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Food touring in Southern Oregon

Heavy hitters in the specialty-foods industry, along with hidden gems, combine to make the Rogue Valley a gastronomic destination. Touring the region's culinary highlights deliciously mingles both tradition and innovation.

The city of Ashland arguably is the region's main tourist destination, not least for its rich tapestry of restaurants, farmers markets, breweries and wine tasting, but foodies will find gems scattered about the region if they know where to look.

Willow-Witt Ranch

About 20 miles outside of Ashland, visitors can immerse themselves in small-farm life and some of the land's freshest fare at Willow-Witt Ranch, which offers Jackson County's only farm-stay lodgings with kitchens, inviting guests to prepare their own meals. Willow-Witt's fresh eggs, milk and butter are a wholesome start. Visitors also can pick and purchase vegetables from the certified-organic garden and certified-organic, pasture-raised meats from the farm store.

"Everybody gets a farm tour," says co-owner Suzanne Willow. "It's really up to the individual how much they want to be involved.

"They can help us with feeding and water," says Willow. "Everybody loves picking up eggs."

Willow will pick up additional groceries at farmers markets. Up to 10 people can sleep in Willow-Witt's three-bedroom Meadow House, new this year to the ranch's farm-stay program, which also includes a studio with sleeping loft and wall tents. See www.willowwittranch.com.

New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro

Willow-Witt meat and eggs are menu mainstays at New Sammy's Cowboy Bistro, the only Southern Oregon restaurant honored by the prestigious James Beard Foundation as a semifinalist for Best Northwest Chef. The Talent restaurant, founded in 1989 by Charlene and Vernon Rollins, is a winner in the field of Rogue Valley food tourism.

Food & Wine magazine recognized it as one of the "top 50 wine experiences" nationwide. And Bon Appetit magazine placed the secluded spot on Highway 99 among the country's "hot 10 romantic getaways." Reservations are required for dinner. Call 541-535-2779.

New Sammy's also enjoys a loyal local following, not least for its pioneering locavore spirit. The "eat local" movement was in its infancy when Charlene Rollins rooted her cuisine in organically grown vegetables, simply prepared.

Rollins' own on-site garden supplies a significant portion of produce: enough garlic, shallots, eggplants and tomatoes to supply the kitchen. The property also yields plums, cherries, apples, figs, currants, tayberries and raspberries. Fresh and preserved, this bounty sustains New Sammy's diners year-round.

Lillie Belle Farms

Lillie Belle Farms is known for lavender caramels that won over Martha Stewart, but new flavors are born nearly every day at Jeff Shepherd's Central Point factory and store.

"More than half of what we do in the store is only available in the store," says Shepherd. "Some of the things we do are so complicated, we just can't mass-produce them."

Newer still are Lillie Belle's "delicate baked goods" available this summer at the Highway 99 location that gives organized tours for groups of 10 or more. Anyone can wander in and see the chocolate-making process through large picture windows. See www.lilliebellefarms.com.

Rogue Creamery

Next door to Lillie Belle, Rogue Creamery has been racking up awards and recognition for artisan cheeses since 2002, when David Gremmels and Cary Bryant purchased the Central Point fixture dating to the Great Depression from the family of founder Tom Vella.

The cheesemakers developed numerous blues, cheddars and other styles to complement Vella's original recipes. Visitors can taste any and all of them, along with other domestic and imported cheeses — about 100 types in all — in the creamery's cheese shop. See www.roguecreamery.com.

Fine cheeses also are melted on locally baked bread for sandwiches served at the cheese shop. With the addition of picnic tables outside, the creamery continues to position itself as a gourmet "rest stop" along Interstate 5, says spokesman Francis Plowman.

Butte Creek Mill

Farther off the beaten path, in Eagle Point, is the circa-1872 Butte Creek Mill, the last water-powered grist mill in commercial operation west of the Mississippi River. The miller works Tuesday through Saturday, when tours are available on demand, says co-owner Debbie Russell.

"I'm kind of amazed sometimes," says Russell, of tourists hailing from far and wide. "How did you find a little, tiny mill in little, tiny Eagle Point?"

Original millstones quarried in France grind grain, some locally grown, for Butte Creek Mill's pancake, muffin and cornbread mixes popular in gift baskets. See www.buttecreekmill.com.

Dagoba Organic Chocolate

Unusual gifts sweeten the Dagoba Organic Chocolate store in Ashland. Owned by Hershey Co., Dagoba was founded more than a decade ago in the Rogue Valley and continues to offer creative chocolate assortments and packaging that can't be purchased online. Its Benson Way store also offers free tastes. See www.dagobachocolate.com.

Harry & David

Gift baskets are the byword at Harry & David, arguably the Rogue Valley's flagship business since the 1930s. Four tours commence weekdays at the Harry & David Country Village in Medford. Visitors can enjoy complimentary samples while viewing the company's bakery, candy kitchen and fruit-packing operation. Call 877-322-8000 (541-864-2099 locally) or email tours@HarryandDavid.com.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

Eagle Point's Butte Creek Mill is a historical treasure. ( Mt file Photo )