Warm Mineral Springs: A Taste of Eastern Europe in Southwest Florida

BD and I have been enjoying a few glorious days in Florida.  The sun has been shining and the temperature has been in the mid 80s, and the humidity is low.  My dad’s house here is a wonderful refuge from the depression and stress of the last few months, and I’m glad that BD and I have been able to come.  The house is adjacent to a magnificent pond (pictured here) which is home to lots of lily pads, fishes, an Anhanga, a Great Blue Heron, a Great Egret, some super endangered species called a Scrub Jay, a couple of cool ducks, a gazillion turtles (see one, below), a romp of otters, and a few alligators (seriously).  I could probably come down here and just spend a week gazing out at the wildlife on the pond and watching the birds fish.

But luckily for me, he lives in an awesome and strange community which is very “old Florida” just to the south of Venice, called Warm Mineral Springs.  It used to be its own town, but now it has been annexed by the city of North Port, so its just like a large neighborhood.  At the center of the neighborhood is… you guessed it, a warm mineral spring.  Supposedly, its the fountain of youth.  I’ve been swimming in it since I was in diapers (I was an early swimmer), and I am full of youth so maybe it works?  When the tourists come in and ask me about it, I always tell them “oh its wonderful!  I’ve been coming here for ages, since I was in my mid-twenties!” and they usually get a good chuckle.  Really the springs are full of 70-80 year old eastern europeans who don’t speak a lick of english and who wear bikinis and briefs that probably last fit them properly in the 1930s.  I love it.

Yesterday we spent all day at Nokomis Beach, so today we decided to stay closer to home and went over this morning to swim in the springs.  I find that the whole “no one who speaks english” thing is rather relaxing and I can just enjoy the murmur of people having conversations that I can’t understand.  My dad tells me that they mostly discuss the intricacies of WWII and the cold war, which most of these people surely experienced first hand.  *Just as an aside, I’m currently reading The Impossible Country: A Journey Through the Last Days of Yugoslavia, by Brian Hall, and not only is it totally appropriate for this community but its a fantastic read for anyone who is interested in Balkan or Eastern European history and politics.

After a few swims around the pond, we were ready for lunch.  The on-site cafe at the Warm Springs provides fresh homemade dishes that draw mainly on Polish and Ukranian foods, but also Russian and Lithuanian… very representative of the clientele.  The menu includes a few pretty good vegetarian dishes, notables include the Borsch and the Mushroom & Sauerkraut pirogi, made fresh from scratch.  BD and I ordered three items to share:

pan fried pirogi made with potato and farmers cheese, served with fried onions and sour cream, cheese blintzes, and barley soup.

The pirogi are something to write home about.  The dough is suprisingly thick, much more like a dumpling than a pasta, and the flavors of the cheese and potato really stand out and of course, the butter and onions and sour cream just make it a fantastic (if unhealthy) snack.  I’m sure most readers of this blog have had pirogi before, so I won’t dwell on it.  But suffice it to say, if you have only ever had a Mrs. T’s pirogi, get out of your house and go to the nearest polish or ukrainian church and ask them when their next pierogi sale is, and plan to stop back to get some good homemade deliciousness.

I have to be honest, the blintzes are not really my kind of thing, but BD has never had a blintz, so I figured he better try one here since we have no plans to go to the Ukraine anytime soon.  The cheese is a sweet and soft cheese, close to cream cheese, but I think it may be some other soft cheese.  Its in a very light and thin pancake, a lot like a crepe but slightly more doughy, which is rolled and then browned in butter in a pan.  The result is a rich and sweet dish, which I might enjoy more for breakfast than I do for lunch.  BD ate them with no complaints.

For me, the Barley Soup is the highlight.  This is the kind of soup that is made all over eastern europe, because it is very cheap to make and quite hearty.  There are (I think), 7 ingredients to this soup: water, potato, carrot, celery, barley, black pepper, and parsley.  I personally can’t stand parsley except in VERY small amounts, so I think next time I get it I would ask them not to add any on top**, but otherwise this dish is a prime example of how much you can do with so little.  The broth has a VERY mild taste to it, probably in part because it has no salt and in part because its made with water instead of stock.  But instead of being bland, the result is that the flavors of the vegetables and the barley are able to shine through, and the soup ends up having a distinct barley taste (I guess why its called barley soup) instead of just tasting like a vegetable soup with regular stock.   

**Not that they’d understand me anyway, I’m pretty sure there is no english spoken by anyone working in the cafe.  Oh well!

So, if any blog readers find themselves in Southwest Florida, make the trip for a day to the Warm Mineral Springs.  A fun day of swimming in the 87 degree mineral springs, sunbathing, and munching on authentic slavic foods will be well worth your time and money.  The springs are about 1 hour and 15 minutes from Tampa, 45 minutes from Sarasota, and and hour from Fort Myers, and its directly on Tamiami Trail.

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