With apologies to Monsieur Miller (pronounced Meel-aire), I don’t remember much from middle school French class. But what I do remember, with almost photographic clarity, is the old-school textbook chapter on food. Apparently, at least in 1983, the French shopped differently from Americans. They had no use for the supermarché and would have been flummoxed by a big box store. Instead, they bought their bread from the boulangerie, meat from the boucherie, fruit from the fruiterie, and their deserts from the pâtisserie. As a child of a Shop-Rite family, this idea left me… enchantée.
Of course, there are times when we all need to shop in the kind of store where you can buy chicken thighs, knitting needles, motor oil, and a Barbie Dream House. And I’m not saying that there isn’t a shaker container of Kraft Parmesan cheese in my refrigerator. But sometimes it’s nice to take a page out of that vintage French textbook and treat food shopping as a pleasure, not a chore. Special occasions call for this kind of special shopping and to me, there is no more special occasion than a summer picnic. Or, as the French would say, déjeuner sur l’herbe. Or, as I annoyingly have started insisting on calling it, un pique-nique.
Of course, Anchorage has more strip malls than cobblestone-lined boulevards. But we do have our share of carefully curated specialty shops that have their own unique charm. Allow me to share a few of my favorite picnic purveyors or l’épiciers.
Drinks, of course, can be purchased early and often so let’s start there. In Alaska, when it comes to exceptional local beverages, we’re spoiled for choice. A bottle of sparkling wine is always nice but there’s really no excuse for not offering a full bar: growlers of ale, cider, hard kombucha, cans of locally sourced cocktails. I’m partial to the range offered by Denali Spirits — blueberry mojitos if you’re feeling feisty or the Susitna Spritzer, a gin-forward cocktail with a hint of spruce tips and a dash of lime, if you’re looking for something a little lighter. La Bodega is my go-to for a well-curated selection of something special to sip. Whether you’re the kind of person who wants to pop open a can or dramatically saber off a champagne cork, they’ve got you covered.
Next up, is a stop at either of Fire Island Bakery’s locations because no picnic is complete without excellent bread. I’m partial to a simple French baguette because you can divvy it up without a bread knife, but you simply can’t go wrong with any of their basic loaves. I’ll admit that whenever I go into Fire Island, I leave with the things I plan to buy and at least a few things I didn’t — like maybe a handful of their peerless classic chocolate chip cookies that would make a welcome addition to any picnic basket. In other words, plan to make a few unplanned purchases.
While you’re there, you can hit up Johnny’s Produce satellite location for fruit or crudité but if you have a little leisure, a trip to their Dowling location is a pleasure in itself. Selecting the perfect apple, nectarine, or bunch of grapes from rustic basket-lined shelves in their refined but welcoming shop feels très français.
I enjoy any excuse to drop by the shop at Alaska Seafood and Sausage and their velvety, buttery cold smoked salmon lachs are a must-have in my picnic basket. While you’re there, peruse their shelves of fascinating European and Alaskan condiments, pickles, and krauts. While there’s nothing wrong with a jar of Grey Poupon, if you can resist a jar of mustard that looks like a beer stein, you’re a stronger man than I am. I’m also known to throw in a bag of salted licorice but that’s a controversial column for another day.
Next up is a trip to Butcher Block 9 for a sampling of their wide assortment of house-made, locally-sourced charcuterie like coppa, land jaeger, bresaola, and coppa. My biggest weakness might be their silky Prosciutto di Palmer both because it is delicately sweet and salty, and because I appreciate a good Alaska-themed pun.
Of course, you can’t have charcuterie without cheese, and a trip to Fromagio’s Artisan Cheese, the lovely little midtown shop is truly a fool-proof errand. You can do your cheese-pairing research ahead of time, ask the experts for recommendations, or literally throw darts in any direction in the shop and buy whatever small batch cheeses they land on. I like to include at least a couple of soft cheeses that even a plastic knife can contend with, but a real picnic connoisseur will pack some nice quality cheese knives and a cutting board for a continental feel and a full charm offensive.
When you’re done with the fromagerie, you can hop across the parking lot to Sweet Caribou patisserie for an elegant box of macarons with rotating flavors like blueberry hibiscus, elderflower, or lavender lemon. These light little cookies, with their perfect balance of crackle and cream, are the real deal, perfected by Parisian-trained pastry chefs, and sure to lend an authentic je ne sais quoi to your outing.
It’s hard to write about a picnic without thinking of Omar Khayyam’s idyllic ode: “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough/A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou.” But if I’m being perfectly honest? I’m leaving the book of verses home. There’s no room in the picnic basket with all that cheese.
If you go:
530 East Benson Blvd. #5 (flagship location)
Monday-Saturday: 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sunday: 12 p.m.-7 p.m.
Fire Island Bakery
2530 E. 16th Avenue
718 K Street
Wednesday-Sunday: 7 a.m.-4 p.m.
1721 Dowling Road
Tuesday-Saturday: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Saturday & Sunday: 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
Alaska Seafood & Sausage
2914 Arctic Boulevard
Monday-Friday: 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
Saturday: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Butcher Block 9
11108 Old Seward Highway
Tuesday-Friday: 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Fromagio’s Artisan Cheese
3555 Arctic Boulevard
Tuesday-Friday: 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Saturday: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
701 West 36th Avenue, #19
Monday-Wednesday: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Thursday & Friday: 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m.-4 p.m.