Friday, October 22, 2010

Harbor Country: Michigan's Great Lake Shore

It's trendy these days to be a locavore. A locavore knows where the food they are eating comes from and hopefully the source is not far from where they are dining. A culinary tour of Harbor Country is a locavore’s dream. Harbor Country is located in the Southeast corner of Lake Michigan. The lake keeps the area cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter and provides plenty of moisture creating a great growing environment.

My culinary tour started with breakfast at the Kites Kitchen and Retro Café in New Buffalo not far from the Harbor Grand Hotel where I was staying. Judy Kite-Gosh, the owner, makes everything from scratch. A cheerleader for the locavore movement, she says that, “The area has so many microclimates that farmers can grow just about anything.” The Sticky Buns with Caramel Sauce were decadently delicious but surprisingly tasty was the Grass Fed Roast Beef Hash. The beef was raised locally at Middlebrook Farm in nearby Three Oaks – the next stop on my tour.

Middlebrook Farm was established in 1844 but has been owned by Bob and Janet Schuttler since 2005. When the Schuttler’s first bought the farm they enjoyed sitting in their yard at the end of the day with glass of wine – locally produced, of course – and. When they first moved to the farm from Chicago they were surprised that there were no fireflies. What happened to them? Two many pesticides was the reason so they try to raise their cattle as naturally as possible and the fireflies are back.

No wonder the hash was so delicious. When cattle eat grass like nature planned they thrive producing nutritional and tasty beef. The Schuttler’s raise Lowline Black Angus free of antibiotics, steroids, hormones and pesticides. Schuttler explained that, “They are very docile and will follow me around.” I found it comforting looking out into the pasture seeing the cattle grazing is such a bucolic setting instead of being fattened up on a feed lot. Only good things happen when cattle are grass fed. The meat is lower in fat and calories, contains more Vitamin E, has more Omega-3 Fatty Acids, and other benefits. The Schuttler’s cattle are not only grass-fed (most animas have probably eaten grass at some point in their lives), but are "finished" on grass, rather than fattened up on corn for the last few months prior to processing

The next stop on my tour was Stover’s Farm Market in Berrien Springs. The passion and dedication of the farmers I met was amazing. At Stover’s I enjoy fresh apple cider and sampled a slew of homemade products but what really impressed me was the barn. The Stover family has been farming in the area since 1870. While sitting on bales of hay, June Stover, wife of John, the great grandson of the original settler, gave our group a short history lesson of the local Potawatomi Indians but I was more interested in the barn. The huge Big Red Barn was built in 1865 of hand-hewn, hand-milled beams held together by wooden pegs. Not originally located on the farm, the Stovers had it moved three miles to its present location – all 150 tons of it. What a sight it must have been. According to June, “We thought we would knock down people’s mailboxes but the barn rode so high above the road that it went over the mailboxes.”

Lunch was at Tabor Hill Restaurant & Winery where Chef Paul Verhage’s specialty is Raspberry Chicken but I decided on the Local Garden Pasta of fresh zucchini, squash, green beans, bell peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, fried and tossed with pasta, olive oil, and parmesan cheese. Of course, it was paired with one of Tabor Hills fine wines – Valvin Muscat. After lunch I had a tour of their vineyard where the guide explained that Tabor Hill's hilly terrain provides the ideal conditions for making superb wine. Grown on one of the highest vineyard sites in Michigan, their grapes benefit from perfect airflow and are protected from the late spring and early autumn freezes. Lake Michigan, approximately seven miles from the vineyards, moderates air temperatures by as much as 10 degrees and keeps the vines insulated with lake-effect rains in summer and snow in winter.

My next stop on the tour was the Round Barn Winery, which is the place everyone can have the libation of their choice. Beside wine from their vineyards they brew their own beer and distill their own spirits. But what really caught my attention was the barn. The Moerschs, the owners, had the turn-of-the century Amish Round Barn transported from Indiana and rebuilt on their property. Chris Moersch explained, “The historic building is the perfect home for the round copper pot still because only good "spirits" should be created in a structure where legend says that the round buildings have no corners so there is no place for evil spirits to hide.”

The last stop of the day was a cozy restaurant, Soe Café. The café advertises “Local Agriculture, Local Craftsmen, Honest Food” offering local specialties such as Roasted Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, and Vegetable Pot Pie.

The next day my locavore tour continued with breakfast at Bit of Swiss Pastry Shop followed by a visit to Dinges Farm. After lunch at Brewester’s Italian Café I learned about hydroponically grown tomatoes. Dinner my last night was at Brentwood Tavern adjacent to my hotel where Chef Jenny Drilion prepared a meal that was a locavore’s delight.

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