It’s cherry season in Door County, Wisconsin and the harvest is in full swing. Trees heavy with crimson fruit march in neat rows over gently rolling hills, between green pastures punctuated with tidy farmhouses and handsome barns. The byways that traverse this spit of land jutting into Lake Michigan are picture-postcard pretty, alive with springtime flowers and the chatter of birds.
I’ve been taking full advantage of the summer crop – plucking cherries from the tree at Orchard Country Winery and Market, where I also tested my skill at pit spitting (13 feet, not bad for a rookie) and tasted cherry wine, a dry, jewel-toned beauty. I sampled the White Gull Inn’s cherry-stuffed French toast, winner of Good Morning America’s Best Breakfast challenge, and sipped a cherry margarita at Fred & Fuzzy’s, the ultimate sunset watering hole. I came across delicious hand-crafted cherry bitters at Door County Distillery and a spectacular chocolate and cherry sundae at Wilson’s retro ice cream parlour. At White Cottage Red Door, purveyor of all things cherry, including jams, chutneys, sauces, salsas, candies, cakes and cookies, I fell hard for the hand-dipped cherry truffles and blushing pink cherry donuts.
I’ve gained a new appreciation for the versatility of cherries, especially the sour Montmorency variety that flourishes in Door County. Montmorencies are not actually sour, they’re just more tart than sweet varieties like the Bing, and better retain their flavour when they’re cooked. To learn more about using cherries in the kitchen, I’ve signed up for a cherry-themed cooking class at Savory Spoon.
Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Janice Thomas is the force behind the Savory Spoon cooking school. It’s housed in the former Ellison Bay Schoolhouse, one of the many heritage buildings in Door County that have been given a new lease of life by entrepreneurs like Thomas. The bell that first announced the start of classes in 1879 now tolls for students wielding whisks and wooden spoons. Inside the clapboard schoolhouse desks and chalkboard have given way to a purpose-built teaching kitchen fitted out with top-of-the-line appliances and kitchen tools.
Dressed in spiffy whites, Thomas introduces herself and outlines the menu — Fresh Greens and Cherry Salad with Warm Goat Cheese; Baked Salmon with Door County Cherries, Pistachios and Herbed Panko; Sweet and Sour Cherries with Bay Leaves; Focaccia; Plum and Cherry Tatin. It sounds like an ambitious program but Thomas’ breezy confidence is infectious. We divide into groups to man the cooking stations — I’m on Tatin, along with Johanna from Vancouver, who I’m relieved to discover is a confident baker.
Each station already has mise en place neatly laid out, ingredients pre-measured and labelled. Johanna gets our caramel going on the stove top and captains the stand mixer (this tatin employs a cake batter in place of the usual puff pastry) while I get to work pitting cherries and plums.
All around the airy kitchen, sleeves are rolled up and eyes are down. Wendell’s washing greens and cutting rondelles of local chèvre, using a notched knife, one of the nifty gadgets Thomas stocks in her shop. John is painstakingly pricking individual cherries over and over with a sewing needle and dropping them into a mason jar. Paul’s adding bay leaves, peppercorns, sugar and vinegar. (We’ve sampled an earlier batch of these pickled cherries and they’re delicious. Thomas suggests serving them with cheese, salumi or pâté).
Tori’s station smells like summer in Provence – redolent of the fresh lemons, herbs and garlic she’s prepping as a coating for the salmon. (Unlike the County’s famous whitefish, the salmon isn’t local, Thomas explains. You can catch salmon in Lake Michigan but you can’t buy or sell it.) Randy is enjoying himself, making fingerprints in the focaccia dough.
When the Tatin is in the oven (with a timer ticking), we sit down to eat, at a table set with a pretty, cherry-red cloth. The salad of freshly picked greens and fennel dressed with lemon and walnut oil is a tangy foil for the warm, almond-crusted goat cheese rounds. We’re off to a good start. Then comes the salmon, sporting a gorgeous crust that includes finely chopped dried cherries. The fish is moist and falls from my fork in rosy pink flakes – it’s perfectly cooked.
So is the focaccia, which is studded with pickled cherries and sprinkled with sea salt.
I’m too nervous to flip the Tatin when it comes out of the oven. Thomas takes over and deftly upends it onto a plate but even so, some gooey caramel drips on the floor. It’s okay we’re not perfect!
Once upon a time, Door County was known as Cherryland USA, with family farms producing 90 percent of the nation’s crop. Big-scale, industrialized cherry growing introduced in Michigan and Washington states spelled the end of Door County’s primacy but cherries are still the County’s biggest crop and signature agricultural attraction. With its beautiful coastline, nature reserves, historical villages and bucolic farm scenery, Door County is a popular tourist destination year-round but take it from me — there’s nothing sweeter than cherry harvest time.
Janice Thomas operates her school from June until the end of October and leads culinary tours to Italy, Mexico and China in the off season. Her classes are eclectic, influenced by her world travels and backed up by her professional training at Le Cordon Bleu.