Gaylord — A bowl of plump sweet cherries on the bar in the spot usually reserved for peanuts is a hint this dinner will be special.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering it’s the amuse-bouche — or opening act — of “Cherry Spectacular,” one of the popular “Farm2Fork” dinner parties held in a rustic lodge on a remote corner of Treetops Resort in Gaylord.
In its third season and inspired by the burgeoning “eat local” movement, the resort’s Wilderness Cabin dinner series, including two upcoming fall-themed events, pairs fresh, locally-sourced seasonal ingredients with Michigan craft beer (and cider) or northern Michigan wines.
The featured beverage, such as this evening’s wines from Leelanau Cellars, not only accompanies the four-course meal, but is used in the preparation of each dish, from the appetizer, Blue Cheese and Balsamic Cherry Stuffed Cucumber Rounds, to dessert, a cherry torte with cherry wine-infused cream cheese and a cherry reduction, garnished with chocolate shavings and fresh berries.
What’s more, a local farmer and a representative of the host winery or brewery are on hand to chat between courses about what it takes to get their products to the table — in this case, a handhewn hemlock and cedar beauty that seats up to 32.
“The trees don’t care if you want the day off,” said Jack King, whose family fruit farm, King Orchards, supplied the evening’s cherries, including pitted sweets, Montmorency tarts and cherry concentrate, their biggest seller. Clients include 25 professional sports teams, several Michigan breweries and many fans in the United Kingdom, where the cherry concentrate is prized for its healthful anti-oxidants, he said.
Between Farm2Fork courses, King, 32, and his wife, Courtney, described the demands of life on their farm, near Torch Lake and overlooking Grand Traverse Bay, about an hour west of Treetops. It was started in 1980 by his father, John King, who left an engineering career at General Motors to grow fruit trees. The enterprise blossomed from 80 acres to nearly 400, including 220 acres planted with sweet and tart cherry trees, and others devoted to U-pick produce including raspberries, apricots, nectarines, apples and pumpkins. There’s also a bakery and store (kingorchards.com).
“Only farmers sweat on frosty nights,” King said with wry humor, quoting a slogan on a favorite T-shirt.
As the couple talked, diners savored the Farm2Fork fare, including a Chopped Kale Salad with Cherry Vinaigrette and a succulent bone-in Berkshire pork chop with cherry wine reduction. The pork chop, fresh from Rolling R Farms in Gaylord, sat atop a Dutch-inspired baked kale and potato mash. Served with fresh green and yellow beans, it was the star of the show.
On this midsummer night, dinner guests came from as far away as California. Many began the evening as strangers and left as friends, thanks to the romantic, pond-side setting and wine-enhanced conversation.
“We came up north just for the dinner,” said Pam Mower, an Arizona resident who spends summers in Spring Lake. “It’s a great learning experience. What surprised me is how much I enjoyed the camaraderie of the group. It was more fun than I thought it would be.”
Her partner, Brian Murphy, agreed. Pointing outside at the deck and pond, he said: “You can’t beat the setting, a cabin in the woods. It’s just beautiful.”
The couple and other dinner guests were surprised to learn of the property’s unusual, Jurassic Park-like history. In 1987 it was the site of a short-lived Michigan attraction called Project Nature, a wildlife preserve with giraffes, camels and other exotics. Visitors viewed the animals from a tram that stopped first at the gift shop and theater, now Wilderness Cabin. The preserve, in the scenic Pigeon River Valley, lasted less than a year, but its giraffe barn remains. A tall, odd-looking building, it was known then as the “Giraffe Hilton.”
Gabe Bober, Treetops’ food and beverage director, regards each Farm2Fork evening as “more than a dinner — it’s an experience” for the diners and the chefs.
Before each event, the resort’s culinary team visits Gaylord Farmers Market and crafts a menu based on what’s farm-fresh and available. With only the entree planned in advance, the dinner is a local, seasonal and creative surprise, he said, adding: “At Treetops we try to provide memories, it’s our favorite thing to do.”
In late August, the second event in the series, “My Green Garden” featured organic produce from Home Comfort Farms in Johannesburg with a rib-eye steak entrée and craft beer from Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids.
On tap Sept. 23, an “Autumn Harvest” dinner showcases marinated rack of lamb from Cook Family Farm in Gaylord, which specializes in natural, grass-fed meat. The event will be co-hosted by Fred Bueltmann, an owner of New Holland Brewing Company in Holland, and author of the acclaimed 2013 book, “Beervangelist’s Guide to the Galaxy: A Philosophy of Food & Drink.”
Wrapping up Treetops’ 2016 Farm2Fork season, Oct. 21, will be “Back to Our Roots,” a root vegetable-centered dinner starring short ribs from Bluestem Farm, a four-season, organic farm in East Jordan. The meal will be prepared with and accompanied by beverages from Short’s Brewing Company and Starcut Ciders in nearby Bellaire, including a pilsner fermented with hand-picked blue spruce tips.
The Farm2Fork dinners are just one part of Treetops’ popular Culinary Adventure Series.
Seven weekend dates in January and February feature “Skiable Feast” events with five gourmet food stations reachable via cross-country skis or snow shoes. “Wilderness Sleigh Ride Dinner” parties will be held on eight evenings in January and February. Like the Farm2Fork events, they’re staged in the remote Wilderness Cabin.
For details on the resort’s culinary programs, check treetops.com/culinary/.
Blue Cheese and Balsamic Cherry Stuffed Cucumber Rounds
2-3 fresh cucumbers peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch thick discs and hollowed out with a melon baller
1 cup fresh blue cheese, locally made, if possible
2/3 cup cream cheese
1/2 to 3/4 cup King Orchards dried cherries
Roasted Garlic Balsamic Vinaigrette
1 large garlic clove
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Pinch of brown sugar (optional)
Mix cream cheese and blue cheese very well. Using a pastry bag, pipe into cucumber rounds. (A sandwich bag with the corner cut off works well if you don’t own a pastry bag).
Top each disc with the dried cherries — just a few on each does the trick.
Drizzle with Roasted Garlic Balsamic Vinaigrette and serve.
To make the vinaigrette
Place garlic clove on parchment-lined sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Roast in a 300-degree oven for 45 minutes or until garlic is fork tender. Use a butter knife or small spoon to scoop out the garlic. Mix with salt, pepper, brown sugar and balsamic vinegar. Using a whisk, slowly pour in the extra virgin olive oil and whisk briskly.
Yield: 1 cup (plenty left over for your next salad!). Serves 8.
Per serving (with 1/2 vinaigrette): 269 calories; 22 g fat (8 g saturated fat; 74 percent calories from fat); 14 g carbohydrates; 11 g sugar; 34 mg cholesterol; 340 mg sodium; 5 g protein; 1 g fiber.
1 large bunch of fresh kale
1/2 pint fresh strawberries
2 cups pitted and washed tart cherries
1 cup candied walnuts
3 tablespoons fresh chopped mint
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons cherry concentrate
Salt and pepper to taste
(Blend rapidly in a food processor)
In a large stainless steel bowl, combine produce items. Lightly toss with vinaigrette, then chill mixture and serve. Serves 4.
Per serving: 533 calories; 44 g fat (5 g saturated fat; 74 percent calories from fat); 34 g carbohydrates; 20 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 153 mg sodium; 9 g protein; 7 g fiber.
of Squash Soup
1 cup diced celery
1 cup diced onion
6 cups roasted pureed butternut squash
2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1 quart heavy whipping cream
2 cups chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Put an 8-quart stock pot on medium heat and coat with just enough extra virgin olive oil to cover bottom of pan. Add celery, onions and garlic to the stockpot and caramelize them. Deglaze the pot with chicken stock. Add heavy whipping cream and squash puree. Simmer for 20-30 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serves 6.
Per serving: 738 calories; 64 g fat (38 g saturated fat; 78 percent calories from fat); 40 g carbohydrates; 12 g sugar; 222 mg cholesterol; 298 mg sodium; 8 g protein; 10 g fiber.
Balsamic Brussels Sprouts
Extra virgin olive oil
1 cup diced and cooked bacon
1 extra-large yellow onion, julienned
6 cups Brussels sprouts, washed and split (cut in half)
1 cup balsamic vinaigrette
Salt and pepper to taste
Over medium heat, add extra virgin olive oil to a large, nonstick saute pan. Add the julienned yellow onions and Brussels sprouts. Saute over medium heat for 5-10 minutes until onions are caramelized. Add the diced and cooked bacon. Deglaze the pan with balsamic vinaigrette. Let simmer over low to medium heat with the lid cracked until the Brussels sprouts are fork tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serves 6.
Per serving: 436 calories; 35 g fat (7 g saturated fat; 72 percent calories from fat); 16 g carbohydrates; 5 g sugar; 41 mg cholesterol; 1,364 mg sodium; 17 g protein; 4 g fiber.
If you go
Farm2Fork events are $89 per person, including tax and fees. That covers the four-course dinner, Michigan craft beer or wines with each course and shuttle service from Treetops Resort to and from Wilderness Cabin.
■The resort also offers special overnight packages, starting at $162 per person, double occupancy, that include one-night lodging, the Farm2Fork dinner, resort shuttle service to and from Wilderness Cabin and breakfast the next morning.
■Golfers may add an 18-hole round, with cart, starting at $35 per person, on one of Treetops’ five courses by Robert Trent Jones Sr., Tom Fazio and Rick Smith. Or, check out the new Treetops Golf Academy with PGA professional Joe Charles, director of instruction.
For information, check treetops.com or call (989) 732-6711.