While many of us who live here know that the town of Boscobel is not the hot bed of Wisconsin tourism, there are two sweet spots tucked away into the rolling hills of unbelievable beauty in the western part of our state, that led me to my latest food adventure. That would be the Life O’Riley Farm and Valley Ridge Art Studio.
Jean and Mike Murphy live on 160 acres directly off Riley road and County T, six miles outside of Boscobel Wisconsin. They run a small bed and breakfast out of two buildings on their farm – a restored granary and old school house (which is where we stayed) – a temporary home to many guests of the Valley Ridge Art Retreat Center.
When we pulled into their driveway last Saturday, we were greeted by two of their “temporary” residents named Christmas and Thanksgiving. Yes those were turkeys – I kid you not. These two birds came running up to the car, just as friendly as their dog Josie, curious to who was arriving and if we would care to pet them. You see Jean and Mike are strong supporters of the local food and slow food movement, and eat mostly what they raise or grow throughout the year. That would be one steer, one pig, about 40 chickens, two turkeys, and a huge garden of vegetables which guests are welcome to enjoy. As Jean said to me, “we live inconveniently all the time.”
Jean is a super great hostess who knows how to make you feel completely at home immediately with her food. The kitchen of the schoolhouse was stocked with fresh eggs, milk and cream from a farmer down the road, fresh apple cider, home-baked bread, home made granola, and a nice variety of home-baked muffins. Last time we stayed there, about a year ago, we also had home made sausages from their pig. It was too early this visit – the new pig was still out in the barn. Jean loves to cook for her family and her guests, and loves talking about new recipes she’s discovered. My last visit there I came home with her recipe for English muffin bread, which I’ve made six times so far during my year of inconvenience.
I must admit it was a pretty humbling experience for me to witness food first hand looking into the eyes of those turkeys or that steer. Jean and Mike Murphy care for their livestock as they do for their pets, yet they know the difference, and they know the meat from their livestock is going to get them through another harsh Wisconsin winter. What food they don’t raise or grow on the farm, they must buy elsewhere, and Jean lamented how they didn’t have a food co-op nearby to fill some of the gaps.
As we sat in the kitchen of the schoolhouse one evening, we heard an unfamiliar sound, and much to our surprise an Amish buggy came slowly down the driveway in the dark of night. I’m guessing the young boy was bringing some of the fresh milk they provide for us, as Jean and Mike don’t have their own milking cow. The Amish grow a lot of the vegetables for the area farm markets, and bring them to auction each week for even wider distribution in Wisconsin. Milk for Wisconsin cheese comes from many of the cows in this part of the state, and some of the award-winning cheeses are produced just a few miles down the road in Gays Mills and Fennimore. It doesn’t get more local than this.
The second sweet spot of the trip was the Valley Ridge Art Studio run by Kathy Engen. Valley Ridge is a beautiful setting overlooking the hills of western Wisconsin, just seven miles from the Life O’Riley Farm. Kathy brings in artists from all over the country for workshops and art retreats in a very warm and welcoming setting. You can stay in the guesthouse (former farmhouse) on her property and she will provide a healthy lunch during your class, for a nominal price. In contrast to the from-scratch cooking of Jean, Kathy does most of her shopping at Madison’s Willy Street Co-op for the sumptuous lunches – so my days were actually a balance of convenience and inconvenience.
Because our class was held over Labor Day weekend, or maybe because Kathy is such a great hostess, she included a cookout for all of the workshop attendees on Sunday night at her home and invited our hosts Jean and Mike, among other friends to share some of their food with us. We had a wonderful tomato salad from her friends Frank and Maureen, made from their homegrown tomatoes, cilantro, mint, and chives, as well as their own home made feta cheese. Jean and Mike brought some roasted potatoes they had dug from the ground that morning, along with a wonderful beet salad and pickles. Our instructor Jill Berry brought along some salmon she had marinated in tequila, lemon, and fresh herbs grown in her garden. I brought along some fresh baked crackers, Lisa brought along a freshly baked banana bread, and we capped the dinner/evening off with homemade coffee and vanilla ice cream topped with a variety of flavored sea salts and a homemade apple crisp. Yes, it was that good!
Well all good things must come to an end, and as the weekend winded down we walked away from it all with some amazing book art, a dozen of fresh eggs from the farm, and some new friendships to keep us occupied on Facebook this winter.
I promised Jill and Jean I would share my cracker recipe with them. This was originally published in Saveur Magazine as Flaxseed Crackers. I made them the first time with sesame seeds, and now love combining the two seeds for an amazing flavor.
Flax and Sesame Crackers
1 ½ cups flour
¼ cup flax seed
¼ cup sesame seeds
1 teaspoon garlic salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons butter, softened
½ cup milk
To finish the crackers
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Combine the dry ingredients (flour, flax, sesame seeds, garlic salt, and baking powder) in a large bowl. Using your fingers, work the butter into the flour mixture until the mixture is coarse. Gradually add the milk, stirring until a crumbly dough forms. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and refrigerate the dough for about 15 minutes so it’s easier to handle.
Preheat the oven to 375°. Talk half of the chilled dough and roll out onto a lightly floured surface (I roll mine directly onto a silicone baking sheet, you could use parchment paper as well.) You want to roll it out to 1/8 inch thickness, into a rectangle approximately 12” x 15”. Brush the dough with half of the olive oil and sprinkle with half of the kosher salt. Using a pizza cutter or pie wheel, cut the dough into the size crackers you would like. (Repeat the process with the other half of the dough on another baking sheet.)
Bake the crackers until golden brown, about 20 minutes. I set the timer to 16 minutes and take out any crackers already more brown than the others – usually the ones around the edges – then let the rest bake for the last 4 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to let them cool completely.