I don't want to say it was cold last Thursday, but when I packed the car for a drive to Snug Haven Farm outside of Paoli, I did the Wisconsin thing and threw a pair of long underwear in the backseat, just in case.
You know, just in case the Subaru careened off an icy farm road, tumbled 40 feet down a ravine, leaving me pinned behind the wheel. I could slip my pants off, pull my trusty long johns on and wait out the -10 degree weather in comfort.
Still, what better time for a road trip for a sight of spring green? Even now, in the coldest days of winter, the spinach prized by the best chefs in Madison and Chicago is growing in Judy Hageman and Bill Warner's hoop houses.
Hageman, 53, and Warner, 48, are Dane County Farmers' Market regulars and, for several years, its co-managers. They sell their spinach in winter and spring to L'Etoile and the Tornado Club in Madison and to a half dozen top restaurants in Chicago, including celebrity chef Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill. Farmers' market patrons in Madison and Chicago's Lincoln Park search this spinach out. But the really smart customers subscribe to the pair's buyer's club over the winter, paying $96 for a one-pound delivery every other week.
There's a waiting list.
Snug Haven spinach may not really be, as L'Etoile's Tory Miller proclaims, "the best in the world," but it's darn close. The surprise is that its highly prized sweet taste and beefy crunch owe everything to the freezing cold weather that prompted me to pack my long underwear. Who knew?
Hageman and Warner say they figured out the benefits of "frost sweetening" their spinach in the mid-1990s, when they began growing vegetables in the Hageman family's century-old farm in the town of Montrose. Nestled in a Kentucky-like hollow with a great southern exposure, the couple built a series of poly-clad hoop houses to capitalize on the spectacular sunlight and capture the solar heat.
Unlike backyard gardeners who plant spinach in the early spring, Hageman and Warner begin planting in September for harvesting through winter and the following spring. "When other farmers are shutting down and protecting their crops, we're keeping our hoop houses wide open, wanting the spinach to freeze in October," says Warner.
"We sell it six months a year," he tells me across the table in Snug Haven's rustic kitchen. "People ask us why we don't have it in the summer, and I say, 'Well, it just tastes like regular spinach then.'"
Chef Miller appreciates the wintry difference. "It's like no other spinach out there," he tells me in a telephone interview. "It's a hardier leaf. You have a higher yield. I throw a handful in a pan, and it turns out to be a really nice portion. But with other spinach it wilts down to nothing."
Warner credits the slow winter growth for the spinach being thicker and hardier. Balmy weather triggers faster growth - and thinner leaves, which are prone to damage when the mercury plummets.
Like the morning I navigated the twisting icy driveway down to the farm. Warner had run the propane heaters all night to stave off the arctic blasts. He figured it cost him $350 in propane.
Surprisingly, Snug Haven averages only four or five of these all-nighters a winter. Hoop-house spinach can tolerate temperatures into the low teens and rebound the next morning if it's thawed with an hour or two of heating, he says.
Still, that gets pricey, Warner admits, now that propane is $1.64 a gallon, up from 70 cents six or seven years ago. But it pays for itself with the best spinach to be found in Dane County and beyond.
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT SNUG HAVEN FARM, EMAIL SPINACH@SNUGHAVENFARM.COM OR CALL 608-424-3296.