Elkhart Lake: A hid­den gem for auto rac­ing fans, food­ies and pot­tery buffs

Montreal Times - - Travel - By: Stu­art Nul­man / mtl­times.ca

ELKHART LAKE, WIS­CON­SIN – To­wards the end of this past sum­mer, I de­cided to par­tic­i­pate in a press tour to the charm­ing re­sort town of Elkhart Lake, Wis­con­sin. Af­ter en­joy­ing what this small town – lo­cated 40 miles north­west of Mil­wau­kee in the heart of the state’s Ket­tle Mo­raine State For­est – had to of­fer when it came to its breath­tak­ing nat­u­ral scenery and its wide range of at­trac­tions, ac­tiv­i­ties and events that ex­pands its year-round pop­u­la­tion of only 967 peo­ple to thou­sands of vis­i­tors and cot­tage dwellers ev­ery sum­mer (not to men­tion au­tumn and Christ­mas time), one im­pres­sion came to mind: Elkhart Lake is a hid­den gem.

Elkhart Lake has at­tracted vis­i­tors on a reg­u­lar ba­sis since the mid-1800s, but be­fore city folk came to this town as a means of a serene re­treat from the hus­tle and bus­tle of ur­ban life, Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes from the re­gion were at­tracted to the Elkhart Lake area not only for its nat­u­ral beauty, but for the cu­ra­tive ef­fects of the lake’s crys­tal clear, blue-green wa­ter (which is still a ma­jor sell­ing point for the town).

How­ever, what re­ally struck me was how this town, which is neatly tucked away in the forests of south­east Wis­con­sin, has be­come a mag­net for cer­tain types of tourists whom you would least likely ex­pect to tar­get as a va­ca­tion desti­na­tion. For ex­am­ple, auto rac­ing en­thu­si­asts.

Be­cause a group of World War II sol­diers who vis­ited the town shortly af­ter the war – and were ex­posed to new makes and mod­els of Euro­pean cars that were built for speed – were at­tracted to the hills and curved streets of Elkhart Lake, it sparked the mem­bers of the town’s busi­ness com­mu­nity (in par­tic­u­lar Jim John­son, the pres­i­dent of the Elkhart Lake Bank), to es­tab­lish a ma­jor auto race on a 3.35 mile cir­cuit on the north side of the lake. From 1950 to 1952, the Elkhart Lake Road Races at­tracted a large num­ber of rac­ing fans (a to­tal of 155,000 dur­ing those three years), not to men­tion in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned race car driv­ers and sports re­porters from around the world.

The event was stopped af­ter the 1952 race over grow­ing safety con­cerns for the spec­ta­tors; how­ever, the high spirit and ex­cite­ment that those three races brought to Elkhart Lake was not lost on the town fa­thers. In 1955, a 640-acre pro­fes­sional mo­tor speed­way called Road Amer­ica (www.road­amer­ica.com) opened its doors; dubbed “Amer­ica’s Na­tional Park of Speed”, Road Amer­ica is re­garded as one of the first and long­est road rac­ing cir­cuits in all of North Amer­ica.

Its more than four-mile long race track and its ex­pan­sive fa­cil­ity holds over 600 an­nual events, as well as at­tract­ing over 800,000 rac­ing fans through­out the en­tire year. Rac­ing fans of all ages will cer­tainly not be dis­ap­pointed to the wide va­ri­ety of na­tional and in­ter­na­tional auto rac­ing events that Road Amer­ica hosts, such as the Ver­i­zon IndyCar Se­ries, the NAS­CAR XFIN­ITY Se­ries, the Pirelli World Chal­lenge Se­ries, the Mo­toAmer­ica Su­per­Bike Dou­ble­header, plus three highly-at­tended vin­tage car events.

That highly-charged, “need-for-speed” feel­ing that Road Amer­ica pro­motes hit me the mo­ment I ar­rived there, as I heard the high­pow­ered roar of race car en­gines fill the air (which was cour­tesy of the lo­cal Porsche Club, in which its mem­bers were spend­ing a cou­ple of days tak­ing their souped-up ve­hi­cles for a few spins around the track). I was im­pressed with the look and scope of the en­tire Road Amer­ica fa­cil­ity, and it can be com­pared to some of the best in­ter­na­tional auto rac­ing speed­ways, whether they be Day­tona, Indy, Watkins Glen, Monte Carlo or even the Cir­cuit Gilles-Vil­leneuve.

Af­ter watch­ing those Porsches zip by on the main cir­cuit, the friendly Road Amer­ica staff were more than happy to help us sat­isfy that need for speed fever that my­self and my fel­low jour­nal­ists on the tour caught. This was done by get­ting the chance to don some pro rac­ing gear and drive a few laps around its 1-mile paved go kart­ing track (in which the karts can reach a speed of up to 40 mph – or about 65 km an hour – and many of us reached that speed). Af­ter that, we were tested on our race car driv­ing skills with a chal­lenge called the “Cham­pagne Slalom”. We got be­hind the wheel of a sedan with a plate mounted on a small pedestal – and a ball on a string at­tached to it – that was fas­tened onto the hood. Our chal­lenge was to drive the car at nor­mal speeds along the short track in the briefest time pos­si­ble (that in­cluded a down­hill slalom course), while try­ing to pre­vent the ball from fall­ing off the plate. I man­aged to keep the ball on the plate dur­ing my turn on the slalom course (the trick is to never look at the ball while you are driv­ing).

By the way, if you want to take some­thing home from your visit to Road Amer­ica, check out its newly opened Pad­dock Shop, which sells a large va­ri­ety of Road Amer­ica and rac­ing gear (I bought my­self a Road Amer­ica tshirt with a map of its 4-mile main track – which in­cludes the “Canada Cor­ner” -- on the back of the shirt).

What also struck me about Elkhart Lake is that for a town of barely 1000 year-round res­i­dents, there is cer­tainly no short­age of fine din­ing es­tab­lish­ments of all cuisines and tastes, whether you like your meals sim­ple or ex­trav­a­gant. Whether they are lo­cated within the three main re­sort ho­tels that an­chor the town – the Osthoff Re­sort, Siebkins Re­sort and the Vic­to­rian Vil­lage – or along the town’s main street or im­me­di­ate vicin­ity, vis­i­tors are in for a culi­nary treat, not only be­cause of the unique flavour of these unique lo­cal restau­rants (21 in all), but how many of them use lo­cal in­gre­di­ents, of which a good deal of them are grown in gar­dens that are part of their re­spec­tive es­tab­lish­ments. I highly rec­om­mend the fol­low­ing restau­rants for its re­spec­tive sig­na­ture cui­sine and at­mos­phere: the Pad­dock Club, the Back Porch Bistro, the Stop Inn Tav­ern, Lola’s Restau­rant and Lounge, and the Lake Street Café; and for some good old fash­ioned lo­cally-pro­duced ice cream for dessert, check out Sissy’s Cof­fee & Ice Cream Shoppe out­side the Sibkins Re­sort, and Gosserts, which nos­tal­gi­cally takes you back to those ice cream par­lours and soda foun­tains from about a cen­tury ago.

An­other attraction for the foodie vis­i­tor to Elkhart Lake are the culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ences that the town of­fers, and gives res­i­dents and vis­i­tors a hands-on ap­proach to the recipes, pro­duce, beers and wines that are ex­clu­sively cre­ated in this area.

I de­cided to par­take in a cook­ing class that was held in the Osthoff Re­sort’s own L’Ecole de la Mai­son

www.cook­ingschoolatosthoff.com . Led by Ben­jamin Som­mer­feldt, the ho­tel’s mas­ter chef (who is also the ex­ec­u­tive chef at Lola’s Restau­rant, which also makes its home at the Osthoff), the school of­fers guests one­and two-day cour­ses, as well as work­shops, with the aim to fur­ther en­hance, or de­velop, a pas­sion for good food and the art of cook­ing it. The recipes that are taught have a tra­di­tional an­gle to them (and are easy for the home chef to fol­low), and can range from mak­ing breads, to pasta and sauces, to soups and stocks, to dishes that are ex­clu­sive to Wis­con­sin, or are fa­mil­iar dishes that use made-in-Wis­con­sin in­gre­di­ents. And the school’s vis­ually stun­ning kitchen/class­room, com­plete with state-of-theart cook­ing ap­pli­ances and ev­ery type of cook­ware imag­in­able, cer­tainly en­cour­ages that pas­sion for cook­ing and fine din­ing.

The morn­ing-long class that my­self and seven other jour­nal­ists took part in was called “Wis­con­sin Roots”, in which we were paired off to cre­ate a dish that was made in Wis­con­sin, re­flected the state’s Ger­man her­itage, or were pop­u­lar with many of Wis­con­sin’s sup­per club restau­rants. The in­gre­di­ents were all laid out be­fore us (along with each re­spec­tive recipe), and our task was to pre­pare and cook the dish in ques­tion so that we could en­joy them for our lunch. The menu in­cluded French Onion Soup, Potato Crusted Wall­eye fish, bread, salad, and a new twist to Black For­est Cake.

As for my­self, I was tasked with the de­lec­ta­ble job of pre­par­ing two dishes: roasted ten­der­loin with nat­u­ral jus lie, and twice baked pota­toes, com­plete with a stuff­ing made with a com­bi­na­tion of aged Wis­con­sin ched­dar cheese and Wis­con­sin ba­con. At first, it was a bit in­tim­i­dat­ing (es­pe­cially the fact of how was I go­ing to in­cor­po­rate all those in­gre­di­ents into an ed­i­ble dish within a cou­ple of hours’ time); how­ever, thanks to the skills, pa­tience and tire­less flex­i­bil­ity of Chef Ben­jamin and his souschef, all of us man­aged to pre­pare our recipes on time, so that we could savour them course-by-course a cou­ple of hours later. The ver­dict: a mem­o­rable meal that was dee-li­cious.

As well, we were given three mini lessons through­out that morn­ing at the cook­ing school: how to prop­erly slice an onion; how to iden­tify and sam­ple some of Wis­con­sin’s in­ter­na­tion­ally-renowned, award-win­ning cheeses; and how to mix Wis­con­sin’s most-re­quested drink, the Brandy Old Fash­ioned Cock­tail, com­plete with brandy, bit­ters, mashed up or­anges and cher­ries and a spray of Sierra Mist lemon-lime soft drink.

Chef Ben­jamin Som­mer­feldt con­duct­ing a cook­ing class at

the L'Ecole de la Mai­son cook­ing school

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