Driving east on the highway, it doesn't take long to hit prairie. A wind turbine in the distance looks like a giant industrial tumbleweed rolling across the plains. I'm headed to the horticultural hinterland surrounding the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at the University of Minnesota. The 1,000-acre arboretum here is internationally respected for its cold-hardy fruits and plants. (Azaleas are a point of pride.) Stars of the apple-breeding program, which can take 20 years to develop, include the Honeycrisp and SweeTango® Brand Minneiska Apple. (Look for the latter variety in Canada this fall, a beauty of crispness, sweetness and clarity.) For every success story, there are thousands that don't make it, apple breeder David Bedford notes, while showing me a specimen with pale yellow skin and fuchsia pulp the colour of dragon fruit – for now just a number. Tall and twinkly-eyed, Bedford is passionate about apples bred at their best and pained by their worst. "Don't get me started on what happened to Red Delicious," he says of the now-infamous airport fruit.
The college is also a major research centre for grape breeding, although this corner of Minnesota seems like unlikely wine country. If you've come across cold-climate varieties – like Frontenac or Marquette, cultivars gaining traction in the U.S. Northeast and Canada – they were developed here by grape breeder Peter Hemstad. Bert to Bedford's Ernie, he favours names of early French personalities for his varieties. "You have to be ruthless not to get too attached to them," Hemstad says of the 12,000 experimental vines. "It's like sending a kid off into the world." Research started in the early 1900s, ostensibly for juice, jellies and table fruit – at least during Prohibition. "Wine was not something the state would have promoted; if anything, it was on the teetotalling side," he says. In the 1970s, researchers began collecting Minnesota's native riverbank grapes by canoe, crossing Vitis riparia with French hybrids. Today there are 46 vineyards in Minnesota, and Hemstad's working on labour-saving methods to overwinter European favourites, which he predicts could revolutionize cold-climate wine production.
Back in town for a last late lunch, I join Tilia's chef/owner Steven Brown at his cozy restaurant in Linden Hills, a neighbourhood of tall trees bounded by two lakes. His American cassoulet uses navy beans instead of tarbais, bratwurst from local charcuterers Butcher & The Boar, and porter gelée. Brown himself was raised in South Dakota, which allows him to make regional jokes. "How can you tell an extroverted Minnesotan from an introverted Minnesotan?" he asks. "The extrovert stares at your shoes when they talk."
01 After a Nordic meal at the Bachelor Farmer, browse the European-inspired menswear at Askov Finlayson and then sip an olive-oil-and-gin Oliveto at Marvel Bar, all in a refurbished 1881 North Loop warehouse.
02 Close to art and theatre venues, the Grand Hotel Minneapolis has generously sized rooms and fitness facilities.
03 Minnehaha Park is a prairie woodland with walking trails near the banks of the Mississippi. Order a crawfish po' boy and a Surly beer at Sea Salt Eatery, within earshot of the waterfalls.
04 Minneapolis has one of the largest Hmong populations in the U.S. At Hmongtown Marketplace, needlework is a point of pride – according to legend, the intricate motifs contain vestiges of the tribe's long-lost written language.
05 On the plains near Plato, 100-acre Tangletown Gardens is a paragon of alternative agriculture. It hosts garden and art tours along with farm dinners, and supplies its own Wise Acre Eatery with fresh heirloom vegetables and meats under the irresistible catchphrase From Plato to Plate.
06 Wilbur Foshay was living the dream when he built his Art Deco office tower in the 1920s. W Minneapolis - The Foshay narrows impressively toward the top; stop at the plush bar (set in Foshay's office) on the way to the 30th-floor museum and observation deck.
Air Canada offers daily non-stop service to Minneapolis from Toronto.