Door County’s bounty of culinary delights
Simon Creek Vineyard & Winery has grapes planted on 20 acres behind its secluded winery, 15 miles north of Sturgeon Bay.(Jon Jarosh)
Locally grown squash is a seasonal favorite at Koepsel’s Farm Market north of Baileys Harbor.
(Door County Visitor Bureau)
During the heavily touristed summer months in Door County, the steady stream of customers at Koepsel’s Farm Market keeps owner Karrie Oram on her feet 10 hours a day.
You’d think early November, when the market shuts down for the winter, would bring a breather for Oram, whose grandmother, Emma Koepsel, first sold her wares from a roadside stand in 1940. But fall is when the days get even longer as Oram moves from the cash register to the kitchen — for canning season.
“We’ll start the middle of November and go till the middle of March, and we’ll work 12-hour days,” the Baileys Harbor native said. “We can about 750,000 jars a year.”
The work’s all done by Oram, her husband, Kevin, and their two adult daughters, Kami and Karina. They make 72 varieties of jam and jelly, 33 butters, 19 salsas and 14 kinds of pickles. A jar of their Summer Harvest contains 10 vegetables, including carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, peas and zucchini.
The veggies, along with fruits like cherries and raspberries, represent just a portion of what the locals sometimes call Door County’s bounty. Visitors relish locally grown food from one end of the peninsula to the other. On Washington Island, they can even sink their teeth into a lawyer — with no risk of being sued. (More on that later.)
At Wickman House restaurant in Ellison Bay, the staff isn’t always found in the kitchen. The woods of northern Door County are full of wild chanterelle mushrooms, fiddlehead ferns and ramps that workers forage to include in the chefs’ recipes. A wealth of other produce — from arugula and kale to watermelon — is grown in the garden behind the rambling white home that was once a B&B.
Atop the menu, diners see the words, “Proudly serving the freshest bounties of our community.”
“It’s everything; it’s like the cornerstone of the restaurant,” co-owner Mike Holmes explained. “Our goal is to get about 75 percent of our produce from our land.”
The harvest is cleverly crafted into various dishes. During my visit, the falafel sandwich ($15) was topped with green tomato jam, while asparagus and spring peas were used in the ramp ravioli ($26).
Many of Door County’s discoveries — Wickman House included — are overlooked by travelers who stick to the main roads. That’s particularly true of Simon Creek Vineyard & Winery. While the mailing address is Sturgeon Bay, the winery is, in fact, 15 miles north of town, down a gravel lane smack dab in the middle of the peninsula.
The winery’s founder, retired Army Col. Tim Lawrie, bought the land sight unseen. He had better luck than gangster Al Capone, whose purchase offer in the 1920s reportedly was rebuffed by land owner Chris Simon. In the farmer’s honor, one of Simon Creek’s popular wines is its “Untouchable Red.”
Free tastings include four of the 21 wines produced by Simon Creek. Guests also can stroll through the 20 acres of vineyards and unwind on the large deck behind the retail store.
Many of the winery’s nearly 70,000 annual visitors arrive by trolley. Lawrie’s business is one of several visited during Door County Trolley’s Premier Wine Tour (www.doorcountytrolley.com/premier-wine-tour).
A map of the eight wineries along the Door County Wine Trail can be picked up at local businesses (www.doorcountywinetrail.com).
“It’s friendly competition,” Lawrie said of his fellow winemakers. “We work together.”
Folks who prefer cider to wine can wet their whistles farther north. Island Orchard Cider produces both apple and pear ciders from fruit grown in Washington Island orchards.
Co-owner Yannique Purman, a French native, introduced her husband, Bob, to cider a few years ago, when the couple were cycling through Normandy. Unlike sweet, British ciders, the Purmans’ are drier, just like those found in France.
“Our goal is to pair (them) with food,” Bob Purman noted. “All but one are sparkling.”
Customers can purchase cider by the bottle from the Ellison Bay tasting room. They’re also sold in scores of bars and restaurants throughout Wisconsin, from the nearby Wickman House to the Brat Stop (www.bratstop.com) in Kenosha.
Washington Island’s apples and pears aren’t nearly as curious as its burbot, the only member of the cod family that thrives in fresh water. Ken Koyen has been hauling burbot — which goes by the nickname “lawyer” — into his boat for the past 45 years.
“I remember the first lift,” he said of pulling in the net hand over hand in 1971.
“Most commercial fishermen target mostly whitefish now,” he added. “Unlike them, I target lawyers.”
People who have vacationed in Door County know whitefish as the catch used in the famous fish boils. But to try deep-fried lawyer, they have to visit Koyen’s other business, the KK Fiske Restaurant.
The stories of how the fish got the “lawyer” moniker vary. Some sources claim it’s because they’re big-mouthed bottom feeders. But Koyen, who has caught and cleaned countless burbot, has a different version.
“The reason they call ‘em lawyers is because of the location of their heart,” he explained. “It’s right next to — and I’ll keep it clean — their butt.”
KK Fiske serves fresh lawyers — never frozen — as they’re available. He said demand often exceeds supply.
The restaurant is the only one on the island that stays open year-round. For locals and visitors who drop by on Thanksgiving or Christmas, dinner is on the house. Even attorneys are welcome.
Jay Jones is a freelance writer.
If you go
Koepsel’s Farm Market: 9669 Wisconsin Highway 57, Baileys Harbor, Wis.; 920-854-2433; www.koepsels.com
Wickman House: 11976 Mink River Road, Ellison Bay, Wis.; 920-854-3305; www.wickmanhouse.com
Simon Creek Vineyard & Winery: 5896 Bochek Road, Sturgeon Bay, Wis.; 920-746-9307; www.simoncreekwines.com
Island Orchard Cider: 12040 Garrett Bay Road, Ellison Bay, Wis.; 920-854-3344; www.islandorchardcider.com
KK Fiske Restaurant: 1177 Main Road, Washington Island, Wis.; 920-847-2121 (no website)
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