By J.C. Lewis
Most of us only think about cranberries at this time of year. Mechelle Webb and her husband Michael, who own and operate Bouncing Berry Farms in Southwest Oregon, probably think about these tart, ruby berries every day of the year. When Chelle and Michael established their farm in 1996, she became a fifth generation cranberry grower, fully versed in the history of her predecessors who have farmed cranberries in the countryside around Bandon, Oregon since 1937. It’s a little-known fact that Oregon’s significant cranberry crop not only rivals that of New England, it is actually considered superior: The relatively long growing season here on the west coast makes for sweeter, redder and more flavorful cranberries.
Bandon is a tiny town that attracts a reasonable volume of visitors with its spectacular coastline and the world-class Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. During a recent visit, I met Chelle and Michael for an informal tour of their farm. A planned venture into agro-tours, including a newly built guest cottage overlooking the pond and cranberry bogs, means Bouncing Berry Farms will soon welcome visitors on a regular basis. The word “bog” is somewhat unappealing, but the landscape of a cranberry farm is surprisingly pretty, even when the berries are at a less-than-ripe stage. The panorama encompasses sunken beds of tangled, hardy vines, dotted with heathered hues of reds, purples and pinks.
The neat, geometric fields are bordered by narrow channels equipped with an ingenious irrigation system adapted by Michael to ensure as much water as possible is retained and recycled. The Webbs operate the farm with efficiency not only because it makes good business sense, but also because they take great pride in their roles as stewards of the land. As a child, Chelle and her cousins would help pick cranberries by hand at her Great Aunt’s farm, and the toil proved such a happy memory that she dreamed of owning her own cranberry farm since that time. It did not come quickly or easily, but with years of good, old-fashioned patience, saving and hard work.
They are proud also to grow a native North American crop that is one of the most nutritious fruits there is – cranberries are packed with antioxidants and vitamin C. The Webbs’ two young daughters are not only “cranberry babies,” born in the farmhouse Michael and Chelle hand-built, they are the youngest members of a family line traced directly to “Peg Leg” John Webb. “Peg Leg” was a cranberry farmer back in the 1880s, whose wooden leg made it difficult to transfer his crop from the barn loft down to the ground floor. He had the idea to tumble the berries down the wooden steps, and saw that the firmest, healthiest berries readily bounced down, while inferior, bruised berries sat rejected on the steps. His highquality berries, prized by sailors for preventing scurvy, sold for a premium at the Philadelphia docks, and this special sorting technique inspired Bouncing Berry Farms’ name.
Chelle and Michael explained to me the basic process of harvesting ripe cranberries (I construed it as flood… float… corral… scoop…), and then suggested that I dress in the uniform of a cranberry farmer to venture into the bogs. Dressed like one of the guys from the Ocean Spray commercials, I waded in, but unlike those commercials, I was not submerged in a lake of berries. The bog didn’t even squelch. The dense, bouncy bed of vines didn’t even seem to mind being stomped all over. Straight off the vine, the fruit is dense, a little crunchy and pleasantly sharp. When the cranberries are perfectly ripe, though, Chelle knows exactly what to do with them. In addition to selling fresh berries, Bouncing Berry Farms is the purveyor of Chelle’s “Cranberry and Apple Fruit Delight,” a robustly fruity but not-too-sweet compote available by the jar or case.
Chelle developed the winning recipe after discovering her daughter has some serious food intolerances, including an allergy to gluten that means birthday cake is out of the question. She one day offered the little girl a jar of Cranberry and Apple Fruit Delight (which is completely free of gluten and other allergens) to enjoy as a “crustless pie,” so she wouldn’t miss out on desert. The Delight is delicious and versatile, lending itself to sweet and savory dishes and providing a perfect accompaniment to turkey and chicken. Spread some on the bun of a turkey burger for a taste of Thanksgiving at any time of year, mix it into yogurt, use it as a pie filling, or blend some to create one of Bouncing Berry Farms’ signature cocktails. Cranberry and Apple Fruit Delight is available through ww.Bouncingberryfarms.com, several gourmet stores in Oregon and the Williams-Sonoma store in Portland, Oregon, where the product was selected for inclusion this month in their Artisan Showcase. It recently became available in California too, at the Rainbow Natural Food Store in San Francisco and in Omaha Steak Stores throughout the state. For more information, visit www.bouncingberryfarms.com or see Facebook.com/bouncingberryfarms.