8 Tastes to Try in Door County, Wisconsin’s Passionate Peninsula
By Mark Orwoll
Door County, Wisconsin, is one of those places you’ve heard of even though you’ve never been there. In the back of your mind, you kinda, sorta know about it: Lake Michigan, right? Farms, probably. Hmm…cute villages, cherries? Fish, maybe?
No, sorry. You don’t know Door.
Door County comprises most of an 80-mile-long peninsula that juts northeast into Lake Michigan (and thus creating Green Bay just to its west). Arts colony, summer getaway, second-home haven for the Chicagoland well-to-do, Door County has developed an aura of gentility that belies its origins: This is farm country. Set aside for a moment thoughts of quaint towns, galleries, craft stores, and theaters (though they exist in abundance). What you really want to do on a visit to Door County is, quite frankly, eat and drink.
Cheese from the Masters, Artisans, and Farmsteads
“This state is all about cheese!” says Al Feldman, chief counterman and designated kooky character at Egg Harbor’s Wisconsin Cheese Masters. And no, Cheese Masters is not a mere cheesemonger. It is a Temple of Turophilia, an odoriferous ode to cheese, with rarely fewer than 65 varieties on display at any given time, all from Wisconsin-based master, artisan, and farmstead cheesemakers. (Yes, there is an established legal hierarchy to these things.)
In case you didn’t figure it out yet, America’s Dairyland, as Wisconsin sometimes calls itself, is serious about the stuff. Back in the 1980s, Chicago sports fans jokingly dubbed their northern neighbors “cheeseheads,” and Wisconsinites quickly adopted the intended insult as a badge of honor.
There is no better place in Door County, or indeed in all Wisconsin, to sample the state’s creamery produce than Cheese Masters. The outlet’s best-seller is Marieke Golden, a farmstead semi-soft gouda-parmesan-cheddar-swiss made from raw cow’s milk. They sold 5,000 pounds of it last year. Snowfields, a winter cow’s milk butterkase-style cheese from a champion farmstead master, is the outlet’s second-best seller.
But don’t worry if you know nothing about cheese: Feldman will take you by the hand and walk you through it in his inimitable style. As he makes suggestions and offers bits of asiago and gorgonzola on platters, he comes across as a cheese savant, offering random comments like, “Air is the enemy of cheese!” and “All cheese should be eaten at room temperature!” His every utterance ends with exclamatory finality. It’s a wonder he doesn’t raise an index finger to the sky with each sentence. After sampling with Al Feldman, the Gouda Guru, you feel like you’ve just received not only an intriguing tasting, but an education in cheese.
“I find the customers very willing to try new things!” he says, as if I had just accused him of the opposite. “People come in here, they want to learn!”
Feldman shoves a plate of small cheese chunks toward me. “It’s onion-and-garlic gouda!” he pronounces. “Tell me what it tastes like!” I take a piece and chew it slowly. I recognize the flavor; it’s literally on the tip of my tongue. Feldman waits for me, but gets frustrated when I don’t quickly answer. “Cheeseburger!” he says, exasperated. “It tastes like a cheeseburger!” But exactly! I immediately want to buy a half-pound to bring home, but I’m not sure I can pack it in a suitcase.
“Don’t worry!” says Feldman, woefully shaking his head at yet another cheese newbie. “All packaged cheese is good for at least twenty-four hours without refrigeration!”
Cheese Curds—Without the Whey
Comparing cheese curds (another Door County staple) to the fine cheeses at Wisconsin Cheese Masters is like a side-by-side match-up between a penthouse cocktail party and a dorm-room kegger. Yeah, they both have people and booze, but they’re not the same animal. Neither better nor worse. Just different.
Those of a certain generation may have memorized “Little Miss Muffet” when they were kids, wondering what the heck “curds and whey” were. We’ll dispense with greasy, horrible, no-good whey for now, but curds? Yum. Curds are a not-to-be-missed staple of a visit here. How to define them? “Moist pieces of curdled milk,” as they’re often described, doesn’t quite capture the rubbery chewiness of the (usually) cheddar goodness. They’re often eaten in bits and pieces, snack-like, and experts will tell you that when they’re really, really fresh, they…squeak. Yes, when you bite into them, they squeak.
I have my first cheese curds—battered and deep fried—at Wild Tomato, a gourmet pizzeria overlooking Green Bay in the village of Sister Bay. Later I try fresh curds; they do indeed squeak, but to me they taste only marginally better than so-so cheese. I’ll take the fried ones any day. At Wild Tomato, the curds remind me of fried mozzarella sticks—“but springier!” insists Kate, one of my traveling companions. OK, fine, springier, it is. Like ’em or not, fried or traditional, try some on your next visit for a one-of-a-kind Wisconsin taste and cement your credentials as an honorary cheesehead.
Sweden on A Plate
The most famous eatery on the Door Peninsula, in business since 1949, is Scandinavian-themed Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay. Well, themed is probably the wrong word. Obsessed is more like it.
Owned and operated by the same family for more than 70 years, Al Johnson’s is devoted to the cuisine and culture of Sweden (and to an extent, Norway), thanks to its founders, Al and Ingert Johnson. Ingert is a native of Sweden who came to this country as an immigrant. Al (who died in 2010) had already been running a diner in what had been an IGA grocery store when Ingert suggested focusing on some of the dishes she used to cook back home.
In the years that followed, not only did the menu add a Nordic emphasis, but the entire building was refashioned into a charming log-cabin lodge–made in Norway and shipped in sections to Sister Bay. The rustic building has a grassy sod roof staffed by a fleet of goats who have guarded the rooftop overlooking the bay since 1973.
The goats, of course, are the attention-grabbers, clearly visible from the sidewalks along Sister Bay’s main street as well as from the sprawling faux-grass-covered Stabbur, the restaurant’s beer garden. (If you want to regret trying a beverage you’ll probably find only at Stabbur or in Stockholm, order a Thor’s Hammer, which is a bite of pickled herring followed by a shot of fiery Aquavit.) The goats spend the night at a nearby farm and are trucked over to the restaurant each morning, weather permitting, and led up a walkway to the roof, where they peacefully graze the day away, munching on grass and studiously ignoring the passers-by below. Check out Al Johnson’s goat cam to see for yourself.
The Swedish pancakes are delightful—so very, very thin, more like crepes than traditional, diner-style flapjacks. Soak them in butter, slather them with lingonberry jam, and pour on a dollop of Al Johnson’s Swedish Pancake Syrup, and you have a memorable breakfast. Better yet, for the full experience, add a side order of Norway-sourced pickled herring, pickled beets, and juicy Swedish meatballs dripping with gravy for a singular Scandinavian taste sensation rarely found outside far northern Europe.
Warning: Steer clear of cherry baron Dale Seaquist unless you have an hour or two to kill listening to his tales of old Door County. Not that they’re not interesting. They are. He just starts talking and you can’t stop listening. The 83-year-old Dale (we’ll be informal and call him that to distinguish between him and his eponymical orchard business) is the patriarch these days and source of the family-business history.
The multi-generational operation is now more than a century old. Anders Seaquist immigrated from Sweden in the early 1900s to found what would become an empire. “He bought 700 cherry trees and planted them in Door County,” says Dale, himself a fourth-generation cherryman. “That got a lot of other people to plant cherries. By the 1950s, there were 740 cherry growers. We became known as Cherryland USA. Then government regulations just destroyed the industry.” Now, he points out, most of the growers are gone. “Today we produce ninety-six percent of the cherries from Wisconsin.”
With their up-to-date methods, Seaquist can harvest 16 trees a minute. They brought in 9 million pounds of cherries from 1,400 acres of orchards in the spring of 2021. In their country store and production facility, they invent, manufacture, and sell everything that could conceivably be made from cherries. If you want to know about cherries, this must be the place.
“You should hear all the crazy questions I get,” says Dale, shaking his head at the wackiness of life. “One woman asked me, ‘When do the cherries go bing?’ I told her it was at midnight during a full moon!”
Seaquist Orchards’ packing facility produces 300,000 jars of fruit every year in 100 different flavors and concoctions—jams, jellies, marmalade, even a barbecue sauce. Another side of the business is pressing: They squeeze out 100,000 gallons of juice during harvest season. They source a lot of their fruit from elsewhere, but use only cherries from their own orchards.
Seaquist makes hundreds of different products, some of them traditional, others out of this world: cherry-almond syrup, cherry-lavender syrup, cherry-oatmeal muffins, cherry-flavored fudge, cherry-blueberry jam, Bing cherry jam, bags of dried tart cherries, cherry BBQ sauce, and more.
I ask Dale for his favorite product from their exhaustive list. Cherry vinaigrette salad dressing, perhaps? Or maybe something wild, like the hot cherry salsa? I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by his answer: “Cherry pie,” he says, almost licking his lips as he speaks. “Uh-huh, yep. Cherry pie.”
In the 19th century, when the peninsula was inhabited largely by fishermen and loggers, fish boils were commonplace. The fishermen would camp on the shore and throw some of their catch into huge cauldrons of boiling water, along with any potatoes and onions they might have. Lumberjacks camping nearby would often join them. They would throw more and more wood on the fire until the fish was cooked and the cauldron boiled over—effectively eliminating the foam and fish oils that built up. Occasionally kerosene would be added to the fire to make the flames grow really, really big. Alcohol may have been involved.
Today fish boils are a Friday-night tradition in Door County, mostly during the warm-weather months, held at a handful of Door County restaurants. The fish of choice, by far, is the rather bland-sounding (but far from bland-tasting) whitefish.
“Whitefish can be baked or broiled, and it’s very meaty,” says long-time fisherman and raconteur Charlie Henriksen, co-owner, with his son Will, of Henriksen Fisheries. These days, Charlie and Will catch as much as 13,000 pounds of fish a week, mostly whitefish. “You can deep fry it, you can chunk it. It’s the prime fish in the Door County fish boil. One of our customers even uses it to make ceviche.”
If you’re in Door on a day other than Friday, and you’re staying in an accommodation with a kitchen, you can pick up the freshest of whitefish filets to cook for yourself from Henriksen’s newest venture, a retail outlet managed by Charlie’s daughter-in-law, Kristina, that opened in March 2021 in Ellison Bay. Besides filets, Henriksen’s outlet sells whitefish cakes and whitefish cracker spread (based on either cream cheese or goat cheese), with plans for more whitefish delicacies.
If you don’t want to or can’t cook it yourself, you can find baked or broiled whitefish on the menus of scores of Door County restaurants. And the chances are pretty good that the fish found its way to your table via one of Charlie Henriksen’s nets.
To sit in on an authentic fish boil, book a reservation at Pelletier’s in Fish Creek, the White Gull Inn in Fish Creek, the Old Post Office Restaurant in Ephraim, or any of several other restaurants that offer the spectacle and meal.
The Softer Side of Hard Cider
For anyone unfamiliar with hard apple cider, or who may know about it only from the recent popularity of flavored ciders aimed at party-hardy young adults, Island Orchard Cider in Ellison Bay is bound to be an eye-opener. The cidery features Normandy-style ciders based on the types of apples and growing conditions of that French region, whose climate is similar to Door County’s.
“We grow mainly English and French cider apples,” says Bob Purman, owner and cider-maker, who started the orchard in 2005. He had to experiment with a variety of trees before he found just the right ones. “We were planting a lot of French cultivars [plants bred for specific traits]. Some of them did very well, but some didn’t survive the cold winters. But we’re very happy with what we have now.”
As to why Purman has pursued the Gallic style of cider, it’s very simple: His wife’s father is from Brittany, in the far northwest corner of France, next to the Normandy region. During their visits there, they fell in love with that style of cider, and decided to pursue a career in cider-making back home in Door County.
Says the lanky, bearded cider maker: “We had a 40-acre farm on the island [Washington Island, at the northern tip of the Door County peninsula]. We had a few apples on the farm, but nothing serious. I knew starting a cider orchard was going to be a lot of work, but we wanted to get out of a high-pressure career and enter our mellow years. Well, there’s nothing mellow about it!”
Purman’s ciders are on tap in 60-70 Wisconsin bars and sold in regional stores, but don’t look for it in your local Piggly Wiggly or Hollywood and Vin wine shop. Island Orchard cider is distributed only in Wisconsin. So take advantage during your visit and buy a couple of bottles to tote home in your checked luggage.
Besides the Normandy-style ciders, Island Orchard also does beer-brewing styles, Champagne-styles (fermentation in the bottle), and brandy. All the ciders are packaged in wine-like bottles, lending a certain elegance to the experience. And like wine, the ciders each have their own personality, though about half the alcohol of wine.
My recommendation is to sample a flight of the various ciders in Island Orchards’ tasting room to get sense of which ones most appeal to you. My favorite was the Brut — very dry, light on the tongue, fresh and slightly tangy. Although there’s only a mild apple taste, it’s true cider to the core.
In the micro-brewing world, the smallest batches are often called one-barrel brews. (A barrel is approximately equal to two kegs.) Brewers that focus on such small-batch, often experimental beers are called nano-breweries. And that’s exactly how Egg Harbor-based One Barrel Brewing Co. got its start in Madison in 2012 before moving its main operation to Door County on Memorial Day weekend in 2019.
The arrival of One Barrel sparked a growth spurt among the county’s craft brewers. Today there are six commercial breweries on the peninsula.
“We distribute only to Wisconsin,” says Olivia Templin, operations manager of the Door County branch, “but our strength is our accessibility. People are sometimes afraid of the craft scene because they think it’s too hipsterish. That’s not our jam at all. Tell us what you like to drink and we’ll find something that’s just right for you.”
In the dog-friendly beer garden, locals stretch out on Adirondack chairs or sit around cozy fire pits while sampling anywhere from six to eight beers on tap at a given time. Up North Wisconsin Lager is a super-popular easy-drinking beer. Another local favorite is DC Trolley Red (with Door County cherries), notable for a hint of tartness. “It’s an experimental brew like we might do at the Madison outlet,” says Templin. Other experimentals on tap include Ninja Dust (a juicy IPA) and Cherry Razz Sour, with tons of cherry flavor and astringency.
Door Peninsula Winery & Distillery
I am going to put a sign on the front door of this paragraph: No Wine Snobs Allowed.
Look, we all know this is Wisconsin. We’re not expecting micro-climate Cabs from a specific hillside just above Yountville. Besides, Door Peninsula Winery & Distillery focuses on what it does best—making fruit wines that aren’t necessarily made from grapes.
The winery started in 1974 in a former two-room schoolhouse built in 1868. Although the winery is still in the same building, you’d hardly recognize the much-expanded facility except for the belltower that still rests above the entrance. It is the third oldest winery in the state.
Do you doubt its popularity? The winery puts out between 150,000 and 200,000 gallons of wine a year—60 varieties made from strawberries, plums, and cherries, individually and in blends. And for those purists who are still reading, Door Peninsula Winery also has some grape wines, made mainly from Marquette, Itasca, and Baco Noir grapes, all grown in the Wisconsin Ledge AVA wine region.
Those bottlings will probably never be considered fine wines compared to those found in the vaunted vineyards of, say, France and California, but they are eminently drinkable, some to accompany a meal, others to sip on the front porch on a warm summer evening. “We’re all about making wine you can drink right away,” says Beth Levendusky, the winery’s marketing director.
My recommendations on the wine side of the menu: Rosé Soiree, a dry, light-bodied wine from Marquette and Frontenac grapes that tastes “like a glass of tart strawberries,” says Levendusky. Also sample the winery’s signature Peninsula Red, a blend of red grapes and cherries, lightly oaked for a smooth mid-palate.
The distillery part of the business came later, and is now ten years old, producing 18 different types of liquor, including gin, rum, cherry moonshine, cherry bitters, single-malt Scotch, cherry vodka, and coffee liqueur, among others.
On my visit, I’m fortunate enough to sample several of those liquors, including the one-of-kind cherry vodka, the equally unique cherry moonshine, and the cherry brandy, as well as the single-malt Scotch and gin.
My bartender, Jane, is surprised that I think the moonshine isn’t fruit-forward.
“It may be your palate,” she says, eyeing me dubiously. “I think it has the most fruit flavor.”
And with that I have no other choice than to push my glass forward and say, “Jane, I guess the only way to resolve this conundrum is for you to pour me another.”
©2021 Mark Orwoll All Rights Reserved
Mark Orwoll is the author of “John Wayne Speaks,” to be published by St. Martin’s Griffin in November 2021. He held the title of International Editor (among other positions) at Travel + Leisure for 30 years, and was the longest serving editor in the magazine’s history. As a freelancer, Orwoll writes for Condé Nast Traveler, the Travel Channel, Matador Network, Hemispheres, Travel + Leisure, the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald, the Saturday Evening Post, and numerous other print and online outlets.