Hands-on bog tours and alfresco dinners offer visitors a new appreciation for the local harvest.By Maria Allen | Photography by Jack Foley And Jenna DiMaggio
At 4:45 p.m. on a crisp October evening, adventure-seeking foodies have gathered in the courtyard outside Mirbeau Inn and Spa in Plymouth prepared to embark on the ultimate farm-to-fork dining experience. Boarding a pair of passenger vans, the group is transported to a nearby cranberry bog where they’re greeted with glasses of wine, passed hors d’oeuvres and numerous pairs of high-waisted waders.
In addition to serving exquisite cuisine at The Bistro and Wine Bar, the culinary team at Mirbeau Inn and Spa has become known for crafting spectacular alfresco dinners in out-of-the-way places most recently beside the bogs at Mayflower Cranberries in Plympton. Scheduled to coincide with the peak of the harvest season, the cranberry dinners include a hands-on lesson about cranberry growing led by farm owner Jeff LaFleur. Guests are then treated to an elegantly plated meal featuring cranberries and other seasonal ingredients.
LaFleur and his wife, Kim, purchased their 112-acre farm in 2009. The property has just under 24 acres of active cranberry bogs and some of the berries grow on vines that were planted over 120 years ago. Part of Ocean Spray’s grower-owned cooperative, Mayflower Cranberries sends the majority of its crop to be made into dried craisins and other products. But as the general public has become increasingly interested in locally sourced products and getting to know the people who produce food, farms like Mayflower Cranberries have branched into the agritourism business as well.
“The bog dinners were a natural extension of what we already do,” says LaFleur, who also offers a wildly popular “Be the Grower” experience that sells out months in advance. “Being able to share what we do with the public is very rewarding.”
Most people who visit the farm have never stepped foot in a flooded cranberry bog before. In fact, for some, it’s the first time they’ve seen a cranberry bog outside of an Ocean Spray commercial. For many, bog tours are a fun activity to cross off the “bucket list.” LaFleur also runs an “Adopt a Bog” program, which operates similar to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and allows people to rent a plot for the season and dry-harvest their own fresh cranberries using wooden scoops and an antique cranberry separator.
Cranberries are native to New England. They were used by Native Americans in various foods and medicines and have been cultivated in Plymouth County for hundreds of years. Harvesting was first done by hand or with a wooden scoop. Today, 90 percent of cranberries are harvested using a more efficient, wet-harvest technique. Contrary to popular belief, the cranberries do not actually grow in water; the bogs are flooded at harvest time to help remove the fruit from the vines. Rotating water reels dislodge the berries, which float to the surface. The berries are then rounded up using long floating booms and collected to be sent to processing facilities.
On this occasion, however, dinner guests are given a unique opportunity to enjoy cocktail hour surrounded by a sea of floating cranberries. LaFleur and his 14-year-old son, Cameron, escort participants into the flooded bog and answer their questions. Kicking off my shoes, I step gingerly into a pair of tall waders and join my cranberry cohorts. With every step, I can feel my boots sink into the spongy layer of vines at the bottom of the bog. Tiny berries bob up and down all around me. LaFleur explains how air pockets inside the berries cause the fruit to float and he instructs everyone how to gently sweep the berries across the water using a snow pusher.
After the cranberry lesson if over, we take a seat at a long farm table and dinner is served family-style beneath strings of twinkling white lights. The hearty harvest menu includes an assortment of dishes, like sous vide short ribs with cranberries, roasted brussel sprouts with bacon and cranberries, and pumpkin gnocchi with dried cranberries, hazelnuts, crispy sage and pancetta. There’s also a harvest salad featuring local greens, candied pumpkin seeds, house-dried cranberries and cranberry vinaigrette, not to mention dessert, which includes cranberry cheesecake and cranberry sorbet push-pops.
The air is crisp and cool, but as the wine flows, nobody seems to notice. As the sun sets behind the treeline, the entire scene in cloaked in a romantic, golden glow. At the end of the night, everyone leaves with a container of fresh cranberries and a memory to last a lifetime.
For more information on Mirbeau Inn and Spa’s cranberry bog adventures or oyster dinner excursions, visit plymouth.mirbeau.com. To learn more about Mayflower Cranberries, visit mayflowercranberries.com.