Food Matters: Discovering a budding food and wine destination in Fairfield, Iowa
There would be cake. And champagne. And corn. Lots of corn. Or so we figured when boarding our first post-pandemic flight to celebrate an Aspen friend’s milestone birthday in her Iowa hometown.
Driving from the Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids to Fairfield, however, we noticed that there were not, in fact, any corn stalks visible on the 80-minute journey over rolling farmland. Of course not, because they haven’t sprouted yet! Such are the silly misconceptions one might have about the Midwest after sheltering in Aspen for 15 months.
Last week, seven Aspen pals convened in Fairfield to fête our friend Julia Punj. Last year, the chef, sommelier, and financial advisor returned to her former stomping grounds to make an unprecedented move: Open a wine bar during a pandemic.
Despite the shaky social climate of 2020, Veraison Wine Bar crushed its first summer by all accounts. Located on a main thoroughfare in Fairfield (population: 10,290), the property’s spacious outdoor patio is surrounded by tall fencing to foster “a laid-back European atmosphere” that – in the words of an Iowa Source magazine story published last fall – “feels like a secret garden.”
“Without the patio, there would be no bar, because of the pandemic,” Punj explains. “I knew there would be a demand. I needed a job. And people needed work: builders, the wine merchants. I think Fairfield was hungry for this.”
Before the party, Punj put us to work in prepping the Veraison patio. We swept away leaves and debris from a recent windstorm and fluffed outdoor couch cushions. We arranged and rearranged fresh flowers, sparkly streamers, striped umbrellas, golden balloons, and bottles big and small into bold displays. Veraison (named after a viticulture term for the color change in ripening grapes) would open that weekend for the summer season (May to October), and the place was mostly ready in one afternoon.
Sharing in this seasonal excitement was itself a toast to a return to normalcy.
“Fairfield is revitalizing right now,” notes Punj, who has noticed a number of childhood friends returning in the past year or two. “Everybody who went to New York and L.A., they’re coming back, buying houses, and raising kids here. They’re starting companies.”
The 2020 pandemic seems to have kicked Fairfield’s budding food scene into top gear, too. One of Punj’s former classmates decamped from Asheville, N.C., to open Lunchbox, a casual French American joint down the road, in January. The eatery, which has operated solely on takeout for four months and plans to open its own patio this summer, catered the bash with brisket slicers, hummus, and veggie flatbreads to rave reviews.
Situated in an industrial former brush factory nearby, the Fairfield Food Collective is grounded by Breadtopia, an artisanal bakery that rents out its multiple commercial kitchens to like-minded food entrepreneurs. (Breadtopia supplies baked goods for cheese and charcuterie boards at Veraison, including a killer gluten-free loaf; the bread flour mix and other goods are available at breadtopia.com.) One such popup, Taco Dreams, fueled our pre-party labor with vibrant Mexican takeout.
After meeting the owners of Fishback & Stephenson Cider House at the soirée, we dined on their stunning property the following night. In what was originally a wedding and event venue set on a hill by a lake, the cidery moved here from downtown in 2018. Now unable to host large gatherings, it has pivoted to a full-fledged restaurant and bar, serving frosty cocktails, hard cider, and award-winning burgers in a socially distanced setting with world-class views.
“It was really special to be able to show you how similar Fairfield and Aspen are: small towns, everyone knows each other, safe, quiet,” Punj describes. “Everyone’s creative and building something new and different. I like that about both places.”
It’s not just Fairfield, though. Wineries, breweries, dairy farms, and a cheese factory are within driving distance. Just outside of Des Moines in Norwalk, La Quercia produces European-style cured meats coveted by chefs across the country. “Cache Cache gets it,” Punj says, as do other spots serving fine charcuterie, such as Meat & Cheese. At Veraison, Punj orders a whole leg of prosciutto as a showpiece that is a sliced to order.
Following a successful first summer at Veraison, Punj returned to Aspen this past winter.
“I found similarities when I came back: wines on my by-the-glass list are also wines that The Little Nell had on their list.” This because each bottle on her list of 120 wines are all ones that she has enjoyed personally, found on trips abroad or lounging in wine bars and working at Italian Wine Merchants and Jimmy’s Bodega as a sommelier during her time here.
“I feel like I am bringing a piece of Europe and Aspen to Fairfield,” she adds, “and that makes me happy.”
Meanwhile, my favorite souvenir was snagged at the local co-op, Everybody’s Whole Foods: Chief Appanoose popcorn. The heirloom variety pops up into tiny little puffs without hull, meaning no bits get stuck in the gums. Legend has it that Iowa’s indigenous Sac and Fox Tribe of Native Americans shared seeds with local settlers in the 1850s and the corn has been grown on a family farm ever since.
Finally, we found corn!
“Iowa has been the king of corn for almost two decades,” proclaims the website for Iowa Corn, comprised of the Iowa Corn Growers Association and other industry groups. “In an average year, Iowa produces more corn than most countries: three times as much corn as Mexico.”
While I purchased a modest bag of “tiny popcorn” from the bulk-bin section (noting that the label suggests refrigeration to supply moisture necessary for prime popping—who knew?), our fellow traveler Keith Goode went big. “I sent 18 pounds home,” he quips. “And I got their number to reorder.”
We’ll be crunching through memories of our springtime Iowa jaunt during outdoor movies this summer in Aspen: My kind of pop culture.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A photo in this story was improperly credited upon publication. The photographer is Mel Sauerbeck/NavaSwan Images.
Amanda Rae is the editor of “The Aspen Cookbook,” a fundraiser for local restaurant workers. Find the recipe for Mi Chola’s esquites (Mexican street corn salad): AspenCookbook.com. firstname.lastname@example.org
From the summit of Resolution Mountain, we could see the Fowler-Hilliard Hut below. We took photos as we watched the sun slowly set, and conversations ensued about the surrounding mountains, future running plans and the adventure we were wrapping up