What is not to love about a cranberry?
The berry’s gorgeous deep red color joyfully screams, “Hello, holiday cooking. So glad you are back!” The fruit, acidic in nature, is easily tamed by simmering in sugar and water or baking in cake batter. Once its flavor profile is adjusted, cranberries add a distinct zing that makes it an excellent addition to sweet and savory culinary dishes and many a cocktail. The berries are harvested in late September and October. Thus fall is their natural season to shine.
My fascination with cranberries began as a child growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts, home of the Ocean Spray cooperative headquarters. We had only to drive twenty-five miles east to find acres of cranberry bogs on the side of the road. My mother loved to stop at the Ocean Spray Cranberry House restaurant to pick up cranberry desserts. It must have been that cranberry zing she craved when she was pregnant and would ask us to drive to Wareham to get her a cranberry pastry.
Flowers, Berries, and Bogs
Early New England settlers called the cranberry a crane berry because the fruit’s pink blossom resembled the head and bill of a Sandhill Crane. Thanks to Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh for letting me use their striking image:
Cranberry fields look similar to other farmed fields in the summer.
It is the idea of what is to come once those fields are flooded and turn red with ripe cranberries that is exciting.
By late summer, you can see the red berries among the green vines carpeting the ground.
In September, the bogs are flooded, and the ripe red berries float to the surface.
If you dissect a cranberry, you will see four interior chambers filled with air and seeds. These air pockets allow the berries to float. The same air pockets cause berries to bounce when dropped and to pop when cooked as the air expands. As a middle-schooler taking Home Ec, our teacher taught us to rinse cranberries in a bowl of water and to only use the ones that floated. I still do that, just as I have never forgotten that we made cranberry jam and biscuits.
Horticulturally, cranberry vines are perennials; some vines have been growing for over a hundred years. Cranberry bogs consist of different layers of soil. The first layer is a naturally occurring clay base. It keeps the ground watertight. Next is a layer of gravel for drainage, followed by a layer of spongy, acidic soil known as peat, and finally, a top layer of sand.
Originally, cranberries were picked by hand. In the 1890s wooden scoops with built-in screens were invented and replaced hand-picking. My friend, Kendra, has a marvelous collection of these harvest implements.
Later, in the 1920s, a “walk behind” mechanical harvester was invented, which is still used today for the ten percent of “dry-harvested” cranberries. These carefully handled cranberries are packaged in bags and sold for baking. By the way, if you are making a recipe written before 1980 that calls for “one bag of cranberries,” they mean a 16-ounce bag. In 1980, Ocean Spray switched to 12-ounce bags after a cranberry shortage. As far as weights and measurements go, a 12-ounce bag has 3½ cups of berries.
In 1960 a “wet harvesting” machine was invented. It required a foot of water piped into a bog to flood it.
Once flooded, the wet harvesting machine crawls over the field and dislodges berries from their vines, allowing them to float up to the surface
where they can be corralled.
Next, they are “vacuumed” by growers.
Ninety percent of cranberries used for juices, dried cranberries, and canned sauces are harvested in this manner.
I am indebted to Minda Bradley for photos of her family harvesting cranberries in Kingston, MA.
Sometimes, water is piped in before a winter freeze to protect vines from the cold. As the warm weather arrives, growers drain the fields to allow vines to come out of dormancy and begin their next growing season.
Cranberry plants were traded by early colonists in exchange for goods from Europe. Sailors ate the berries, high in vitamin C while crossing the sea to prevent scurvy. The plants were eventually transplanted to Europe, but soil conditions were not the same resulting in a different acid level and flavor. Lingonberry or English moss berry are examples of the European version of cranberries.
Ocean Spray Cranberries
Grower-owned Ocean Spray is a cooperative of over 700 farming families across North America who grow over 60% of the world’s cranberries. The cooperative was started in the 1930s in Wareham, MA. It is a treat to stumble on one of these old weathered Ocean Spray signs nestled on the side of the road in Cape Cod.
I picked a cranberry vine from a field to back to Nashville, to admire the berries long after I left New England. I tried to get it to root but did not have success.
Cranberry Recipes from Judy’s Chickens Blog!
Special thanks to my New England friends, Donna and Charlie Gibson, and Beth Hayes, for help with this story.
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