Shorter days, crisp air, bundling up in sweaters, harvest fairs and simmering pots of mulled cider, all remind us of the joys of autumn. It is a time when we seem to have a minute. We make pies, start a fire and sit down as a family for a meal. As Americans one of the tastes we are sure to enjoy each fall is that of the cranberry. Like the rest of us, most farmers are slowing for the year and readying their land for winter. For cranberry farmers, fall is the height of their season.
While varieties of cranberries are harvested in Europe, Africa and Asia, the cranberry is a taste unique to American cuisine. The American cranberry grows wild on vines in sandy marshes and bogs throughout North America. Generally considered a cold weather crop, this fruit has been found as far south as the Appalachian mountains of Georgia and as far north as the Canadian Maritimes.
Cranberries were first harvested by American Indians who used them to make a cooked sauce with honey or maple sugar, which was then used as a condiment for meat. These tart ruby-colored berries quickly became an essential part of the Pilgrims’ diet. Cultivation of the cranberry began in the area of Massachusetts known as Cape Cod in the early 1800s. Success led to the industry spreading to New Jersey in the 1830s, Wisconsin in the 1850s, and by 1880 the Pacific Northwest.
Unlike any other crop known to agriculture, cranberries rely on water and sandy soil for their cultivation. A high watertable and coarsely textured sand provide an area where cranberries can thrive. In 1816, Henry Hall of Dennis, Massachusetts watched as high tide from a storm washed over his cranberry bog, bringing in sand. This caused the berries to grow much better and faster. Hall’s observations are the cornerstone of how cranberries have been farmed to this day.
While water is the crucial ingredient in a successful cranberry operation, cranberries are not grown in water. Dikes, ditches and tile drainage are used to control the water level in the bog. In the winter, bogs are very often flooded to protect the plants. In spring, cranberry plants blossom and water is essential in protecting the blossoms from frost. The berries are initially small and green, taking between 75 and 100 days from flowering for the fruit to mature and turn their dark red color. As the cranberries are maturing over the summer months, water is again used as a method of protection from heat.
During harvest there are two methods used to pick fruit. Cranberries which are going to be processed immediately are wet harvested. During wet harvesting the bogs are flooded. Ripe cranberries float to the surface of the water and are herded together in a ring. For fruit that is sold fresh, cranberries are dry harvested using a manually pushed machine that separates fruit from the plant by ‘combing.’ Only about 10% off all cranberries harvested each year are sold fresh. All cranberries are sorted by color and size according to government requirements.
Cranberries are first mentioned in the history and recipe books of the early 1700’s. Captains of the early sailing ships would supply sailors with cranberries as a method of preventing scurvy. A cousin of the blueberry, cranberries contain only 47 calories per cup. They are filled with vitamins A and C, potassium and dietary fiber. This fruit is reputed to be a great source of bioflavonoids, which are phytochemicals that act as antioxidants. Current studies suggest they may offer protection against kidney disease, certain cancers and infections.
There are approximately 1,200 cranberry farms in North America today. Presently Wisconsin is largest producer. Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington are also major cranberry producers. More than 100,000 tons of cranberries are harvested in the United States each year, with residents of the US and Canada consuming the majority of them. Record profits for farmers in the 80s and 90s led to the creation of new bogs and a surge in start-up operations. Increased production over the past two years has caused the price of cranberries to plummet.
Today the open market price of a bushel is 1/3 of the cost of production. Fiscal uncertainty has prompted many farmers to look to new ways for marketing their fruit.
The tart flavor gives it versatility far beyond the cranberry sauce and cranberry juice cocktail we are all so familiar with. Through products such as dried cranberries and fashionable drink recipes like the “Cosmopolitan,” the cranberry is gaining in year round popularity. With this in mind, Craig Canning, a second generation cranberry farmer, and his wife Martine, a gourmet cook, are dedicated to ensuring cranberries are not just for turkey and breakfast anymore.
A French Canadian, Martine notes, “preserving is part of my heritage.” She was brought up learning to make the fruits of her family’s garden last through the winter. After meeting her husband seven years ago and moving to Cape Cod, she found herself inventing new ways to conserve the bushels of cranberries Craig would bring home from his bogs each fall. During the holidays Martine and Craig would give friends and family baskets full of their cranberries in one form or another. With recipes like Cranberry Butter and Cranberry Garlic Pepper Jelly the receivers were often asking for more. As word got around, people Martine did not know were calling to find out where they could find some of her creations.
Eventually demand grew to such an extent that Craig and Martine decided to start “Old County Farms” as a venue for selling his fresh cranberries and her unique recipes. After not quite two years in business their cranberry products can be found throughout New England and New York and shortly in selected West Coast Locations. They have also been selected for a Thanksgiving promotion at Harrods department store in London.
Fresh cranberries can be found in most grocery stores during the fall and early winter. Fresh berries will be a bright scarlet color, with tight smooth skin. Occasionally you may find white berries; these have had little exposure to the sun and probably come from lower branches of the vine. Unless they are wrinkled, soft or leaking their juice they will have the same taste as the red berries. If you are still uncertain, an old wive’s tale suggests really fresh berries will bounce.
Refrigerated cranberries will last for up to two months. Frozen they’re good for at least a year. If you’re freezing cranberries to make use of them throughout the year, Martine suggests halving or chopping them in a food processor. By doing this they will take up less room and be ready for cooking when you need them. Another of her suggestions is to freeze them by the cup, which is how most recipes call for them. Fresh cranberries are usually sold in 12 ounce bags, which are equal to 3 cups of whole berries or 2 1/2 cups chopped. When needed, add cranberries to your recipes in their frozen state, rather than thawing them. Martine warns “thawed cranberries are more difficult to work with and like frozen strawberries, tend to leave red juice stains.”
While renowned for her harvest pie, which is made with apples, pears and cranberries, Martine makes use of the cranberry’s tart flavor in non-traditional ways too. “Adding chopped cranberries deliciously enhances meatballs and tomato sauce,” she says. When preparing a roast Martine often makes a marinade using crushed cranberries, rosemary and orange pulp which blends nicely with meats such as pork and beef. Cranberries also lend themselves well to salsas, chutneys, compotes, and ketchups.
Cranberry vinegar is easy to make and perfect for gift giving. To make it, simply find a pretty bottle and some good white wine vinegar. Take a 1/4 cup of fresh cranberries, poke holes in them with tooth picks and drop them into the bottle. Fill the bottle with hot white wine vinegar. The cranberries will float to the top and color the vinegar with their juice as they rise. Cap the bottle with a cork or plastic lined top and let sit for 2 weeks. This vinegar is great on salads and as a marinade for pork, chicken or white fish. If you’re cooking fruit, a drop of this vinegar will help to bring out the natural sweetness of the fruit. Try adding a teaspoon to your dough for chewier cookies and flakier pie crusts. Additionally a sprig of rosemary or a slice of orange rind work wonderfully to accent cranberries in this gift.
For those interested in decorating their holiday table, during the fall the Canning’s dining room table is often adorned with a simple yet elegant centerpiece made from fresh cranberries and autumn leaves. Martine also uses stringed cranberries as garland, which is “a great activity to keep children busy.”
One of the fruits of the land Indians shared with our forefathers on that first Thanksgiving, Cranberries are a viable part of American cuisine. For over 300 years we have structured our autumn menus to make the most of the cranberry. Regardless of today’s realization of their nutritional value and healing properties, or the number of new year-round uses we find for them, one certainty remains: As the hours from dawn to dusk grown shorter and we search for foods to comfort a chill, cranberries will always be the color, scent and flavor of harvest time.
Julie T Cecchini
[Article Credit Julie T Cecchini]
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