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Food

Skagit Surprises

Shopping and snacking on the tulip route

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

One of the interesting things about living in Skagit Valley is watching the traffic patterns during the Tulip Festival. Most people, following instructions from their GPS, all get to the fields the same way, crawling through downtown Mount Vernon and onward through the several-mile-long traffic jam that Memorial Highway and McLean Road turn into every April. Those in the know, however, get off the freeway at Conway and take Fir Island Road, a route that adds a small amount of distance but has fewer traffic lights and is far more scenic as it swoops across the Skagit farmland.

Going across Fir Island also offers the benefit of several shopping and snacking stops. If you’re on your way north to the tulips, stop and gather goodies for a picnic. If you’re on your way out, stop for a refreshing beer or ice cream and pick up some local products and a bunch of tulips to take home. Any of the three main stops along this route will give you plenty of choices.

Closest to the freeway, right at the Conway exit, stands Skagit River Produce. Something between a year-round farmer’s market and a neighborhood grocery, it also includes a gallery of local arts and crafts and a deli counter. The shop offers an assortment of fresh produce, some local and some obviously not (like sweet potatoes), plus flower and vegetable starts. They carry many ordinary grocery staples like milk, bread, beer and wine, but include a wide selection of local eggs, nuts, cheese and salsa, and the freezer holds cuts of their own pork as well as Alaskan halibut. There are shelves of locally made jams, jellies, BBQ sauces and mustards alongside paintings and crocheted hats from local artists. The counter offers made-to-order sandwiches, soups and assorted baked goods like pie and cinnamon rolls, and there are tables tucked throughout the space for anyone who prefers dining in to carrying out.

Snow Goose Produce, five miles up Fir Island Road from I-5, is a huge draw for tourists, as you will see when you try to pull into their lot, but for good reason. On a recent sunny weekday afternoon the Snow Goose was a complete zoo, with crowds of kids and adults jostling for position in the ice cream line while earlier customers strolled about and took each other’s photos eating (or trying to eat) the enormous ice cream cones.

Snow Goose is far more than just ice cream, though—on my last visit I wandered amazed through room after room of baskets, pottery, condiments, produce, wine, baked goods, vegetable starts and flowers, including both cut and potted tulips in every possible color. Acting as a showcase for local products, Snow Goose sells goat cheese from Gothberg Farm, cookies from Farm to Market Bakery, muffins from Shambala Farm, bread from the Breadfarm, cocktail sauce from the Rhododendron Café, and their own extensive line of canned vegetables, pickles and chutneys. The produce display, when I was there, included fresh fiddleheads, brilliant red rhubarb, and perfectly fresh salad mix from Frog Song farm just down the road. They even have a crab tank (covered with labels warning you to watch your fingers) and a fresh seafood case. Their signature ice cream is also available by the pint, so bring along a cooler to take some home.

Across the river and up the road a bit you’ll find the Rexville Grocery. A combination of gas station, art gallery, sandwich counter, specialty goods store, breakfast joint, and neighborhood hangout, the Rexville has been a favorite destination for me and my husband ever since we moved to the valley. From wine and cheese to preserved lemons and pickled octopus, this is where we’ve done much of our shopping for both ethnic cooking and Christmas stocking stuffers. They carry some local goods, like Breadfarm bread, and sometimes fresh items like chanterelle mushrooms in season, but what sets the Rexville apart is their eclectic collection of dry goods—it’s the only place I’ve found to buy Hobnobs (a classic British oat cookie), for instance.

If you have time to sit down at the counter, I seriously recommend their sandwiches, especially the BLT and their meatloaf, which can either be packed to go or consumed on the spot with a draft beer and maybe a slice of pie. There are always locals at the bar, checking out the beer selection and comparing notes on traffic.

From there you can continue on along the ridge to the tulip fields, La Conner or Mount Vernon as you choose, but with no risk of going hungry before you get there.

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