She had me at the sizzling bacon.
I was burrowed deep in a sleeping bag, the glint of sunlight filtering through the tent. Outside, pans rattled on the camp stove, a steady hum audible from the propane as mourning doves cooed. I tried to shake off the last vestiges of rest. Even on a good day, I’m not a morning person. But I’m always a hungry one.
Food or more sleep?
Well, that was a no-brainer. I may have been at Little Sand Bay for the kayaking but, on this trip to Wisconsin’s Bayfield Peninsula, food was center stage.
Ten of us were drawn together at this campsite for a “Taste of the Apostle Islands.” The kayak trip through St. Paul-based Wilderness Inquiry featured Beth Dooley, a cookbook author and advocate for local foods. The idea was to eat exceedingly well — relying on the area’s plentiful fare — when we weren’t paddling on Lake Superior. Collectively, we were spurred by the need for adventure and a hunger for good food. And this, the first full day of the long weekend, was off to a great start.
I peeked outside the tent flap. There at the camp stove, Dooley worked the skillets with Matt Heuer, one of our kayak guides and temporary sous chef. Breakfast first, then the water.
Our trip had started the previous afternoon with a stroll through the tiny weekly farmers market in nearby Cornucopia (the name alone shouts “food”). Lake Superior glistened, just yards away on the warm August day. Under the shelter of a few trees and canopies, vendors displayed their goods on card tables and blankets spread on the ground, while their children played on the sandy grass, the marina just a parking lot away.
Though the smattering of fresh vegetables and berries was tempting, the garlic farmers drew our attention with their surprising variety of bulbs, from German Extra Hardy to Korean Red.
From there we headed to the water for a variation on the swimmer’s test any camp visitor encounters. After slipping into wet suits — a necessity, even at the height of summer, due to the cold depths of Lake Superior — we took turns “rolling” a kayak, a safety measure to assure that no one would panic should we capsize. Suffice it to say that this first-timer survived, a little glassy-eyed by the tumble.
Back at the campsite dinner table, where we were no longer novices, we dug into the best of the region’s foodstuff, which included cheese from local artisans (chèvre and Brie from Sassy Nanny and Manchego-style sheep cheese from Lucky Ewe). Our plates overflowed with grilled vegetables from North Wind Organic Farm (my first black radish!), buns from Coco Bakery and grilled brats, house-made kimchee and sauerkraut from Flying Snakes Farm.
This was the start of a roster of favorite local-food purveyors in north central Wisconsin, as curated by Dooley. She sourced and cooked our meals, with menus developed from her keen knowledge of the area (she has a cabin nearby) and her locavore tendencies (she is an advocate of regional artisan growers and producers and, not so incidentally, a Minneapolis cookbook author who taps into the same).
For dinner she cooked wild rice, then tossed it with farro, another delightfully chewy grain, and paired them with chopped vegetables for a simple, tasty cold salad that reflected the nature of our meals: fresh, flavorful and unfussy (find the recipe at www.startribune.com/taste). Blueberry shortcakes finished off the meal as we reached for local wines and beers.
A lesson in farming
While we ate, we chatted with some of the people who had grown and produced food for our meal: Tom Galazen and Ann Rosenquist of North Wind Organic Farm, and Michael Stanitis of Sassy Nanny.
Stanitis, with his 40 alpine goats — and a beard that seemed to match his animals — had left life in Minneapolis as a chef and landscaper to start up a herd in Herbster, Wis. His Sassy Nanny farm nestles among the hills and valleys of Happy Hollow Road. “They have us wrapped around their hoofs,” he said with a laugh, as he regaled us with stories of goats, including his oldest and best, 8-year-old Delilah. Will he keep her around when she’s not milking? “Of course not. This is a business,” he said with the certainty of any CEO.
The North Wind Organic farmers bantered with the goat herder as they talked about vegetables, neighbors and the weather. Galazen wore his usual work clothes: leather shorts made from deer hides he had tanned. His and Rosenquist’s matchmaker had been an online farmer forum, where they chatted across the great expanse of Lake Superior, he on the south shore, she in Grand Marais.
Together they run their organic vegetable farm with biodynamic principles. Their tractor makes do with a motor from a Hoover vacuum cleaner, powered by a solar panel. Their car is electric. They are serious about being off-the-grid in this tight community of farmers, where small farms prevail because of the area’s topography. This is vegetable and orchard country along the south shore of Lake Superior, where each rise and fall in the land creates microclimates.
We listened to their stories and laughed until we couldn’t keep our eyes open, then headed off to our tents.
Come morning, that sizzling bacon that helped rouse me was paired with scrambled eggs cooked with goat cheese. Add a side of granola and goat-milk yogurt and, well, we were feeling fat and happy.
Ours was a group who loved to eat, the kind who anticipated the next meal as we dabbed the corners of our mouths from the last. Do local foods taste better? Well, it depends on the cook as much as the food, though as Dooley noted, “Everything tastes better outside.”
Hitting the water
After breakfast, we were off to the kayaks. Sand Island, part of the Apostle archipelago, lay directly across from our beach. We donned the wet suits, a name that particularly applied since they were still damp from the day before, and had a few lessons in paddling before we slipped the 21-foot sea kayaks into the water. With the wind in my face, sun on my arms, droplets of water splashing on me (and on my kayak partner at the stern), I couldn’t stop smiling. Paddle, paddle, splash.
Two miles later, we pulled up onto the beach of Sand Island, where guide Suzanne Schefcik broke out the lunch: more cheese, with fresh bread, smoked fish, hummus and beef sticks, all local.
The water was too rough to explore the nearby sea caves, so we hiked 2 miles to the lighthouse, where a volunteer guide had, moments before, fallen down the steep spiral staircase. “Is there a doctor in the group?” (Yes, people really do say that), and sure enough, we had one. After a rescue boat picked up the bruised guide, we crossed the island to our kayaks.
The waves had kicked up for the return to the mainland, creating a choppy paddle that added excitement to the excursion. All the better to build an appetite, right?
All’s well that ends well
By the time we headed to Meyers Beach for a fish fry that night, we were hungry, again. Dooley took whitefish that had been caught in Superior just hours earlier, dredged it in flour, then fried it over the driftwood fire. Earlier that day, she had prepared a roasted beet salad, a green salad with herbed vinaigrette, green beans in citrus vinaigrette, potato salad with pickled eggs and a tangy yogurt dressing.
We dug into the picnic fare, sand between our toes, water hlapping on the shore as the sun set, the pink sky fading into deeper and deeper shades of blue. As the flames died down from the campfire, we did what every camper does — or should do. We looked for sticks to stab marshmallows for the traditional end to a beach dinner: s’mores. Ours had an artisanal twist, made with biscotti with dried cranberries and blueberries, and gourmet chocolate.
By morning we were — you guessed it — hungry. French toast with fresh blueberries fit the occasion. A storm overnight had left Lake Superior too wild for another trip to the islands, so we paddled through the winding water path that is Bark Bay Slough. Hugging the shoreline with our kayaks, we found a place to eat. More meat and smoked fish, more hummus, more cheese. I do not think this combo could ever become tiresome.
By dinnertime, we had spiffed up for our last outing, the Bayfield Shores Barbecue, held at Blue Vista Farm in the rolling hills above Bayfield, overlooking Lake Superior. The once-a-summer community fundraiser benefits the Bayfield Regional Food Producers Cooperative. This clearly was the spot to be on that idyllic summer evening. White canopied tents sat among rows of bee balm and black-eyed Susans, where hummingbirds flitted from flower to flower, and blueberry fields, which enticed us to pick the berries (who could resist?). Musicians strummed, children scampered, farmers dished up their homegrown food: pulled pork, smoked beef brisket, grilled trout, corn on the cob, lavender berry ice cream and the proverbial much more.
The whole town seemed to have shown up at the old farm to celebrate the season’s plenty in a scene that could have been plucked from a barn raising more than a century ago. It served as a reminder that good food — and company — never go out of style.
Today’s sustainable, often organic, efforts may have taken root decades ago in these hills, but with the skills, perseverance and passion of the farmers, they will continue to feed our bellies, as well as our souls, long into the future.
The waters of Lake Superior drew us together; the farmers kept us well fed. That’s a perfect match by any standard.
Lee Svitak Dean is food editor at the Star Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @StribTaste.