DOOR COUNTY, WISCONSIN’S SECRET
Updated: Feb 27
by Andrew Chalk
North of Chicago, north of Green Bay, is a peninsula in Wisconsin that points out indicatively at Lake Michigan and Canada as if to say “Come This Way”. At the tip is a body of water named Porte des Morts. French which loosely translates to “Death’s Door”. The early settlers took this and named the county that occupies two thirds of the peninsula Door County. Therein are the origins of the name of one of the most interesting vacation destinations one could imagine.
In the winter, Door County is peaceful, free of traffic, hurry, and all of the exigencies of everyday life. In the summer, Chicagoans flock to the area for its rural charm and peaceful ambience. Texans should consider it any time of year, to escape the summer heat, or for a winter sojourn. It is so easy to reach with flights through Chicago to Green Bay or Appleton.
What else do you find in a county with town names like Sturgeon Bay, Egg Harbor, Fish Creek, and Sister Bay?
I recently visited as part of a media contingent courtesy of the Door County Visitor Bureau. I came away impressed with the diversity of activities for visitors seeking outdoor lifestyle, natural beauty, local crafts, honest food, authentic beer and spirits, and friendly people.
ON THE WAY...RENARD’S CHEESE
Heading north out of Green Bay on state highway 57, just after you cross into Door County, Renard’s Cheese shop is on the left. It is worth pulling over for as they have won medals at the cheese olympics, the American Cheese Society annual show (in 2019 they won first place for their whip string cheese, 2nd place for their farmer’s cheese with pesto, and third place for their string cheese).
Renard’s was established in 1961 by Howard Renard. Now the third generation of the family, Chris and wife Ann, run it. Chris achieved Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker status in 2014 (in cheddar and mozzarella), putting him in an exclusive class of just 60 in the state. The creamerie is a quarter of an hour away near Forestville.
The store features all of Renard’s cheeses, other Wisconsin food products, and a café serving serious sandwiches drawing on local ingredients. The café makes this a good place to grab lunch. The pulled pork and Wisconsin cherry sandwich that I tried saw the meat bulging out of a bouncy ciabatta bun lined with a slice of drizzling melted cheddar cheese and prolific specks of chopped tart Wisconsin cherries. Added to a bottle of the local non-alcoholic apple cider it was filling and rewarding.
Head over to the tasting counter where, on my visit, were a dozen varieties of Renard’s cheese cubed small enough to be speared with a cocktail stick alongside a range of condiments including a local honey mustard that one could smear on the provided bread chunks but which was so mild that it really did not need any accompaniment. Cheese preference is a matter of taste of course and I opted to buy a mild farmer’s cheese that will serve as a hors d’oeuvre in its own right and a powerful apple harvest cheddar cheese laced with cinnamon. With a refrigerator in my hotel room I could keep these fresh for several days before I took them home. Renard’s specialty is the cheddar category but other categories like blue and double cream cheese are provided by third- party brands.
In response to my enquiries the lady serving me produced a two-year old cheddar that exhibited a notch up in intensity and drier composition. The oldest she had tried was a full 15 years old. Having inculcated a healthy respect for 7-year old cheese elsewhere, that must have had an alligator's bite and a hardness requiring sound molars.
The other products at the store include relishes, sauces, Wisconsin wine and chocolates, which are worth your attention. However, at Renard's, cheese is the main game and worth stopping for.
Renard’s sells online (currently less than 5% of total sales and ripe for improvement) as well as at their two company stores and various retailers, so their cheeses are widely available.
Baileys Harbor Yacht Club Resort
For exceptional accommodations choose this resort and specify one of their suites. They really are an example of design thinking. The lounge with fireplace has the kitchen bar at one end so a group or family could prepare food and watch TV at the same time. I loved using the kitchen counter as my work surface because of the large amount of space and exceptional lighting.
Afterwards I slumped on the sofa and watched a movie. The kitchen has all the appliances you have at home and supplies lots of cutlery and crockery if you want to cook. The bedroom has its own TV (which I liked a lot) and a big comfortable bed with oodles of pillows and a welcoming mattress. Every evening when I returned to my room housekeeping had done an exceptional job of making me look like a clean living member of the human race.
For the fitness conscious there is a gym, and indoor and outdoor pools.
And the lobby coffee was rich and tasty. The lobby staff were always cheerful and knowledgeable about the local area. That is useful as the Ridges Sanctuary is nearby, as is Baileys Harbor Beach.
Door County Coffee & Tea
Very Special Coffee and Great Breakfast
For a hearty American breakfast with a twist on the usual favorites head to Door County Coffee & Tea (DCC&T) just north of Sturgeon Bay. While familiar ingredients like eggs and bacon are present DCC&T does not own a fryer, so baking substitutes. The result is a menu where baked egg scrambles topped with cheese (this is Wisconsin) and...bacon, or sausage, or veggies, or Denver (ham, pepper, onions), or Mexican (salsa, onions, sausage), or nothing. They are all large and imposing enough to face the day with.
My personal favorite, to be reproduced in amateur form at home, was the breakfast burrito. Eggs, potatoes, peppers, onions, sausage, bacon, and cheese stuffed in a tightly wrapped tortilla squashed in a sandwich machine to leave striations in it and dry out the flour enough to crisp the outer layer. Douse it with Cholula to conceal the conceit. There is also a cabinet of baked goods that are worth a look.
Either way, don’t miss the coffee because this is getting to the root of what these folks are about. Behind the restaurant is a whole raw beans to roaster to packed coffee operation employing over 65 people. From here they ship coffee to all 50 states and such national retailers such as Target (in Wisconsin), online at Walmart, Amazon, and Kohl’s, and in several regional supermarket chains.
Vicki Wilson, co- founder and CEO, explains where they source on a large world map in the training room. The focus is on Arabica beans grown above 2,500 ft elevation with a direct channel to suppliers who maintain high standards of quality. For that reason they currently do not buy any coffee from the world’s largest producing country, Brazil. They do buy a lot from East Africa (Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya), South America (Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia), Asia (Papua New Guinea, Sumatra, and Java), Central and South America (Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica) as well as Hawaii and Jamaica.
On the side of each package is the phrase 100% Specialty Class 1 Arabica Coffee. That is important as words like ‘specialty’, and ‘Arabica’ have strict meanings and are not just the flotsam and jetsam of happy waffle one commonly reads on consumer packages. A quick comparison found them missing entirely from a bag of Starbucks beans and partially present on a bag of beans from Dunkin’ Donuts.
After sampling the prepared coffees on offer, my house is now a happy consumer of their ‘dark voyage’ blend.
Kick Ash Bakery
Take one family with a scandinavian heritage and a passion for granola, one vacant Lutheran church in Ellison Bay, and what do you get? Kick Ash Bakery, named after the Ash family comprised of Christian and Carol Ash and their four children. Carol spends most of the time on the business (Christian is an airline pilot and drives to and from Chicago for assignments every few days). She started with granola, Christian later added coffee roasting. Moving into the vacated Lutheran church (which had most recently been an art gallery) they found themselves with more space so they added a co-working space offering high speed Internet to visitors to the area. Gluten-free baked goods round out the mix.
The coffee is exceptional and the blueberry muffins are memorable.
Door County Candy
At last. A candy store that actually makes its own candy! You can even see the equipment. And what good candy Door County Candy makes. I particularly liked the selection of truffles and was pleased to find milk chocolate (sorry purists) even better than I remember growing up. Affable owner and chocolatier Terry Ullman has made candy for over 50 years and now makes ice cream, malts, fudge, chocolate, gourmet popcorn, salt water taffy. He buys domestic and imported candy to supplement his line.
Julie’s Park Café
Julie’s Park Café (strictly, Julie’s Park Café and Motel) is a charming little breakfast and lunch spot located next to the entrance to Peninsula State Park. Eat in, or get a takeout from the extensive American breakfast menu, lunch items like sandwiches and burgers, and salads. The patio is dog-friendly, which brings us to the ‘motel’ part of the name. The motel is positively effusive about its love for dogs so if you plan on bringing a pup, give Julie’s a serious look.
There is a sense of humor at work here too. Winter open café hours are listed as ‘6:59am-2:01pm’. It is astonishing how protracted a process it is for the human mind to recalibrate that to 7-2!
Serious Mojo - Mojo Rosa’s, Egg Harbor
Take a Mexican/pizza/burger menu and a local beer milieu and what do you get? A whole lot of fun, that’s what. Kim Jensen’s relaxed homage to good time food could fit in anywhere, just what luck it is for (the curiously named) Egg Harbor to have it there.
Start with a glass of Door County Brewing Company ‘Lost Camper’ Helles Lager (motto: “Keep Wisconsin Beer’d”) a bolder expression of lager than most pilsner due to its malt accents. Then dive into an appetizer of hand battered and deep fried Renard’s cheese curds or ‘guac & chips’.
While there is a selection of pizzas, broasted (pressure fried) chicken, and burgers I would look to the Mexican side of the menu for a main course as the chef is from Oaxaca. I recommend the Chicken Mole Enchilada, two chicken enchiladas in a dish topped with earthy and sweet mole sauce.
The other side of Mojo Rosa’s is the bar, with more than 125 different beers, including 14 on draft, that form a cornucopia of craft brewing creativity.
With such eclectic food, Mojo Rosa’s may be the curate’s egg in Egg Harbor. Better to just consider it fun.
Bowling For Dinner at Sister Bay Bowl
Sister Bay Bowl is a combined bowling alley and supper club. Arrive for dinner and then play 10 frames of bowls! In my game, I found myself particularly gifted at finding the gutter.
I scored better at dinner. The Bowl Potato Skins are cut with just the right amount of potato still attached to make them as decadent as fries. Combine with a sharp dipping sauce (sriracha-infused aioli) for best effect. The other appetizer worthy of a medal was the Wisconsin Cheese Curds. SBBs come battered and fried, emulsifying the cheese with the batter at the edges to quite stunning effect.
I continued with the fried food idiom for my main course, choosing 12-piece Breaded Scallops. In this version, the scallops are breaded, broasted (pressure fried) and served with drawn butter and my choice of potato (which was hash browns). The tartar sauce from the Fish and Chips (listed under sandwiches for some reason) might be good to ask for here.
Seafood lovers are spoiled for choice with salmon, whitefish, perch, and shrimp as well as the aforementioned examples. There is even a fish fry on Tuesdays and Fridays! Meat lovers are not forgotten however. Steaks abound, and there are pork chops, prime rib, and chicken breast.
And there is pasta -- penne tossed with olive oil, basil, and garlic. Optionally topped with chicken breast or salmon.
Desserts, in the remote possibility that you have room, are the indulgent type like cheesecake and carrot cake.
With all this on offer it is little wonder that the only widely heard complaint about SBB is “there will be a wait”.
White Gull Inn for Fish Boil Dinner
Few things in Door County incorporate the traditions of the early settlers with the modern age better than a fish boil. Fishermen used to prepare them for hungry lumberjacks. Every town seems to have at least one and their popularity means that reservations are recommended on weekends in the summer months.
Here is the boilmaster’s procedure for a fish boil…
Heat a cauldron of salted water over a wood fire;’
Add whole red potatoes (preferably new) to a metal basket and drop it in the water;
Add small sweet onions to the potatoes;
Add chopped lake whitefish to a metal basket and drop it on top of the potatoes;
Boil for eight to ten minutes. Oils from the fish will coagulate on the surface;
Douse the fire with a can of fuel oil. If you are too close, you will be burned to a cinder - tragic. If not, the oils on top of the boil will be burned off and not need separating;
Use a stick to carry both the baskets off the fire and over to the preparation table. Tip out the fish into one serving pan and the potato/onion mixture into another. Customers file by with a plate and are served some of each, plus, at modern day boils, some tartar sauce. On the table it is a good idea to have some drawn butter.
That is the recipe, but it does little justice to the drama of the flareup when the fuel goes on to the fire, as we saw when we were in a crowd of fifty or more anticipative diners at White Gull Inn in, appropriately named, Fish Creek. It also doesn’t capture the sense of conviviality of the shared experience that is one reason for the enduring popularity of the fish boil.
The White Gull Inn was built in 1896 and now a boutique hotel with the charm of its period but modern facilities such as air conditioning, whirlpool baths, firm beds, en suite bathrooms, and WiFi.
Breweries, Distilleries, and Wineries
Given the northern European heritage of a lot of the population there is, as one might expect, a lot of brewing and distilling going on. There are eight wineries. Given the climate they make mainly fruit wine and a few hybrids from Wisconsin fruit. I visited Door Peninsula Winery and Lautenbach’s Orchard Country. Entering the latter on a Saturday afternoon when the roads seemed deserted was a revelation - the place was packed with queues several bodies deep at the serving counters.
Door County Distillery is on the same site as Door County Winery. They distill vodka, gin, whiskey and rum. I am a ‘ginaholic’ and have gone off the beaten path looking for interesting examples many times (including Dutch examples of genever). This gin is truly reputable and laced with a powerful grip of juniper overlaid with a complex witches brew of other botanicals.
Although not the only example, the only brewer’s wares that I was able to try was the ‘Lost Camper’ a Helles Lager from Door County Brewing Company. In fact it took several cans, but I decided that I liked it.
The Ridges Sanctuary
One of the premier outdoor activities is a hiking tour of The Ridges Sanctuary, a 1600 acre nature preserve in Baileys Harbor that was the first land trust in Wisconsin. It is home to more than 475 plant species. A major reason for the biodiversity is the ridge and swale complex that runs throughout.
As well as protecting the environment, The Ridges also conducts programs of education and research. To make the wild land more accessible the staff and volunteers have built a one-third mile long level walkway into the Sanctuary from the visitor center. On a bitterly cold day I took a tour of the property in a group led by guide Jane Whitney. She told us about the Sanctuary throughout the two hour tour and by the end I felt she still had as much left to discuss, so deep was her knowledge. Oh, and the cold weather didn’t matter as we hauled ourselves over logs, down icy narrow paths, and across frozen fields. We warmed up very well!
ARTS AND CRAFTS
Popelka Trenchard Glass Fine Art Gallery & Studio
Jeremy Popelka and Stephanie Trenchard run Popelka Trenchard Glass Fine Art Gallery and Studio in Sturgeon bay where they produce glass cast sculpture and murrini style blown glass, as well as paintings, jewellry, pendant lights and gift items. They moved to Sturgeon Bay after careers in the big city for a more relaxed and creative lifestyle. Despite being four hours drive away from the nearest big city (Chicago) people who appreciate fine art search them out. They will not reveal names (to preserve confidentiality) but among their customers are billionaires and oligarchs.
One of the best activities to do here is to watch a glass blowing demonstration. It is fascinating to see a tube of colored glass transform into a beautiful vase or pendant light.
Turtle Ridge Gallery
Want a hand-crafted leather bag that stands out from the crowd? Mary Ellen Sisulak makes them at her Turtle Ridge Gallery in Ellison Bay.
Door County Candle
To buy interesting candles or to dip your own, head to Door County Candle. Mike and Tonya Felhofer have made candles for over 25 years. Candle dipping (taking a neutral white candle and dipping it in different colored waxes to create a colored one) can also be a great wet weather activity for families. The selection of candles made by Terry is huge and they can be bought at the store or on their web site.