Sharp cheddar is a go-to cheese for good reason. It’s familiar. Easy to find. Pairs well with lots of snack crackers and snacking people.
No surprise it’s a staple on holiday meat-and-cheese platters.
But if you want to shake up tradition, how about a cheddar with cranberries or blueberries? Or Mango Fire Cheddar, a sweet-and-spicy mix of mango and habanero? Or Mediterranean Sunset, with Kalamata olives, sun-dried tomatoes and a mix of basil, fennel, anise seed, oregano and thyme?
You can find these cheeses — and maybe 40 or 50 more — at the Mission General Store in St. Ignatius, inspiration central for holiday cookies, cakes, breads, snack plates and meals.
The store opened first as a discount grocery in 2003 and has since evolved into the country-style mercantile it is today. It carries a surprising array of goods, including quilting and sewing supplies, clocks, home decorating items, canning supplies, cleaning supplies, toys and some Amish-made furniture.
Food, however, is the General Store’s big draw. It carries fresh vegetables and fruits, local when available. And it is chock full of nuts, spices, candies, summer sausages, mixes, grains, meats, discounted canned goods and much more. The store buys from bulk suppliers and repackages the items in see-through containers that line one whole wall, making it easy for browsing and buying. Here’s a sampling of what you might see if you hunt around:
• More than two dozen colors of sprinkles for holiday cookies, including the usual red and green but also purple, light and dark blue, lime green, orange and many more.
• A whole section of chocolate, white chocolate, peanut butter and carob chips — mini, regular and larger discs — for baking. The store also carries big slabs of chocolates for dipping, shaving and cooking.
• A good selection of different flours, including some high-gluten and no-gluten varieties.
• Lots of bulk candies for stockings, gifts and desserts. Remember licorice wheels? They have them.
• Four different kinds of fresh garlic, including one grown locally. Signs describe the garlics’ unique qualities: “rich garlic flavor and lingering heat that softens and sweetens,” “mild and spicy zing,” “large uniform cloves with a nice overall tang.”
• An array of hot-drink mixes, such as chai, spiced chai, and hazelnut, chocolate-raspberry or Swiss mocha cappuccino.
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• A wide selection of dried-fruit and candied items that would perk up cookies, breads and fruit cakes, with some unusual choices such as a kiwi-strawberry blend and sugared-gummy wedges in spearmint and cherry (red and green!).
• Some unexpected chips, such as beet chips and green-bean chips, and unusual dried items for snacking, such as wasabi-flavored beans.
• At least nine flavors of syrups, including maple and huckleberry, of course, but also blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, blueberry and butter pecan. Something different for pancake breakfasts.
• Pickled Cajun-style quail eggs and Sweet Hot Habanero Pickles, made for the St. Ignatius store.
• Fresh, ground-in-store peanut butter plus some twists on the old favorite, such as cappuccino, butterscotch or chocolate peanut butter and a hazelnut butter. Your cookies may never be the same.
The Mission General Store just celebrated its 16th anniversary last month. It’s owned by wife and husband Ruth and Delbert Bontrager, who often are busy at the cash register, stocking shelves or answering questions. Delbert grew up in a large Amish community in Topeka, Kansas; she came from an Amish community in Shipshewana, Indiana. They both headed west in search of mountains and new adventures and met in the Montana Amish community at West Kootenai.
Many of the General Store’s products come from Amish companies, including the family-owned, Ohio-based Troyer Foods and its subsidiaries. The store has its own label on dozens of jams, salsas, sauces, pickled goods and jellies, which are made for the St. Ignatius store in Troyer’s kitchens. Scan the shelves and you’ll see the house label on such gift-worthy products as a raspberry-chipotle sauce; pickled okra, cauliflower and asparagus; and many jams, including their F-R-O-G Jam (with figs, raspberries, orange peel and ginger), a Christmas Jam (strawberries and cranberries) and a peach-jalapeno jam.
Closer to the holidays, the store will have spiral-cut hams too, favorites for holiday tables, according to Rose Miller, bulk-food manager for the store.
If you go, set aside some time. Driving there takes about 45 minutes from downtown Missoula, and browsing the aisles can take hours. And you’ll need some time to refuel with a sandwich or sub ($5-$10) from the deli. The sandwich bread is made at the store.
Take some time to look around outside: The store is nestled by the Mission Mountains, breathtakingly beautiful when their snow-topped peaks scrape a blue sky. There are bison on a nearby ranch, and you’ll probably see license plates from loyal shoppers who make the trek from Missoula, Polson, Kalispell and other communities far and near.
Maybe you’ll also encounter an Amish horse-drawn carriage or two, as families stop to shop or head home with their groceries.