A taste of Door County | Local cuisine offers more than just cherries

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

If life hasn’t been a bowl of cherries lately, then a food excursion to Door County may be in order. Cherry trees populate the peninsula, and the tart little fruit enlivens everything from pies and pancakes to bratwurst and beer.

But even if cherries aren’t your thing, you’re guaranteed to find something to love in the local cuisine. You just need to know where to look.

Following are a few suggestions to help you locate the sustenance your heart and stomach  desire.

ABOUT THOSE CHERRIES

With only about a foot of topsoil layering a long limestone outcropping that is the western edge of the Niagara Escarpment, Door County was never prime agricultural real estate. However, the peninsula’s limitations have made it ideal cherry country, with literally thousands of acres of tart Montmorency cherry trees adding to the landscape.

At one time Door County produced 95 percent of the cherries sold in the nation, but the balance has shifted in favor of tourism. The peninsula now accounts for only 5 percent of the nation’s tart cherry crop, placing Wisconsin fourth behind Michigan, Utah and New York as the top tart-cherry-producing states.

Each tree produces 6,000-7,000 cherries, and that’s nothing to spit your pits at. Packed with anti-oxidants and known for their anti-inflammatory power, cherries are considered a super-food. A study released earlier this year by the University of Oklahoma suggests that cherries help support strong bones. Growing awareness of the fruit’s health benefits has increased demand. 

This year’s crop is ready for harvest so we’re entering the prime of Door County’s cherry season.

Orchard markets line Highway 42, which travels north from Sturgeon Bay up the Green Bay side of the peninsula, also known as Door County’s “sunset coast.” One of the largest is the Seaquist Orchards Farm Market, 11482 Hwy. 42, just north of Sister Bay. 

The 1,000-acre orchard is owned by a second-generation family of growers, according to Laura Seaquist, whose mother Kristin Seaquist began the business decades ago by selling jars of homemade jam by the roadside. Today the family runs its own canning operation and sells every product imaginable that might include cherries, including jams, jellies, salsas, mustards, pie fillings, toppings and others.

“I recommend the cherry-almond jelly,” says Seaquist, the company’s head baker, during a break from kneading the dough for the 1,700 pies the store produces weekly. “I had it on my sandwich every day that I went to school and it’s great.”

I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM

Nothing accommodates cherries better than freshly churned ice cream, and Seaquist cherries can be found in the Door County Cherry flavor sold at the Door County Ice Cream Factory, 11051 Hwy. 42, in Sister Bay.

Owner Todd Frisoni produces a super premium ice cream on the premises. His products are 15 percent butterfat, while most commercially made ice cream is 10–12 percent butterfat. His small-batch production process encourages frequent experimentation. Black Licorice, a recent flavor of the day, replicates a flavor that was popular during the 1940s. It was a hit with vacationers, says Frisoni, who also bakes his own waffle cones.

Ice cream traditions are even more fully explored down the road in neighboring Ephraim, where the landmark Wilson’s Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor, 9990 Hwy. 42, has been serving up sandwiches and confections since 1906. Wilson’s serves Cedar Crest Ice Cream, a premium brand produced in Cedarburg, in all manner of styles. Even a single serving is large enough to share.

Not Licked Yet Frozen Custard, 4054 Hwy. 42, Fish Creek, also is known for its creative confections. Owners Susie and Clay Zielke specialize in sundae combinations you’ve never heard of – including the Mr. Potato Head (vanilla custard, peanut butter, caramel sauce, whipped cream and potato chips), the Velvet Elvis (vanilla custard topped with peanut butter, banana sauce, whipped cream, bacon and a crisp dill pickle) and the Sundae of Broken Dreams (vanilla custard topped with caramel sauce, pretzel crunch and whipped cream). To each his or her own.

SOMETHING FISHY

After cherries, Door County is best known for the bountiful whitefish harvested daily from Lake Michigan. The mild-tasting fish has become especially popular for fish boils, the unique local tradition that pairs chunks of fish with red potatoes, onions and other ingredients. 

Salted water is brought to a boil over an open flame outdoors, then the ingredients are lowered into the water in wire baskets. Once the oils rise to the top, the flames are sloshed with kerosene (really), causing the water to boil over, both dousing the flame and removing the oils from the fish.

The fish boil is said to have originated in 1961 at Viking Grill, 12029 Hwy. 42, Ellison Bay. Owners Annette and Lawrence Wickman were seeking to replicate church trout boils they had seen elsewhere. Today, fish boils are ubiquitous on the peninsula. Rowley’s Bay Resort, 1041 County Road ZZ, outside of Ellison Bay, hosts one of the most popular boils. There, the performance is as important as the meal itself.

Smoked whitefish is almost as popular as the boiled kind. Charlie’s Smokehouse, 12731 Hwy. 42, which opened in 1932 at the peninsula’s tip in Gills Rock, is a popular stop for vacationers and locals eager to stock their larder with smoked whitefish, salmon and trout.

Equally popular, but significantly harder to find, Hickey Brothers Fisheries and Market, 8096 Ridges Road, Baileys Harbor, offers a cooler case filled with smoked whitefish and salmon. Hickey Brothers also is known for its whitefish roe, which is marketed as “golden caviar” and sells for about $5 per ounce. But don’t expect to find any in the company’s small store. Harvested in fall, the entire supply is sold each year to brokers in Sweden.

In addition to their food business, the Hickey Brothers – Dennis and Jeff – are working on behalf of the U.S. National Park Service to help rid the lakes in Yellowstone and Glacier National parks of brown trout and other invasive species.