese party platter.
Next up was Triple S Farms, a certified organic farm from Stewardson, IL specializing in cattle, hogs, chickens, and turkeys. They offered a generous sample of the most savory, tender beef stew. It was a perfect seasonal offering; I’ve never been more excited to eat stew out of a paper cup while standing. I’m guessing it would be even better in a deep, heavy bowl while seated somewhere comfortable. Turtleneck optional. After the stew, we sampled vegetable delights from Urbana’s Blue Moon Farm, including a simple but elegant French carrot salad accented with parsley and dressed with olive oil and apple cider vinegar.
By far the best new discovery of the evening for me was coffee from Mad Goat Roastery in Danville, IL. Opened only within the last year by Sam and Rachel George and Drew and Hannah Landise, Mad Goat has just recently started offering beans for sale at Common Ground. Their Rwanda Kivu area coffee was rich yet fruity, and their triple berry scone was a total knockout. Seriously, that scone. It was revelatory. I need more of this in my life.
Right next to Mad Goat was one of my all-time favorites, Prairie Fruits Farm! I’m such a PFF fangirl. I’ve written elsewhere about their dreamy Moonglo goat cheese, so all I will say here is that this cheese will change your life. And how awesome is this event, where you can sample life-changing cheese and revelatory scones for free?
By the time we made it to the Alto Vineyards table, I was already in a fantastic mood and full of goodies. I sampled the cheerful Weiner Dog White, a semi-sweet table wine, and Kaia had the Illini Rosso. Both of us have actually been out to Alto Vineyards for an evening of wine and knitting in their tasting trailer; I find their wines to be modest yet fun, never pretentious, and representative of what a central Illinois winery can do. We finished strong with several bread samples from Pekara bakery in Champaign. Their foccaccia is superb, and you’ve probably already got their harvest bread in your freezer.
I was seriously impressed with this event. Generous samples, great ambience, not too crowded. There was a cute kid’s table with incredibly virtuous kale smoothies and carrots cut into little hearts. There was a palpable sense of community, which is of course a huge part of Common Ground’s mission and philosophy.
After experiencing Viva Local, Kaia and I made our way to the Common Ground classroom inside the store for a special wine tasting extravaganza going on at the same time. For $5, you got a glass and tastings of over 20 different wines, plus a coupon for $5 off a full bottle.
There were a number of standouts for me. The Chartron La Fleur Bordeaux Blanc was a tart, crisp white, perfect for a friendly casual gathering and very reasonably priced at $9.99 a bottle. My absolute favorite was the Slo Down Wines Sexual Chocolate Red Blend. I laughed at the name (especially the nod to Coming to America) and thought it would be gimmicky and weird, but was blown away. It had a dry, fruity cocoa taste, and was deceptively light. At $23.99 a bottle, it’s quite fancy for my budget, but with the coupon it was doable. I’d buy this one again at full price to impress special dinner guests. I have to mention the Liquid Farm Chardonnay, which is a total fantasy wine for me at $49.99 a bottle. It was so delicate, but still had serious depth and even a certain darkness to it. My limited wine vocabulary will never do it justice, but it was such a pleasure to drink.
The other fantasy wine of the night was the big, bold red Brunel Chateauneuf Du Pape Les Cailloux 2011, which is so French it’s not even funny. Jessica, our wine guide for the evening, recommends serving this wine with “a glass.” That’s all you need! Perfect for a very special occasion. You could also just pick up a bottle for your shameless self and it will be our secret. If you’re into bubbles, I strongly recommend the flirty La Passione Sweet Sparkling Red, which Kaia described as “the good version of regrettable nights,” with a sweet strawberry flavor and happy little bubbles. It’s like the wine version of a Bath & Body Works spray, in a good way. The Asolo Prosecco DOCG Superiore Brut was a dry, sparkly delight as well. Overall, the wine tasting event was an excellent chance to try several wines in a non-judgy atmosphere. I’d be more than happy to attend another one of these, and I’ll be back to pick out some bottles at Common Ground in the near future. Cheers!
All photos by Pamela Saunders.