Northern Michigan is teeming with fruit.  Orchards and berry patches line the rolling stretch of lakeshore between Charlevoix and Traverse City, and each orchard boasts its own little roadside stand filled with the abundance of summer.

For a brief week or two, almost everything is in season at once:  raspberries and blackberries,  cherries and blueberries, peaches and apricots and plums, all grown right here in the Northern Fruitlands.

I’ve been recommending this drive to customers in our Charlevoix store for almost a week now.  Each fruit stand has its own personality and unique offerings — golden raspberries at one, Balaton cherries at another, or the season’s first tree-ripened peaches, fresh from the field. 

If you’re in Northern Michigan this summer, add a stop at one of our roadside fruit stands to your must-do list.  And bring a big basket.

A few weeks ago, I stood in a field in the early morning light and breathed in the fresh, sweet scent of strawberries.  I’d gone to visit the Bardenhagens’ centennial farm, a series of rolling green hills perched above Sutton’s Bay.  Justin discovered the farm in 1982 during his search for the ideal domesticated strawberry, a strawberry as brightly aromatic and intensely flavorful as the wild strawberries he remembered from childhood. He sampled at least a dozen varieties before falling in love with the Early Glow, a small, low-yielding berry so difficult to grow that  few local farmers even planted it.  

Gary Bardenhagen, our exclusive strawberry source for nearly 30 years, shares Justin’s affinity for the divine but difficult Early Glow.  Other varieties are nice for a while, he says, “but I could eat Early Glows all season long.”  So the low-growing green leaves covering the hills he’s recently passed on to his son Steve shelter thousands of the tiny red berries.

For three weeks each June, three generations of Bardenhagens spend their mornings in the strawberry patch, sorting through freshly picked berries, packing them into cardboard flats, and sending them out to local markets.  A berry picked in the morning could be in your kitchen by noon.

Or it could be in ours, simmering away gently in our copper kettles to be preserved for a year’s worth of intense strawberry enjoyment.

Rhubarb Compote

Last month, in our kitchen tour post, we showed you photos of Justin making rhubarb compote.  We didn’t identify it as such at the time, but we can tell you now: it was rhubarb compote and it was delicious.  It was so delicious that we snuck a few jars out of the R&D kitchen and took them down to Zingerman’s with us for a tasting we were scheduled to host.  We tasted our way through an array of classic American Spoon Preserves paired with Zingerman’s favorites and then served our rhubarb compote as the very last course, with a spoonful of whipped cream and a little square of graham cracker.  It was a big hit.  So big that the evening ended with one resounding request:  more rhubarb compote, please.

So we came home, scaled up the recipe, and bought all the local rhubarb we could find.  Then our kitchen staff got to work.  April, Jessica and Paul chopped up all the lovely red and green stalks, macerated the chopped chunks with sugar to soften and sweeten them, simmered the chunks and their pretty pink syrup gently in our copper kettles, and filled jars — 500 of them — with more rhubarb compote.

We’re happy to announce that Rhubarb Compote is now available in our retail stores. When you visit this summer, make sure you sample it on our tasting table.  Each jar is filled with soft, falling-apart chunks of  delightfully tart rhubarb preserved in a syrup that barely whispers of sweetness.   This compote is best served simply — with freshly whipped cream, spooned over Greek yogurt or ice cream, or my favorite way:  with nothing more than a spoon.

Technically, it’s not summer yet. But after a sweltering Memorial Day weekend spent by the lake and water that’s already warm enough to swim in, I’ve officially shifted into summer mode. Summers in Northern Michigan are fleeting. One month you’re wiggling your toes in the sand as you bask in bright sunlight and the next you find yourself regretting that you didn’t fill your summer with enough of that sort of thing. So I’ve been working on a plan that maximizes beach time and minimizes kitchen time, without sacrificing anything in yumminess.
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We gave a kitchen tour on Wednesday.   We hope to figure out a way to give tours more regularly, but until then, here’s what you missed.
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As Spring has gradually returned to Northern Michigan, so too have visitors.  They arrive in much the same way:  subtly but steadily, until suddenly everything is green and suddenly there are people!  People from Detroit and Ann Arbor, people from Chicago and Indianapolis and Ohio, even people from California and my own home state of Virginia.  All week long I’ve been chatting with these new people, and every one of them has been overwhelmed by the beauty of orchards in blossom.
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In 1999, Justin and his family took a trip to Italy, where Justin fell in love with the smooth silkiness and intense flavor of gelato.  He found himself returning to gelaterias day after day to savor the simple pleasure of good, honest food enjoyed at a charming outdoor café.  The more gelaterias he visited and the more gelato he tasted, the more determined he grew to recreate this experience back home.  This dream percolated for almost a year before serendipity struck:  the space adjacent to our Petoskey store — on the edge of lovely Pennsylvania Park — became available.  Nine months and thousands of reclaimed bricks later, American Spoon Café & Gelato opened, serving 24 flavors of authentic Italian gelato produced from the bounty of Michigan’s Northern Fruitlands.
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