DOOR COUNTY, Wis. — If Wisconsin brings to mind nothing but cheese and the Packers football team, then you've never been to Door County.
The county, home to towns such as Egg Harbor and Sturgeon Bay, extends into Lake Michigan like an outstretched thumb, forming one side of Green Bay. The city of Green Bay is only about 40 miles south but seems much farther; Door County is like a bit of Cape Cod transported to the upper Midwest.
The bulk of the county sits on a narrow peninsula. Several islands lie off its shores; the only inhabited one is Washington Island, which spans about 24 miles. The others are tiny, and one, a former state park, is now a bird sanctuary.
The geography and geology are important, as they transformed the county into something unique in Lake Michigan waters. The peninsula sits on the Niagara escarpment, a limestone foundation that stretches all the way to Niagara Falls. There's only about a foot of soil above the limestone here; the limestone limits agricultural efforts to plants with relatively shallow roots while at the same time making the soil exceptionally fertile.
That combination is perfect for growing fruit, especially cherries. In the 1960s, Door County led the nation in cherry production. While that's not true today (the county still ranks in the top five), tart cherries can be found growing everywhere on the peninsula. About 13 million pounds of cherries are grown here each year, finding their way into juices, wines, cheeses, salsas and sausages. Some are allowed to dry out like raisins, and others end up in a Door County specialty called Bounce: a mix of fresh cherries, sugar and brandy that is allowed to sit for several months before drinking.
Tart cherries are best boiled before eaten. Fresh from the tree, they have a slight laxative effect, producing discomfort locally known as “grower's revenge.” Once boiled, though, they're safe and delicious and can be found in all their variations in tourist-friendly shops and at the Sturgeon Bay farmer's market.
“The cherries bloom in the middle of May, and that is a beautiful time to be up here,” said Bob Kohout, a driver for Door County Trolley. “The apples, the cherries and the pears all bloom at the same time, so you have all those white and pink blossoms, thousands and thousands and thousands of acres, all down the county.
“It's absolutely stunning. The cherries — eight weeks after they bloom, they're ready to pick. So the third week in July is generally the picking season. Lots of people come up, join the locals, pick cherries, make a pie, make some Bounce.”
Only about 50 acres are devoted to sweet cherries, he said. Consequently, “if you come up for picking season ... you're not going to be able to pick sweet cherries. There's not a lot of them, for one, and the main reason, quite frankly, is that people tend to eat more than they put in the bucket, so it's a losing proposition for the growers.”
These days, relatively few cherries are picked by hand. At Lautenbach's Orchard Country Winery & Market in Fish Creek, for example, massive machines can empty a tree in moments. The machines, commonly called shakers, grab a tree, shake it vigorously for five to seven seconds and collect the 7,000 or so cherries per tree as they fall. The cherries are conveyed to a tank of cool water, and the machine moves on to the next tree. The machines can clear 75 to 80 trees per hour.
Door County isn't just about fruit, though. The peninsula is home to about 250 miles of trails, as well as top-tier playhouses, marinas, shops and restaurants. Jon Jarosh of the Door County Visitors Bureau boasts that the county has 323 acres of shoreline, more than any other county in America.
Throughout the temperate months of spring, summer and early fall, the county is flush with visitors, especially on weekends. Roughly two-thirds of the land in the county belongs to out-of-towners, including about 70 percent of the shoreline and water access areas. Massive guest homes worth well over $1 million tower over the beaches and bluffs. Boathouses nestle near the water; because the lake freezes in the winter, any boats left on the surface could be crushed by ice.
The northern edge of the county, in particular, has a retro resort feel, somehow reminiscent of “Dirty Dancing.” Buildings are painted white, and people walk or ride bikes everywhere, enjoying locally produced ice cream or dining outdoors at independent restaurants. Cars become almost useless; left turns are all but impossible on the busy two-lane roads. Everywhere, though, is the fresh smell of fruit trees and the pleasantly cool, moist air off the lake. Walking the hilly streets and breathing the fresh air makes one feel positively athletic, and since most folks came here to relax, events proceed at a slow pace. There's no need to rush.
Winter brings a dramatic drop in population. Businesses shut down for the season, and residents huddle inside, opening their Bounce around Christmas or New Year's for a little added warmth. The bay freezes. The streets open up. When the blooms return, so do the visitors.
What to eat
As you would expect for an area that has such fertile ground, food is among the main attractions in Door County. You can find the expected — cheese and cherries in all shapes and forms. And you can find a few unexpected treats as well. One such place is called ¡Parador! The tapas restaurant is the culmination of the dream of owners Larry and Rebecca Majewski.
Their approach to tapas is simple: Make everything delicious. One salad, which features roasted red and golden beets with beet puree, organic greens, citrus vinaigrette and imported Spanish serrano ham, is rich and complex and enough to change one's opinion about the lowly beet forever.
Other highlights include:
• Three varieties of sangria, which are all equally tasty and refreshing.
• Bacon-wrapped dates.
• Tortilla Espanola, which is a Spanish omelet with potatoes and onions served with garlic aioli.
Part of the charm of ¡Parador! is the back story. Rebecca Majewski was born in Portugal and moved to the United States as a child. She spent time in college in Toledo, Spain. The restaurant's name comes from “Paradores de Turismo de Espana,” which are government-owned hotels throughout Spain. Usually, a Parador is in a historical building and has a restaurant with food from that region.
The Wisconsin version of ¡Parador! is in the historic Nelson House of Egg Harbor. It sits along the highway that runs through Door County and aims to echo the sense of hospitality the Majewskis loved about Spain.