by Joan Fischer
Have you ever eaten something so delectable that you felt slightly haunted ever after? So it was for me after trying fresh-from-the-oven bread—rustic peasant wheat, crispy yet moist baguette, foccacia with blue cheese and artichoke, and the best challah I have ever tasted—at an unassuming, you’d-drive-right-past-it bakery on Highway 14 in Arena. I’d stumbled upon it about a year ago and more recently decided I had to go back, despite a round trip of more than an hour.
“I’m the worst marketer in the world,” jokes owner Bob McQuade, 78. “The Shoppe: Herbs, Spices and More” is all you see on McQuade’s billboard, no mention of bread. But customers have been finding him anyway during his career as an executive chef (the former Spring Green Restaurant) and a master blender of herbs and spices that he sells to other chefs and home cooks (he did this as a booming wholesale business before semi-retiring 10 years ago). Jars and jars of them line a wall, most selling for 50 to 75 cents an ounce.
Especially popular with chefs and home cooks alike is a blend called Exotica, eight herbs and spices including coriander, juniper berries, thyme, onion, and garlic, which is especially good on roasted meat. Another favorite: Papa Bob’s Rib Rub. So original and bewitching are his seasonings that many chefs have purchased proprietary blends to serve as an exclusive signature for their dishes. Over the years his customers have included Madison’s legendary Ovens of Brittany, the Concourse Hotel, Food Fight, and the Edgewater Hotel.
In the shop he runs with wife Kate you’ll also find kitchen supplies (Berghoff knives, beautiful handmade maple cutting boards, ceramic serving dishes) and art. Yes, art. A large adjoining room is a gallery displaying work by local artists (John Sheean, Ed Wohl, Jean-Marc Richel) and exhibitions that change every four to six weeks. Nor do the café-style tables and chairs go to waste. Every Sunday people from the wider community gather for coffee and conversation over McQuade’s home-baked pastries. They call it “The Church of Sweet Rolls,” McQuade says. Visitors can also buy a selection of homemade frozen soups and sauces.
You can’t see a trace of it, but McQuade is half Italian. He learned cooking and baking from his mother and grandmother, who hailed from Sicily, and he and Kate have spent time with family there. They swoon over the food and know how to replicate it at home.
McQuade’s baked goods—which, in addition to bread, include biscotti, tirami su, and many kinds of cheesecake—are available at a few restaurants and other venues (examples: Convivio in Spring Green and Crossroads Coffee House in Cross Plains). His challah goes all the way to Bushel & Peck’s in Beloit. But if you’re at all in the area, you might as well drive straight to the source. You’re assured of delightful conversation and a very fragrant ride home.
The Shoppe at Herbs Spices & More
7352 Highway 14, Arena
Open Tues./Wed. by chance