After months of longing eased only by the occasional purchased preserve or cobbler made from freezer stock, the glorious fruit season has once again returned to the Pacific Northwest. Now we are cycling through the berries – first strawberries, then raspberries, now blueberries – to top our cereal each morning. Once again our fridge is stocked with cherries to snack on by the handful. And the stone fruits are just beginning.
The locally grown produce has always been one of our favorite things about this region. We expected the seafood, but didn’t realize the abundance of wild mushrooms, beans, vegetables, potatoes and above all the extravagant loads of fruit we’d find. You don’t get that kind of fruit in Wisconsin. Sure there were strawberries and blueberries and even Door County cherries, but they were expensive, rarely organic and available only for a couple weeks. And the stone fruits weren’t available at all. No nectarines, plums, apricots, pluots, or peaches that we get to sample and enjoy here. Even the apples, which do grow abundantly in Wisconsin, are inferior. An organic apple there is a blistered, wormy thing barely the size of your palm. Most orchards spray heavily with pesticides to create larger, unblemished fruit. Whereas here, large, beautiful, organic apples are not only easy to come by, they are stored and sold from September all the way through the winter and into spring.
Perhaps Washington’s agricultural prowess caught me by surprise because I thought I was coming from a fairly agricultural state, with one of the best farmers markets in the country circling the Capitol Square each Saturday. The Dairy state is of course best known for cheese. In most parts of the country cheese curds are deep fried, a warm layer of fat on top of melty milk fat. In Wisconsin, however, they are best bought fresh, with the smell of whey still on them, squeaking between your teeth as you chew. After sampling a few overpriced and underwhelming cheeses here we concluded the cheese really is better in Wisconsin. I’m lactose-intolerant and even I could tell that. When we first moved here I was eating goat cheese, easier to digest than that made from cow’s milk, and even with just that small sample I could taste the difference. Wisconsin cheese is just tastier. I’m not talking about fancy, expensive, long-aged cheese either. I’m talking about your everyday lunch Cheddars, Colbys, Colby-Jacks, Swisses and Farmers cheeses. I don’t know if it’s the milk or the technique, but they are creamier, saltier, smoother, more flavorful; all out superior.
I recognize the irony – and pity – of being a lactose-intolerant Cheesehead. Wisconsin-made ice cream is phenomenal too. Before I developed lactose-intolerance in my teen years my dad taught me to make malts in the blender with Wisconsin ice cream and Wisconsin milk, a scoop of malt powder and a squirt of chocolate syrup. He taught me how to make grilled cheese sandwiches too, with our favorite, Colby. I know what I am missing.
I am not the only one of course. My grandpa, who grew up drinking the milk and cream from the cows he helped milk each morning, developed lactose-intolerance too. We tried soy cheeses and dairy-free ice-creams, but recognized that they were just a consolation. The only thing I have found that is worthy in its own right is ice cream made from coconut milk.
The Wisconsin diet of cheese and ice cream, along with German beers and brats, not surprisingly makes for a less than healthy population. We have noticed that there are a lot fewer obese people in Seattle than we’re used to seeing. All of that fruit, along with some healthy Omega-3s from salmon make for a pretty ideal diet. While weight has never been a problem for me – lactose intolerance and other food sensitivities will do that for you – I can still appreciate the feeling of being able to eat so healthily. In berry season it’s antioxidants bursting in every bite. And who needs cheese here anyway? Just trust me on that one.