From wild-caught lake trout, high-bush blueberries, just-picked asparagus and restaurants helmed by James Beard award-winning chefs, photographer Dianne Carroll Burdick and I roamed the state to find the best things to eat for “Tasting and Touring Michigan’s Homegrown Food — A Culinary Roadtrip” (2012, Arbutus Press). We discovered each region puts its own stamp on deliciousness and serves up distinctive, delectable gems.
Naturally, we swoon for Ann Arbor-based Zingerman’s Deli, which brought us extra-virgin olive oil, handcrafted cheeses and pioneered Michigan artisan bread. I root for Detroit’s urban agriculture, too, with the Catholic friars’ Earthworks and Brother Nature Produce taking the lead. Together, in roll-up-your-sleeves ways, these tastemakers tell the new food story of Michigan. They share one goal: to connect you with the gorgeous food products created here not too far from your own backyard. A shoreline buffet featuring some of our favorites unfolds.
The hunt for the “best” ice cream and gelato in the Great Lakes State delivers funky finds (Cactus pear, Peach Champagne, Giunduja) and family farms transformed into adventure playgrounds with tours and parlors. Sure, clouds of creaminess beckon at the classics — Jones Homemade Ice Cream in Baldwin, Moomers Homemade Ice Cream near Traverse City and the Michigan State University Dairy Store (creator of Sesquicentennial Swirl, a chocolate-and-vanilla duet twirled with a celebration cake and frosting!). But take time out to check out and chill at these cool stops, too:
Country Dairy — nestled in the heart of the Hart-Montague Bicycle Trail in New Era — offers on-site farm tours and an ice-cream parlor stocked with fun-flavored scoops including Hoofprints, Amooretto Cherry, Cow-conut Cream and Peanut ’Udder Chaos made from Holstein milk produced by the farm’s herd (countrydairy.com).
Palazzolo’s Artisan Gelato and Sorbetto on Third Street in Fennville whirls out 500 flavors, working in small batches using fresh milk from local cows, just-picked fruits and freshly-baked treats from its on-site bakery (4gelato.com).
Ambrosia Café on State Street in Traverse City churns out 16 flavors of gelato and sorbetto (made small-batch, featuring local seasonal ingredients), including sweet dark cherry; a handcrafted Italian frozen fruit puree is a must-have (ambrosiagelato.com).
Just fab! Whoever thought of assembling all that’s great and good from Michigan’s cow country into the Michigan Cheese Makers cooperative (greatlakesgreatcheese.com) deserves a medal! The Michigan cheese trail features crafters of all sizes from the very big (Zingerman’s Creamery in Ann Arbor) to the very small (Dancing Goat Creamery in Grand Rapids) and takes you through the Great Lake State’s artisanal and farmstead cheese movement. A dozen artisan and farmstead cheese makers (many of which are national award winners, including these below) show the awesomeness of Michigan complex cheese, often made from the farm’s own herd of cows and goats.
Zingerman’s Creamery: Don’t slip through town without indulging in the award-winning magic cheese maker John Loomis churns out (zingermanscreamery.com).
Leelanau Cheese Company on M-22, south of Sutton’s Bay, continues to rock its raclette, fromage and ricotta with John and Anne Hoyt celebrating 20 years of cheesemaking in its new creamery and cheese cellar, a remodeled church (leelanaucheese.com).
Evergreen Lane Farm and Creamery, nearly eight miles from Palazzolo’s in Fennville, makes a dreamy La Mancha Moon Camembert and a bloomy rind cheese called Pyramid Pointe (cured with ash and salt) from pasteurized goat’s milk (evergreenlanefarm.com).
Regional chocolatiers are another spoke in Michigan’s spectacular food scene, introducing couverture and single country-origin chocolate crafted into exquisite mosaic tiles, ganache balls, decadent bars or salted caramel, embellished by Michigan’s finest fruits, liqueurs, honey and herbs. Unwrapping a bite of this small-batch chocolate or house-made fudge is a wonderfully wicked feeling. Be sure to lick your fingers, it’s worth the effort!
At Patricia’s Chocolate, uncover Grand Haven artisan Patty Christopher’s imaginative ganache and caramel chocolates; you’ll find the rare Peruvian Fortunato No. 4 wrapped in dazzling designs at the Inn at Black Star Farms, The Cook’s House in Traverse City and along the shoreline from Champaign, Ill. to Sutton’s Bay (patriciaschocolate.com).
The Chocolate Garden, nestled in a breezy orchard near South Haven, makes chocolate extravagance handmade and rolled in coarse chocolate, full of outsize taste like Lago Rosso infused with Contessa Wine Cellars’ vino (chocolategarden.com).
Grocer’s Daughter, along the scenic Leelanau Highway in Empire, marries fairly traded cacao with a pinch of Northern Michigan to fashion truffles tasting of Grand Traverse Distillery Ole George 100 percent Rye, organic blueberries, Kalkaska’s Shetler Family Farm’s cream or mint plucked seconds before needed. Yum, right (grocersdaughter.com)!
A resurging craft originally dating back to the 1800s, Michigan’s small-batch distillers and spirit distributors — using the purest Michigan ingredients — are making the kind of spirits they want to drink, rather than what they think you want to buy, capitalizing in a flavorful new way on Michigan’s great agricultural heritage. While more than a dozen craft distillers are making products in the Great Lakes State (learn about them at micraftspirits.org), discover on your own what makes distinctive labels like these below stand out:
Grand Traverse Distillery’s True North vodka is derived from owner Kent Rabish’s Polish great-great grandfather’s recipe, found by Kent in his dad’s trunk (grandtraversedistillery.com).
Valentine Distilling Co: Back in naughts, Rifino Valentine, native of Leelanau County, reclaimed materials from Detroit’s crumbling landscape and fashioned together the very best American micro distillery through careful selections of top-notch Michigan-made or grown ingredients including Red Michigan wheat, sugar beet and maple syrup to create award-winning vodka and spirits (valentinedistilling.com).
New Holland Artisan Spirits: Sure, New Holland Brewing Company brews a variety of compelling beers, strong and full-bodied, so distilling seemed the next frontier with the boys installing an 80-year-old, 800-gallon still built during Prohibition to craft incredible gold-metal beauties with Knickerbocker Gin, Freshwater Superior Rum and Beer Barrel Bourbon (newhollandbrew.com/our-spirits).
Wild-Caught Lake Fish
The idea was to drive north kind of squiggly-like, across the Mackinac Bridge, sampling fresh wild-caught lake fish including whitefish, walleye, trout, salmon, yellow perch and smoked chubs along the way: We smack our lips anticipating lake fillets, grilled with a squeeze of lemon, deep-fried with a crispy crust, or smoked on hardwood until the skin glistened golden! Don’t miss great catches at these top market stops:
Bortell’s Landing: Open only Memorial Day to Labor Day, Bortell’s just wows all the livelong day with its fabulous selection of Michigan lake fish fillets to be deep-fried or packaged to go. With no seating to speak of (other than a few picnic tables in the front,) head across the road to Summit Township Park at Lake Michigan (facebook.com/pages/Bortells-Landing/129475681832).
King’s Fish Market: In the fishing village, just 45 minutes west of Mackinac Bridge, Bob King and his sons, members of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, fish a delectably wide nautical range around Naubinway for whitefish, lake trout and salmon (906-477-6282).
Big Stone Bay Fishery: At the corner of Stimpson Road and U.S. 23 in Mackinaw City, owner Cameron McMurry hauls in fresh whitefish, trout, walleye, perch, salmon and smelt to be packaged for take-away or smoked with hardwood. Bring along a cooler for the Great Lakes smoked chub, a tasty little fish that is a cultural icon like Lake Michigan whitefish for Michiganders and Native Americans who have smoked wild-caught lake fish over a smoldering flame for centuries. The chubs’ numbers are generally cyclical, so they’re worth packing in ice for home when you find them.
A few years ago, a few determined souls realized the alchemy of flour, water, salt and breezy air from the Great Lakes produced the right conditions to craft seriously crusty breads, baked slow. Try Stone House Bread’s North Country Loaf, a hearty two-grain started with Leelanau County sourdough; an artisan loaf kneaded with 100 percent organic flour, compassion and social justice from Avalon International Breads in Detroit; or crunchy cinnamon toast, painted with an egg-and-milk wash and coated with cinnamon-sugar from Trenary Home Bakery on Highway 67 in the Upper Peninsula. Find unforgettable loaves, too, at these beckoning hot spots:
Laughing Tree Big Oven Bakery: Promoting organic agriculture and local cottage industry, Charles and Hilde Muller built a bakery attached to their farmhouse in Elbridge Township that runs on solar power and their wood-fired brick oven. They do everything the old-fashioned way with a wild-yeast starter, turning out wondrously complex, free-standing breads at the Muskegon and Grand Haven markets (laughingtreebakery.com).
Pleasanton Bakery: At the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, bakers Gerard Grabowski and Jan Shireman make naturally leavened breads with few ingredients — organic unbleached white, whole wheat and whole rye flour, plus water and unrefined salt (pleasantonbakery.com).
Crooked Tree Breadworks: Go! The bread, deliciously shaped by hand and baked in a German Stonehearth oven, excites with unparalleled flavor such as Pepper Parmesan, Cherry Pecan and The Local’s Loaf, made with hard red winter wheat grown by Petoskey’s Scheel Family Farm exclusively for founder Greg Carpenter (breadworks.com).
Michigan’s an artisan taste leader in America’s artisan revival movement — from urban hipsters canning jams to suburban families slow-toasting granola. The DIY craft producers oftentimes start in their kitchens before relocating to a nearby community kitchen and starting up new labels.
Michigan beekeepers, like Greg Griswold of Champion Hill Farm, want you to expand your honey vocabulary. Griswold favors single-varietal honey, including star thistle, basswood and sumac, so named after the nectar on which the bees feed. He produces raw and unfiltered honey, which retains pollen, enzymes and nutrients that some believe strengthens their immunities. One of the few beekeepers who stays here in the winter, Griswold is trying to breed queens better suited for Michigan’s harshest season (championhillfarm.com).
At the tip-top of Michigan in the Keweenaw Peninsula, the Jam Lady and Jampot monastery store and bakery specialize in thimbleberry, blueberry, cherry, rhubarb, huckleberry and raspberry jams, jellies and toppings out of local wild berries. Both operations cook small batches of jams, simmering the luscious fruits’ natural pectin. “Nothing about making homemade jam with wild fruits is easy,” notes the Jam Lady’s Paul Mihelcich “Once it’s in your blood, it’s there. And when you find a patch of berries out of nowhere, it feels like you’ve struck gold.” (thimbleberryjamlady.com).
McClure Pickles by brothers Joe and Bob McClure will rival anything you can make at home. Seriously, in 2006, the brothers dug out their Great-Grandmother Lala’s recipe, using market-fresh pickles.
“We grew up making these every summer with our grandparents and our folks,” says Joe, who grew up in Birmingham. Besides pickles and relish, the McClure lineup includes a Spicy Bloody Mary mix and pickle brine. It’s become the darling of the New York City bar scene, with bartenders slinging the pickleback, a shot of Jameson, followed by a shot of pickle juice. Even the fabled Irish whiskey maker Jameson sends for the McClure Brine (mcclurepickles.com). ≈
Journalist Jaye Beeler and photographer Dianne Carroll Burdick both reside with their families in Grand Rapids.