Fawn Gottschalk might not pine for the old days, but she’s willing to stand in knee-deep chilly water and part the red sea while being punished by a steady drizzle of rain when out-of-state writers arrive.
She’s determined to prove there’s more to Wisconsin than cheese, beer and Packers football.
Gottschalk is wielding a hand-held cranberry scoop which, before mechanization, was the labour-intensive way to separate the tart berries from the low-growing vines in this, the world’s largest cranberry-growing region.
During the Second World War, German prisoners of war being housed nearby would have wielded similar scoops when they worked as harvest labourers.
Gottschalk — her surname is historically German and Jewish — is a third-generation cranberry farmer near the town of Wisconsin Rapids, a three-hour drive northwest of Milwaukee, Hers is one of several century-old cranberry farms dotting the 80-kilometre Cranberry Highway, a popular self-guided Wisconsin attraction.
Each September and October, the marshes become red as cranberries ripen and the harvest begins in time for American Thanksgiving and Christmas, Contrary to what many people think, cranberries do not grow in water. They are perennials that grow on low vines in sandy soil. Because the berries float, the fields are flooded for easy harvest. Specialized machines or tractors pulling harrows comb through the fields to knock the berries off the vines. The floating berries are then corralled into a corner of the field and vacuumed into waiting trucks.
The Gottschalk farm has been a member of the massive Ocean Spray Growers Co-op since the 1950s and sends its crop to a 300,000-square-foot processing facility in nearby Wisconsin Rapids for processing and export throughout North America, Asia, Europe and South America. This facility, one of several owned by Ocean Spray, operates year-round using fresh-frozen berries to produce sweetened dried cranberries and juice concentrate.
These products along with cranberry sauce are just scratching the surface when touring this part of Wisconsin.
En route, I stopped overnight at the posh Osthoff Resort in Elkhart Lake where Aspira spa was offering 50-minute cranberry facials — deep pore cleansing with a holiday scent. Yes, my esthetician assured me, facials are a guy thing and, yes, even with a beard (although if it’s bushy, it might take a few days to get the berry bits out).
At a-soshel, a trendy Mediterranean restaurant in Plover, I sipped on a sophisticated cocktail of cranberry whiskey, rosemary, bitters, brown sugar, lemon and ginger.
I noshed at Ryan and Amy Scheide’s Great Expectations, an unassuming and not-to-be-missed mom-and-pop eatery in Wisconsin Rapids, on something called Plump Pig, made of pulled pork, bacon, local cheddar and a house-made cranberry barbecue sauce. Those around me ordered a shredded chicken, cranberry and walnut salad with cranberry wild rice bread or a grilled cheese with cran-pepper jam. Dessert was a cranberry bread pudding with rum anglais.
But the motherlode of beyond-sauce-and-juice cranberry products was an unassuming little shop called Rubi Reds, also in Wisconsin Rapids, where products run the gamut from cranberry wines and chocolate-covered cranberries to cranberry wild rice bratwurst and cranberry pancake mix.
While the Wisconsin cranberry region is largely a driving destination for in-state and neighbouring state visitors, Google search analytics show it’s piqued the interest of Ontario tourists, the local convention and visitors board said. Many are looking for travel experiences that include seeing where food is produced — an agritourism sector which in the Badger State also includes dairy farm experiences.
- Wisconsin has been the world’s largest cranberry producer since the 1990s.
- Only five per cent of Wisconsin cranberries are sold fresh. The rest is used for sauce, juice and other food.
- Twenty per cent of cranberries are consumed during the holiday season.
- When Europeans found the fruit, they named it “crane berry” because the blossom looked like the head of a sandhill crane.
On the web: www.travelwisconsin.com
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Cranberry tours and events: www.wiscran.org/experience/