Top Essentials: Julie van Rosendaal on her Food Experience at Willow Park Village

Although it’s a bit of a drive from where I live, I’ve always had a soft spot for Willow Park Village. (We filmed 3 seasons of It’s Just Food, the TV show I co-hosted with Chef Ned Bell, in the kitchen at Willow Park Wines + Spirits, so we spent plenty of time between shoots wandering around the shops.) I was asked to take another visit, and was happy to oblige.

Because some of my favourite Calgary companies are located there, once school was back in I made a quick detour to shop for a few parties and dinners we had planned over the long weekend. I love being able to pop into the butcher, baker, fish monger and cheese maker all in one stop – and yet keeping each separate, unlike your usual big box store experience.

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Having a good butcher is a very good thing – and an experience this generation doesn’t always have. I’ve been going to Second to None Meats in my neck of the woods for years – always for obscure cuts like bison short ribs or pork belly – and I love that they source their meats from local ranchers. Now owned by CRMR (Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts), they also offer shelves of their own prepared sauces, pickles and preserves, and stock plenty of sausages, bacon and other cured meats. Really good breakfast bacon is a beautiful thing. I love being able to go and ask for a certain quantity of brisket, or for a two-bone prime rib, or for the butcher to French cut some lamb chops for me.

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Also: good eggs! Well-raised chickens! Hotchkiss farms chard! And real leaf lard! This stuff is hard to find – and worth sourcing for the best possible pie. (I combine lard and butter for the best of both worlds – texture and flavour.) You know you’ve found a good butcher when they offer their own lard. (This little tidbit might possibly change your life: lard – as in, pure pig fat – is actually lower in saturated fat than butter, which by comparison, contains about 63% saturated fat. So apparently it won’t kill you to eat a lard-based pie crust after all.)

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Next door – Crave. I’ve been a fan of Crave since they opened their doors ten years ago. I have a particular fondness for the classic blue Crave-a-licious, but what few people know is that they make pretty fantastic pies, too. (And cookies! If you ever see their peanut butter sandwiches, buy one. Or three. Or ten.)

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And in the same corner, Meez Cuisine. I’ve known Judy Wood since I was a kid. Her sister was my math tutor in high school, and her dad was our next door neighbour. Judy is one of the loveliest, funniest people I know. I’ve always aspired to be like her – minus the classic French culinary training, unfortunately. Now that they’ve closed their Lakeview location, Willow Park is the place to go. Everything is made from scratch, and completely wonderful – I’m particularly addicted to their Thai chicken soup, and buffalo chicken dip – which we’ve been known to polish off on the couch and call dinner. They have coolers and freezers stocked with prepared meals and kits, and Meez also sells a selection of well made (and packaged) preserves, crackers and other snacks. Real, good quality, homemade meals. Better than takeout, faster than cooking from scratch when you’re trying to get back into the fall schedule and it’s a tough re-entry. I always feel good when I get to slide one of Judy’s meals in the oven. I love her team there, too.

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On the other side of the village, I made a beeline for Springbank Cheese – where on this particular day, they had a batch of hours-old orange cheese curds that the (always so helpful) staff instantly offered a plate of to sample. They squeaked. They were irresistible. I always go to Springbank for my poutine needs – and so although I didn’t have plans for weekend poutine, they were made for me. I also picked up wedges of Grizzly Gouda and a few new things in the ends bin – a great way to try new stuff – and of course bocconcini from White Gold – a Calgary company launched by a couple of Italian brothers who couldn’t find their beloved fresh cheese in town. It’s bliss. (I also noticed they sell DIY cheese kits on a shelf in the back – note to remember this when it becomes Christmas shopping season, or when we need a cool, quirky birthday gift for a kid who has way too much Lego.)

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Next door, it’s hard not to go into Cob’s – my mom makes frequent stops there, and when I drop by her house, I always secretly (not so secretly) hope there’s a stash of their soft, pillowy loaves in the kitchen. My favourite is the fruited loaf – like raisin bread, only better, with nuggets of dried apricot for good measure. (They also have a version with just raisins and currants, which I wholeheartedly embrace on days when I feel like being a raisin bread purist.)

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I came home with enough for the long weekend, as well as the week ahead – and a new resolve to make the trek out there – or plan to stop if I’m ever in that neck of the woods.

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