Many of you, I’m sure, already realize this: We have some great parks in Champaign-Urbana. This time of year, I love keeping it low-key with a picnic in the park. For this article in particular I wanted to keep it on the cheap, too — pick up some carry out from your nearest/favorite restaurant, supplement it with whatever you may have at home (maybe you even have a garden you can pick from), and head to your local park. This time of year is great because you can even plan your picnic to coincide with live music in the park for some free entertainment.
I chose to stop by Cheese & Crackers to grab a sandwich I could split with my husband, as well as a few other accoutrements. Located in Champaign in the Old Farm Shoppes, Cheese & Crackers has just that and so much more — wine, chocolate, fresh seafood, pasta, olives, the list goes on and on. With so much cheese and cured meats to choose from, it’s only fitting they also serve upwards of fifteen different types of sandwiches, hot and cold.
I’ve often gone in for a nice spread of cheese and meats, especially around the holidays, but I’ve never tried any of their sandwiches. I figured the first ought to be the Italian. Not only is it considered “Best Sandwich” but it was also star to a humorous controversy regarding a Yelp review. I like that the owners have a sense of humor about that sort of thing.
The person at the counter was friendly and helpful. I grabbed a bag of flatbread crisps and I asked if he would help recommend a cheese. I ended up buying the first one I tried. It was so friggin’ good. Ossau-Iraty is a Franco-Basque cheese made from sheep’s milk and is said to be one of the oldest in Europe. Aged for around eight months it’s a semi-firm cheese that’s savory, nutty, and a bit creamy. It pairs well with a variety of things, but is also perfectly delectable on its own. I already fully intend to go back for more before the week’s end.
All checked out with flatbread crisps, Italian sandwich, and hunk of cheese it only came out to around $22. Even though Cheese & Crackers also has award winning chocolates for sale, I wanted to check out what Grovestone had to offer, which is only a few doors down. You can often find them at Urbana’s Market at the Square, but if you haven’t been to their store I encourage you to go. How can you pass up free tastings at a place that’s lined wall to wall with olive oils and vinegars? I guarantee you’ll find something you like. While I wasn’t on the lookout for olive oil this time I did manage to find a few chocolates left in their case. I bought two little squares of the strawberry chocolates at $2 a piece.
With our goodies in tow, I ran home to grab the rest. Plates and cups of course, but also some chopped pineapple, hummus, and cherry tomatoes from my garden. Cap it off with a little pitcher of iced tea (no alcohol in the parks) and we were ready to roll. We live pretty close to Hessel Park so that’s usually our go-to place. There’s plenty of picnic tables sure, but I prefer laying a blanket out in the grass. After getting everything laid out and divided up we chowed down on the Italian sandwich. Filled with salami, mortadella, coppa, and provolone they didn’t skimp on the good stuff. It was very light on the lettuce, only a couple tomatos, and small spot of vinaigrette soaked into the bread. It had me wishing there was a bit more as it was a pretty dry sandwich. Some more oil and vinegar and maybe some oregano would have gone a long way. Next time maybe I’ll try it with the hot pepper mix as Food & Drink editor Jessica Hammie described in her 2013 review. As I described already, the cheese was fantastic and the flatbread crisps were some of the best I’ve ever had….probably because they’re grilled and buttery and salty — all the best things in life.
The little chocolates from Grovestone were the perfect ending. We may or may not have eaten our little desserts first as they were quickly melting in the summer heat. The light pink chocolate coating on the outside had a strong strawberry flavor and was topped with a dried strawberry. The middle was a soft, dark chocolate nougat.
Despite my not being over the moon about the sandwich, I love Cheese & Crackers and would like to try more from the sandwich menu. If you want to get a little fancier with your picnic, as most parks have grills, they also have dry aged USDA prime steaks, local sausage (lamb, Italian, etc.) and fresh fish. They do recommend you place an order for fish the day before delivery (every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday). I know I have got to try those steaks sometime.
Which park has your favorite picnic spot?
Cheese & Crackers
1715 W Kirby Ave
M – Su 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
All photos by Bobbie Bonebrake