An Open Window -- Door County, Wisconsin

Apparently, Door County, Wisconsin got its name because of a swath of water located between the tip of the peninsula (imagine a thumb jutting out from a hand…that’s Door County) and Washington Island, just north of the peninsula. These waters, due to their treacherous conditions were named by the French, Porte des Morts – “Deaths Door” (there are tons of shipwrecks which you can dive). These days the Door is less about loss of life and more about a way of life; tranquil, friendly, you know the best of the Mid-West. The peninsula is flanked by Lake Michigan and Green Bay. I always advocate that when traveling, go local. This means you need to sample local wines and beers, avoiding chain restaurants, and discover where and what the cool foods are. The region is home to seven wineries, two distilleries, local beers, cheese and cherries…lots and lots of cherries.

Sweet cherry pie!

There are three foods which define Door County: cheese, cherries, and fish. Cherries are what the region is best known for and you can’t throw a rock without hitting a cherry orchard (please don’t throw rocks in orchards). Therefore cherry pie is ubiquitous. I sampled cherry pie everywhere I went in the Door and found all manner of pie, using the tart Montmorency cherry. Some pies added almond paste; some had sugared crust, flaky crusts, sweet fillings, and tart-sweet fillings. I routinely make this a practice everyplace I go (biscuits and gravy in Virginia; crème brulee in Paris; quail in Texas; venison in Switzerland, etc.) and discover the amazing nuances of local versions. It’s a cool way to make your vacation more interesting.

A traditional fish boil

Boiled fish has never been a staple of my cooking; however the fish boil in Door, an aptly named food event dating back to the 1850s, uses white fish from Lake Michigan or Green Bay. The basic ingredients are fish, potatoes, onions and salt. That’s it. A large pot is brought to a boil over an open flame, salt is added, then potatoes and onions. At the end of the boil, fuel is thrown on the fire and you’ve got yourself a mini-volcano. The original fish boils happened when the oily salmon, which was more common in the olden days, would boil over and enflame the fire. With whitefish, there is no actual boil over; therefore the ending flash is enhanced by the tossing on of fuel. Fish boils are common throughout the county and a connection to history but make sure you choose a fish boil where they use real wood - some outfits use an electric burner - not accurate, not historic and kinda lame. The Square Rigger Gallery in Jacksonport does a traditional fish boil and along with your dinner, there are appetizers and, yes, cherry pie for dessert, about 20 bucks.

You can't go wrong with Wisconsin cheese

Wisconsin brags it has 51 cheese masters (super fancy cheese making people), procuring an astounding array of cheeses, and it ain’t all Colby and cheddar. Wisconsin Cheese Masters has a selection of over 90 local cheeses in one spot conveniently located just steps from Harbor Ridge Winery in Egg Harbor. There are free samples ranging from sheep, goat and cow cheeses; Goudas, merlot-soaked cheeses, chipotle and a most excellent Evalon, an aged goat cheese from LaClare Farms. Buy your cheese then walk next door to the winery and taste some wine.

Harbor Ridge Winery started off as a coffee shop, then morphed into wine, perhaps an unusual transformation for Wisconsin but we all need to make a living. They make a few sweet wines on site, but buy a lot of grapes from the West Coast to make Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay. Orchard Country Winery makes a bushel full of fruit wines and they have an exceptional cherry wine which perfectly showcases the area. Shipwreck Brewery in Egg Harbor does a fine job of local beers and their Peninsula Porter, a dry, rich brew with toasted barley and soft mocha notes is terrific. There are the two distilleries in the Door, including Door County Distillery who make vodka, gin, and cherry infused vodka. The regular vodka is surprisingly smooth for an 80 proof and worth getting a bottle to bring home.

Some of the Harbor Ridge wines

There are a plethora of activities in the Door, great biking paths, kayaking Lake Michigan or Green Bay, fishing, museums and half a dozen lighthouses. The Cana Island Lighthouse is one of the few which is all original. On Washington Island, a 30 minute ferry ride from the most northern point of the peninsula, you will find among the tree studded forest, not visible from the road, the Stavkirke. The what? Well, it’s a church, built entirely of wood with no nails and replicated after a similar one located in Norway, originally built in 1150 A.D. This one was constructed by volunteers between 1991 and 1995 and is a stunning piece of craftsmanship.

The impressive hand built Stavkirke
With so many choices of where to stay you want something that accentuates the Door experience. I like the Blacksmith Inn on the Shore in Bailey’s Harbor. The Inn was built in 1905 by, yes, a blacksmith. The main house has original wide plank floors, chinked walls and though the rooms are new, they have Jacuzzi tubs, gas fireplaces and every morning I watched the sunrise over Lake Michigan from my bed. They have kayaks and bikes you can use for free. The bay is just steps down a little wood walkway, a perfect place for morning coffee.

The Blacksmith Inn on the Shore

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