First in a series about the wide range of bed and breakfast lodging in Wisconsin. The state contains 300-plus licensed B&Bs, including this one.
Pregnancy. The Blue Angels. Winemaking. Running vs. lawn mowing. Good books. Home ownership. Heirloom vegetables.
Conversation, in the company of strangers, shifts often and effortlessly on a Saturday night at Brambleberry Bed and Breakfast, rural Jackson County. A glass of wine helps this, but so does the sharing of a leisurely, five-course meal.
It is rare for a B&B to also have a restaurant license in Wisconsin. Innkeepers Sherry and Chris Hardie go one step further: Almost all ingredients for their seasonal and organic Saturday dinners, available only to overnight guests, come from within 25 miles of the farm during this time of year. Much is from the innkeepers’ one-acre garden.
“The closest casual restaurant is 10 miles away,” Sherry notes. Her state restaurant license allows baking and broiling, but not fried foods.
Our late-August feast starts with a chowder of sweet corn and summer squash, topped with crumbles of garlic-herb feta cheese. Next comes a classic Caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and Red Rubin basil.
The entree resembles a neatly arranged plate from a buffet: strips of marinated and slow-roasted beef, heritage-variety beet slices, roasted Goldrush potatoes, dilled cukes in Greek yogurt and a sweet scoop of herbed corn with Parmesan.
For dessert: Irish apple cake, made with Vikings, then slices of a BellaVitano from Sartori Cheese and nips of Chris’ homemade wine.
Not everyone staying in the B&B’s five guest rooms attends dinner, and we’re sampling wines when two couples return to the roost. One spent the day canoeing the Black River. The other, from Minneapolis, watched their first tractor pull (in Ettrick, population 525) after dining in La Crosse and meandering along the Mississippi River.
A Chicago couple, expecting their first child, spent the day picking apples and blueberries at a Hixton orchard. “We’re here for a quiet weekend before the baby is born,” says Katie Randolph, who also welcomed a break after moving with husband Dan from an apartment to house.
A getaway from urban bustle also was important to Mike and Denise Jorgensen, whose 2-year-old son got a weekend with grandparents. Their second child is due soon.
Brambleberry is an adults-only B&B, so parents get a clear respite from youthful commotion. The setting is pure country, and the closest community – Taylor – is about 10 miles away.
During my drive to Brambleberry, a friendly Amish farmer waved while plowing with a team of horses, a dozen turkeys strutted in unison across a country road and a pair of whitetails calmly grazed on white clover, hours before sunset.
The last turn is a one-mile drive on a narrow road that ends with a farm of bleating sheep and freshly baled hay. Greeters include Lucky, a friendly but polite dog with one blue and one brown eye. More self-absorbed is Nessie, a golden lab that loves a good game of catch and is named after the Scottish Highlands’ Loch Ness Monster.
“She’s 2 years old but still acts like a puppy,” notes Chris, editor of the River Valley Newspaper Group, which includes the La Crosse Tribune. He considers farming and hosting B&B guests therapeutic and a good balance to his newsroom life.
It is no coincidence that his livestock include ruddy Scottish Highland cattle and Scottish Blackface ewes. The innkeepers are proud of their heritage, and their home is an expanded version of what Chris’ great-grandparents built in 1926. The Hardie family emigrated from Scotland in 1852.
“Brambleberry” refers to the Scottish nickname for blackberries, which grow here. Indoors are shortbread treats, many framed photos of castles and a full-armor mascot named Mac.
And breakfast? It arrives by candlelight, in three courses. The highlight for me was caramel-apple french toast, made with a recipe that local Amish folks use at their community breakfasts – and watching hummingbirds hover at the windowsill.
For more about Brambleberry B&B, N3684 Claire Rd., Taylor: brambleberrybandb.com, 608-525-8001. Guests are accepted only on weekends, and room rates are $89-169.
The 7 p.m. Saturday dinners cost $30-35 per person and are only offered to overnight guests. Menus are online. Fridays are pizza nights, and pasta is the Sunday specialty. Sandwiches and salads also are possible. Murder mystery dinners can be arranged.
Five reasons to visit the area:
Kayak or canoe the Mississippi River backwaters or Black River.
Explore Mississippi River towns, on both the Wisconsin (Highway 35) and Minnesota (Highway 61) sides.
Bicycle the Elroy-Sparta Trail, a 30-minute drive, or nearby country roads.
Shop, dine and play in La Crosse, a 30-minute drive, for a mix of urban and rural sites.