Always on the lookout for something new to experience in West Michigan, your reporters headed out northward along the lakeshore late one Friday afternoon to Shelby, Mich. Our destination was Cherry Point Farm & Market, one of the oldest operating farms in Oceana County, the first orchards being planted in the 1860s. During a leisurely 80-mile drive from Rockford, our mouths were watering in anticipation of partaking in a traditional Scandinavian Fish Boil.
LABOR OF LOVE—Boil Master Ven Martinez and Barbara Bull lower the basket of whitefish into the specially constructed 30-gallon pot. Photo by CLIFF AND NANCY HILL
Dating back to the late 1800s, fish boils were a tradition of Scandinavian immigrants to Door County, Wis. Nowadays there is not a respectable Wisconsin “Supper Club” in Door County worth its salt that does not feature a fish boil on Friday or Saturday evenings, summer through fall.
In 2000, Barbara Bull, owner of Cherry Point Farm, traveled to Door County, Wis. for a cherry growers meeting and while there experienced, for the first time, one of the area’s famous fish boils. “Eureka,” she said, “I had found the perfect ingredient to compliment the 600 acres of orchards, gardens, vineyards and woodlands where more than 200 varieties of fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs are produced and harvested on Cherry Point Farm.”
Thus began a new tradition at Cherry Point Farm, the Friday and Saturday evening fish boils during the months of June, July, August and September. “Fish boils are gatherings.” says Bull. “Area locals, out-of-state tourists, and resorters gather and make new friends while partaking in, many for the first time, a unique culinary experience.”
It has been said by some that the worst winter they had ever spent “was a summer in Michigan.” This past summer in Michigan was one such summer, being one of the coolest on record. This particular Friday was no exception. It had rained off and on all day and it was 60 degrees when we arrived at Cherry Point Farm, but we were cheered by the sight of 5,000 blooming red petunias planted at the entrance of the farm market building. Previously, along with 77 others, we had made the required reservations for the evening’s fish boil. Our concerns about no-shows were laid to rest as the parking lot soon filled with the evening’s entire roster.
The weather cooperated, the rain stopped, and outside over a stone lined fire pit Ven Martinez, the “boil master,” had already stoked a fire under and around a water- filled specially crafted 30-gallon pot. Martinez’s vital responsibility was to establish and maintain a rolling boil in the pot. Tonight it proved to be a difficult task because of the damp wood, but he succeeded admirably.
Promptly at 6 p.m., Barb Bull announced that the fish boil was about to commence. Holding cups of sweet cherry-flavored hot coffee and fresh hand-squeezed lemonade, the guests took advantage of the warmth of the fire and surrounded the pot. Bull began the “boil” by pouring in the most important ingredient—the famous “Cherry Point Farm eight-pound dash of salt.” GASP… you read that right… eight pounds!
One might think that all that salt would infuse the boil’s ingredients with a lifetime of sodium. Not so, Bull explained. The purpose of the salt was solely to create saltwater with a resulting higher specific gravity/density.
In a carefully choreographed and timed recipe preparation, Bull and Martinez start adding the boil’s ingredients by first lowering a heavy-gauge stainless steel basket containing medium-sized redskin potatoes and a secret combination of herbs and spices wrapped in cheesecloth into the boiling cauldron.
Bull kept up an educational and entertaining running dialog with guests as she waited for her handheld timer to go off in 10 minutes. The pair then added medium-sized peeled sweet onions and set the timer again for an additional six minutes. By this time the guests were really into it and peppered Bull with questions as we waited to add the main ingredient, fresh Lake Superior whitefish filets. The timer again sounded and in another basket the pair lowered 40 pounds of six- to eight-ounce-size whitefish filets into the pot.
At this point the pot has lost its “boil” and Boil Master Martinez must again stoke the fire to bring the boil back to life. Bull again set the timer for the final 10 minutes.
Remember the salt? This is where the chemistry and fish biology lesson begins. Bull explained, “The whitefish fishery in northern Lake Michigan and Lake Superior is an unthreatened and fast-growing renewable resource. The whitefish reside in the cold-water depths of these bodies of water and are untainted by environmental contamination. The flesh of coldwater fish is oily, resulting in a fishy taste. This is where the boiling saltwater comes into play. As the filets cook in the boiling water, the oil molecules in the delicate less-dense meat migrate to the denser saltwater. Oil, being lighter than water, foams to the top.”
Now, for the grand finale—after a warning by Bull for everyone to “stand back,” Martinez carefully threw a measured amount of kerosene onto the fire. Only by being there could one experience the huge flare-up as the pot was engulfed in flames. The super-heated water boiled over the sides of the pot, taking the floating fish oils with it. The white-meat fish filets were now sweet and free of oil, resulting in what Bull described as “poor man’s lobster.” She went on to pronounce it “a fine boil.”
The steaming baskets were removed and placed on racks on a serving table. Guests formed a line and were served plentiful portions and moved on to a table of crusty homemade garlic bread, homemade tangy-sweet coleslaw, and huge pats of Cherry Point’s herb butter for topping the potatoes, onions and fish. “No one leaves hungry,” said Bull. “Seconds are encouraged.”
Guests settled themselves at picnic tables decorated with fresh wildflowers from the farm’s herb gardens. You were invited to seat yourself where you were most comfortable. Some chose to sit outside under trees and awnings, and some preferred inside seating in the Farm Market Tea Room. Of course, the hot coffee and lemonade were still flowing (some guests chose to bring a bottle or two of wine), and lively conversations ensued among the new friends.
Last, but certainly not least, was a generous slice of homemade cherry pie from the farm market’s bakery, topped with real vanilla ice cream. From start to finish, it was an event and meal to remember.
Barbara Bull, who in her past life graduated from Cedar Springs High School, invites everyone to discover Cherry Point Farm & Market and all it has to offer.
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