Iowa Byways: A Driftless Harvest
Known as the most “scenic state byway” in Iowa, the 100-mile Driftless Area Scenic Byway zigzags its way across the distinctive landscape of Allamakee County in northeastern Iowa. As many byway travelers frequent this roadway for its many panoramic vistas and tantalizing views of the country, you can also drive this byway for its rich food culture that has been nurtured from the land’s organic, local and seasonal food production.
It’s here, within Allamakee County, where the 1,032 farms covering 274,844 acres of land that account for 65 percent of the county’s surface will provide you will an irreplaceable look into the region’s agricultural culture. Farms in this area lead the state in direct food sales with over $7 million worth of local food annually purchased by institutions, schools, and intermediated markets (restaurants, grocery stores) since 2012. The colorful croplands and pastures filled with grazing livestock offer a glimpse into the lives of the many who have, continue to, or will occupy this rural landscape. The vistas are spectacular, insightful and plentiful. But to truly experience and appreciate the local heritage, culture and tradition, you may want to take a different and more flavorful approach. Consume food and drink along the Driftless Area Scenic Byway.
Located within the byway communities of Postville, Harpers Ferry, Waukon, Lansing and New Albin, you will find mom ‘n’ pop restaurants, bed and breakfasts, coffee shops, cafes, taverns, creameries, bakeries, orchards, wineries and meat markets with a variety of dishes to ‘hit the spot’. There are so many culinary options that often times, one doesn’t know where to start. So to help you understand where to go, what to do, and most importantly, what to eat and drink during your trip, here are a few tips from the locals.
Tip One: Experience Real River Fish.
One of the last fish markets around, where once there were many. Mohn’s Fish Market in Harpers Ferry specializes in selling real river fish. By real, we mean fish that hasn’t been frozen or packaged, but rather caught directly from the Mississippi River and filleted on-site. This experience is the real deal, not for the faint of heart. The owners will actually clean the fish in front of you. Their selection includes the likes of carp, catfish, sheephead, bullhead, and the hard to find, turtle. You can buy it smoked or live, (but smoked seems to work better when out on a drive.) Mohn’s Fish Market is a piece of America’s history that is disappearing quickly and should be experienced, even if it is just to watch Mrs. Mohn filet a fish. There is no one faster or more efficient at the job. Mohn Fish Market, 1144 Great River Road, Harpers Ferry, 563.586.2269
Tip Two: Uncork a Bottle of Pure Berry Wine.
Most known for their pure berry wines, owners Dave and Pam Krueger take an old fashioned approach to winemaking. That approach begins with wild berry picking. Utilizing blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, elderberries, strawberries, black caps and grapes, that are often hand-picked from secret spots on the Krueger’s family farm. Dave and Pam ferment their berries whole, in small batches, by hand, unfiltered and without the use of machines. This technique produces a more vibrant colored wine, while also enhancing its authentic aroma and “true to the fruit” flavor. You can sample any of their 18 wines made year-round in their beautiful, bright tasting room. Dave and Pam love to chat and are eager to share their wines, especially their unique limited release wines and ports made every few months. Empty Nest’s tasting room is open on Saturdays from 10am-5pm and Sundays from 1pm-5pm. Pure berry wines, free wine tasting, fresh air and peaceful tranquility… need we say more? Empty Nest Winery, 1352 Apple Road, Waukon, 563.568.2758.
Tip Three: Bite into cheese so fresh it squeaks!
WW Homestead Dairy in Waukon, IA is a company whose culture reflects the Driftless Area Scenic Byway’s quiet, rural countryside rich with crop and livestock production. Utilizing these resources two local dairy families have worked hard to bring back a type of food business that seems to have been lost long ago: the hometown creamery. This quaint business offers a full line of dairy products processed right on-site including cheese curds, ice cream and cream-line milk. They proudly call their shop the “Cheese Curd Capital of Iowa”. In fact, they make around 3,500 pounds of cheese curds each week. That’s 1.5 TONS OF CHEESE! They also have a charming ice cream parlor that features 40 flavors of unique homemade ice cream. Nothing says spring like WW’s Rhubarb ice cream. On top of all the yummy treats, the ice cream parlor is connected to their processing facility where visitors are able to do self-guided tours to see how all the dairy products are produced. They even offer tours of the farm during the summer. Their store hours are 8am to 9pm Monday through Friday, 9am to 9pm on Saturday and noon to 9pm. WW Homestead Dairy, 850 Rossville Road, Waukon, 563.568.4950
Tip Four: Try something smoked at City Meat Market
You can’t drive by City Meat Market without catching a whiff of the store’s natural hickory fueled smoker. People come for miles to visit this special shop on the most northern stretch of the Driftless Area Scenic Byway. This business has been going strong for over a century and now generation number five and number six of the Wuenneckes family are carrying on the family tradition. In the same building since 1906, the small town atmosphere contributes to the homey feeling of their shop, another characteristic that keeps customers coming back for more. Bacon, ham, summer sausage, eggs, brats, fish, you name it, this family knows how to make it, pair it or smoke it, and they do it to perfection. They smoke over 500 rings of bologna, make 250 pounds of homemade brats, grind 600 pounds of hamburger, and smoke 120 pounds of salmon, 120 pounds of ribs, and 300 pounds of bacon EACH WEEK! Talk about a meat lover’s paradise. Stop in between 8am and 6pm to try some of their famous jerky, perfect for an evening drive. City Meat Market, 199 Railroad St, New Albin
Pick up a byway guide.
The Driftless Area Scenic Byway (DASB) Board, comprised of Allamakee County residents, has developed publications and tools to assist you on your culinary excursion. In addition to these four foodie finds, there are other great places to eat along the byway. To help you on your way, pick up a DASB Tear Sheet found in many byway establishments and welcome centers. This DASB Tear Sheet includes a detailed byway map with information about every food and drink establishment and point of interest within Allamakee County.
The county’s abundance of local food was also the inspiration for their newest publication that was released in July of 2015, the DASB Culinary Passport. This booklet will serve as your personal guide to information about 16 food and drink establishments that locals consider to be the best of the best. The booklet identifies the items for which the establishment is best known. Both the Passport and Tear Sheet can be obtained by contacting Northeast Iowa RC&D at 563.864.7112 or the Allamakee County Economic Development office in Waukon at 563.568.2624.