What is not to love about the cranberry? The color is gorgeous. The fruit is tart but becomes deliciously sweet when cooked with sugar. The plant is indigenous to North America and has a rich history of uses, both culinary and medicinal. Harvested in October and November, Thanksgiving is the cranberry’s time to shine.
My fascination with cranberries started when I was growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts, home to the Ocean Spray cooperative. We had only to drive twenty-five miles east to find acres of cranberry bogs along the highway to the Cape. There, my mother would often stop at the old Ocean Spray Cranberry House to pick up an assortment of cranberry pastries.
The early New England settlers referred to the cranberry as a crane berry because of the resemblance of the fruit’s pink blossom to the head and bill of a Sandhill Crane. Thanks to Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh & Muskoka Lakes Winery for the photo.
Flowers, Berries, and Bogs
Cranberry fields are not very exciting to look at in the summer. It is more the idea of what is coming that is exciting.
By late summer, you can start to see the red berries among the green vines hugging the ground.
In September and October, the bogs are flooded for harvest — now that is a vision! All the ripe fruit floats to the surface and suddenly there is a sea of red on the horizon.
If you dissect a cranberry, you will see there are four interior chambers where the seeds are located. These chambers hold pockets of air that allow cranberries to float when the fields are flooded. The air pocket also causes berries to bounce. Good cranberries bounce and float; rotten ones do neither. I learned that the first day of Home Ec at Dartmouth Middle School where we were taught how to make cranberry jelly and biscuits.
Some cranberries are white. I read that when you freeze or cook them they turn red as the pigment, anthocyanin, is released.
Horticulturally, cranberry vines are perennials; some vines have been growing for over one 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 a 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 cranberries that are “dry-harvested.” These are the perfect cranberries, the ones that are packaged for baking.
In 1960 a wet harvesting machine was invented. This machine crawls over the flooded fields and dislodges berries from their vines allowing them to float where they are then corralled and vacuumed by farmers. Ninety percent of cranberries are harvested in this way. These berries are used for juices, dried cranberries, and canned sauces.
About a foot of water is piped into the bog for this process. Water is also piped in before a winter freeze to protect the vines from cold weather. As warm weather arrives, growers drain the winter flood, the vines come out of dormancy, and a new growing season begins.
These next photos were taken by Minda Bradley whose family farms cranberries in Kingston, MA.
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 the 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 not uncommon to see one of these signs nestled on the side of the road on Cape Cod indicating the grower is part of the Ocean Spray cooperative. Finding one of these signs is akin to finding an old covered bridge in the countryside. They are special.
Perhaps now you will have a better understanding of what this message means when you see it on a bag of Ocean Spray cranberries.
I picked a cranberry vine from a field on the Cape so I could admire the gorgeous berries after I left New England.
In 1980, there was a shortage of cranberries, and the Ocean Spray cranberry growers consortium changed the amount of cranberries in a bag from one pound to 12 ounces. This is good to know if you are using old recipes that call for “one bag of cranberries.” Know, too, that a heaping cup of whole berries weighs 4 ounces. Thus, a 12-ounce bag has about 3½ cups of berries.
Recipes from Judy’s Chickens that use cranberries as an ingredient:
Special thanks to my New England friends, Donna and Charlie Gibson and Beth Hayes for their help with this story. Thanks to Minda Bradley for the harvesting photos.
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