Naturally, you have preconceived notions of what to expect when you see the words, "country store." But the newly expanded http://eckerts.com/countryStore.htm" target="_blank">Eckert's Country Store will do away with visions of rocking chairs and penny candy.
The grand reopening on July 5, 2010, marked the apple purveyor's 100th anniversary, and doubled the deli and meat departments. The cavernous, airy space also holds bakery and produce departments, plenty of dry goods and an attached classroom space for hands-on and demonstration classes.
Angie Eckert, director of retail operations, told us she chooses stock with an eye to keeping it local, but also brings in high-quality and unusual items that she and her food-happy staff are excited about. Thus, their shelves include local wines, gooey-butter-cake mixes and barbecue sauces, but also European wines, panko crumbs and peach salsa. Produce-wise, they of course offer whatever's in season in their orchards, but you'll also find local items as things come into season.
Beginning in late April they'll have local rhubarb; shortly after that, local white asparagus will come in. Wine and white asparagus ... still have the same mental picture of "country store"?
Here are seven goodies I discovered at Eckert's:
Ropp Green Onion Cheddar
Eckert declared this one of her favorites from a line of local, flavored cheddars produced in Normal, Ill. The cheese itself is robust and mellow with just a touch of sharpness, and the green onions add piquancy and interest. We ate it straight out of the package and scrambled it with eggs and found the eggs overrode the delicate onion flavor. Next time, we'll try it in grilled cheese (Eckert's suggestion) or with crackers.
Double G Hickory Smoked Slow Cured Missouri Ham
This company's mottos is, "Ham that tastes like ham used to taste." Eckert's carries biscuit slices (in the dairy case, near the eggs), which one of my tasters declared to be exactly like the Canadian bacon her mother used to buy - in the 1960s. In short, I urge you to seek out this company's pork products. All of them.
Uncle Joe's All Purpose Sauce, Sweet Smoke Flavor
No corn syrup, no MSG, developed by (who else?) Uncle Joe of Ina, Ill. To be honest, we tasted this on a hunk of bread; but based on that experience, we can't wait to barbecue with it. With just the right amount of tang on top of the sweet smokiness, it could easily become a favorite. Eckert's also carries its original and hot flavors.
Eckert's Apple Cider Vinaigrette Dressing
This is probably the most loved of the several dressings from the restaurant next door that's on offer in the store. Developed by Grandma Eckert and produced to the family's specifications, the apply-crisp, sweet tartness is great on a simple spring salad. Or, you can follow the recipe on the bottle to make the restaurant's famed house salad. We'll be doing that, and making cole slaw with it.
Herb Seedlings from Kaiser Hill Farm
High-quality, ready-to-plant herb seedlings from Missouri's Kaiser Hill Farm are available in the Garden Center next to the store. They'll come in as their planting window approaches, so the selection will vary depending on when you visit.
Grandma's Nuts Snack Mix
Once upon a time there was a grandma who was so worried about her newly vegetarian grandson becoming protein deficient that she whipped up a mix of nuts and seeds. And that, my children, is how a tasty, crunchy, just-sweet-enough (and healthy) treat came to be. Eat it straight from the bag, toss some in a salad, or stir into yogurt. Whatever you do with it, you're sure to enjoy Grandma's Nuts.
Ann & Allen Gooey Butter Cake Mix, Double Chocolate Flavor
The nice folks at Park Avenue Coffee sidled into the baking business by making their mom's gooey butter cake for the coffee shop. Soon, they had concocted 70 flavors of the treat and then developed mixes for a few favorite flavors. We tried the double-chocolate gooey-butter cake mix. Three little packets plus butter, eggs, vanilla and cream cheese yield a gooey butter cake that does not taste remotely like a mix. The two layers are prepared separately, making this a bit more complicated than your standard box mix, but the tiny bit of extra effort is well worth the result - a classic St. Louis treat that tastes like it was made from scratch.
Eckert's Country Store, 951 S. Green Mount Road, Belleville, Ill., 618.233.0513, http://eckerts.com/countryStore.htm" target= "_blank">eckerts.com/countryStore.htm, 8am to 8pm daily