Saturday, February 16, 2008

en route to Door County: sweet trails

It’s cold. The car steams up inside, freezes on the outside. So we head north.

Ed asks: we’re stopping at Oshkosh for chocolates, right?

This is a puzzler to me. I associate Oshkosh with kid overalls and experimental aircraft shows. A working town with no particular culinary traditions.

You don’t remember the article I read you from the NYT?
I don’t remember the article you read me from the NYT.

In case you, too, missed it, the article describes the old fashioned chocolate and candy shops in Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley (that would include the towns of Oshkosh and Appleton, with Green Bay thrown in for good measure). You wouldn’t think there would be such a high demand here for homemade chocolate. But there is.

And everyone knows where to find them. We pull up to a drive-through Starbucks in Oshkosh.

We’re looking for Oaks Candies. Know where they are?
Of course! Follow 9th to Oregon!

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Inside, it looks…oldfashioned. I’m trying to understand candy labels – there are creams and clusters, but I’m beginning to see that Wisconsin has its own faves:

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Anglefood, meltaways, oysters.

We buy a little bag of 6 candies for $3.26. We eat several. Very sweet. Fresh.

Where’s Doty Street? – we ask.
She knows we’re looking for the competition. But, she’s Oshkosh friendly. Down the street, turn right at the gas station except it’s not really a gas station it’s like a car dealer, and then right on Doty.

We follow the trail. Just a breath away from Lake Winnebago.

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In a residential neighborhood, a house, with barely a sign announcing it’s business there in the basement.

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Hughes Home Maid (pun intended) Chocolate Shop. You want authentic? You want friendlier than you could possibly imagine? You want an invitation into the kitchen? Free samples? Oysters? Easter Bunnies? The best English toffee? Here, put yourself in my shoes for the moment:

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We leave with a pound box of milk chocolates (Ed and I share a love for quality milk chocolate – we search out the stuff in all food stores) for $9.50.

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I’m thinking we should stop now while the sugar is still under control. But we’re so close to the others! Shouldn’t one compare?

In Appleton, the gas attendant gives us directions to Vande Walle’s. It’s on Mall Drive. Easy.

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Here, the samples are flowing at us fast and furious. Try this, try that. We do. And we take the self-guided little tour of the kitchens. More samples there.

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When it comes time to buy, I am drawn to the garlic pistachios. You can understand that, can’t you? When the nice nice super nice saleslady describes the center of an aglefood chocolate, I’m starting to perspire. Still, I pick up a bag of toffees and chocolate covered jellies. I love those! Memories of Poland!

You need a bag to carry all that, don't you? Sheepishly -- yes. And where is...
Two miles down on Wisconsin, you’ll come to Superior. It’s there. – they tell us. They know what we’re up to. Our next stop on the candymaking tour. Wilmar Chocolates.

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Would you like a sample of anglefood? No! I mean, yes, sure, thank you. I’ll pass. How about a cinnamon spice fennel piece? Yes, of course. No, I’ll pass. Mmmm… delicious.

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Wilmar’s is different. At Wilmar’s, it’s criminal to pass on the dark chocolate stuff.

The clerk asks an older man who comes in. Would you like a piece of the cinnamon spice fennel… No thanks. I’m not into that newfangled stuff.

Wilmar’s is breaking new ground here.

In the back, one chocolatier is finishing up his work. You’re taking pictures? Yes… you know. Came here because of the article. Yes yes, well, hope you like our chocolates.

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I can hardly stand the sight of another. And yet..

We have chocolate macadamia turtles. They’re very seasonal. Sure, throw in that. Three half pound boxes, $27. For small gifts, no? I'm still smiling. Must be all that chocolate covered anglefood.

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Ed asks about the next stop, but I am sugared out. You can’t enter a chocolate making place and exhibit no enthusiasm for the free samples. It’s just not polite.

We listen to the radio as we make our way up north, into the Door County peninsula – the pinkie finger of our state, surrounded by the waters of Lake Michigan.

It’s cold, the sun is long gone, the snow layer around us is significant. It’s quiet.

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Juniper Inn is off the road a bit, just past Fish Creek. The innkeeper is waiting for us. The fire downstairs is blazing. Cookies in a jar, a sherry decanter on the nightstand. Our “Sunflower” room looks over a forest of birch and fir.

We unload the car and head out for a seafood dinner at Kristofer’s. 20% off, all seafood on Fridays.

It is, as I remember it from previous trips many many years ago. Twinkling. Subtle. Nice.

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We pass on dessert. Nothing sweet tonight, please.