Photo © James Brey
How do we love thee, Montmorency? We can only begin to count the ways.
You sneak into pancakes at the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, the chicken salad croissant at the Door County Bakery in Sister Bay and in the cherry barbecue sauce-glazed pork chops at the Carrington Pub & Grill in Egg Harbor.
The Montmorency, a tart cherry, is a major crop in Door County, whose farmers produced almost all of Wisconsin’s 9.3 million pounds in 2015, the fifth highest harvest in the nation (after Michigan, Utah, Washington and New York).
We are so wild about cherries that couples want wedding ceremonies in cherry orchards, especially when the trees blossom, usually in mid-May. Around that time, the snow of winter has been replaced with a gentle and lightly fragrant blanket of fallen petals. The splash of spring wildflowers—bleeding hearts, dwarf irises, gaywings, trillium—and 2.2 million tulip and daffodil bulbs further enliven the landscape.
In a typical year, the cherry harvest happens about 60 days after the trees bloom, mid-July to mid-August, and in 2016 the county had 11 orchards with a pick-your-own option. Although that sums up the cherry season, the hunt for delectable cherry dishes and products happens all year.
A BERRY FOR ALL SEASONS
Cherries show up in just about all meal courses in Door County restaurants, if you know where to look.
Lunch at The Cookery in Fish Creek might mean a sandwich of turkey, cream cheese and cherry chutney on toasted granola bread. Dinner might begin with a salad of greens dressed with cherries, apples, Gorgonzola and candied walnuts.
A night out at Alexander’s in Fish Creek can begin with a cherry-cucumber mojito or Cherry Sorbetini (a slushy mix of vodka, tart cherry juice and cherry sorbet) and culminate with roasted duck and cherry sauce or charbroiled salmon basted with cherry barbecue.
A stay at Eagle Harbor Inn in Ephraim often means shortbread-cherry bars and lemonade in late afternoon, then cherry cider, cherry strudel muffins and granola with dried cherries at breakfast. Count on French toast stuffed with cherries and cream cheese on Saturdays and French toast topped with cherries and maple-pecan butter on Tuesdays.
A cherry margarita even pops up on Fred and Fuzzy’s menu, a waterfront bar at the edge of Little Sister Bay. Expect laid-back fare, like burgers and brats, but then comes the Cherry Blossom: cherry crumble pie wrapped in a flaky pastry and topped with ice cream and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
And look for a pretty Door County Sunrise inside of the Harbor Fish Market & Grille in Baileys Harbor. The rum cocktail contains cherry and citrus juices—but there are more choices for cherry lovers, like a mimosa of champagne and cherry cider, and the Door County Mule (tart cherries with vodka and ginger beer).
Cherry pie is standard fare on Door County dessert menus, but bakers at Fish Creek’s Sweetie Pies also list plump rhubarb-cherry, apple-cherry, peach-cherry and raspberry-cherry pies on their roster of 30-plus fillings. Each is sweetened with all-fruit jams, not sugar or sucrose.
MacReady Artisan Bread Company in Egg Harbor sells one-pound loaves with tart cherries and dried cranberries, flavored further with cinnamon, vanilla and honey. Nearby, the bakery at Wood Orchard Market makes flaky cherry strudel a specialty.
When Seaquist Orchards Farm Market opens in mid-May, samples of 50-plus products are made available daily until late October. Many contain cherries because crops include 1,000 acres of tart cherries and over 50 acres of sweet cherries and apples. About two-thirds of the county’s cherry crop is processed and packed here.
WHY GROW CHERRIES?
The level of cherry production and number of cherry concoctions make quite a statement, especially if turning back the clock 125 years, when two horticulturists planted the first fruit trees on this 70-mile-long peninsula. The combination of late springs, cool summers, easy access to water and a limestone dolomite terrain makes conditions ideal for cherry and apple production.
Door County’s latitude—the 45th parallel— was also attractive for fruit growing, and quickly the cherry crops earned national attention. The demand for pickers grew, and by 1919 a camp at the county fairgrounds temporarily housed 400 workers, who arrived by steamboat and train.
Each laborer was paid 7 cents per pail of cherries picked and harvested an average of 40 pails per day. Today the average cherry tree has 7,000 berries, and one automated shaker harvests cherries from 60 to 100 trees per hour.
And because of this beautiful bounty, cherries show up in everything from salsas to horseradish sauce in Door County. Fat Louie’s Olive Oil Company in Egg Harbor makes cherry-balsamic vinegar and cherry-honey barbecue sauce. Some businesses list the purported superfruit’s health benefits: Leading the list is relief from muscle pain and fatigue because of high antioxidant levels.
It is not unusual for participants in biking and running events such as the Door County Half Marathon in early May to receive cherry sports drinks from Country Ovens in Forestville. Rapid Red (a 100 percent cherry juice) and Rapid Whey (a cherry juice and whey protein beverage) were developed with food scientists as all-natural ways to help University of Wisconsin-Madison athletes recover from strenuous workouts.
But those aren’t the only locally produced beverages that contain cherries. Sturgeon Bay’s Door County Coffee & Tea sells cherry crème coffee, chocolate cherry coffee and a cherry loose leaf tea.
Shipwrecked Brew Pub in Egg Harbor makes Door County Cherry Wheat, a medium bodied fruity ale. And Door Peninsula Winery in Carlsville counts Chocolate Cherry and Dry Cherry among its nearly 50 wines.
Lautenbach’s Orchard Country in Fish Creek adds a personal touch to one of its cherry products. A semi-dry red wine with a Bing cherry finish is named Nathan John after the farm owner’s grandson.
The list of what’s available goes on and on, not even ending with scoops of Door County Cherry ice cream at Schopf Hilltop Dairy in Sturgeon Bay, and sundaes called Eagle Harbor Perfection (with cherries, hot fudge, pecans and whipped cream) at Wilson’s Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor in Ephraim.
So if it’s cherries that you crave, welcome to nirvana, during any season of the year.