What is not to love about the cranberry? The color is gorgeous. The fruit is tart but becomes deliciously sweet when cooked with sugar or honey. The plant is indigenous to North America and has a rich history of use, both culinary and medicinal, that was fully appreciated by both Native Americans and the early colonists. Harvested in October and November, Thanksgiving is the cranberry’s season to shine.
My love affair with this berry started as I was growing up in Southeastern Massachusetts, home to the Ocean Spray cooperative. Although there were no cranberry bogs in Padanaram Village where I grew up, we had only to drive twenty miles east, and there we would find acres of fields of cranberries growing along the road we took to get to Cape Cod. My mother often stopped at the old Ocean Spray Cranberry House Restaurant, on the way back from the Cape, to purchase yummy cranberry pastries.
Since cranberries were harvested in the fall, you can imagine how every November, in anticipation of Thanksgiving, our local Sunday newspapers were filled with cranberry recipes; the cut-out yellowed copies of which remain tucked in my collection of cookbooks that once belonged to my mother and grandmother.
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 the Sandhill Crane. This photo shows that resemblance. Thanks to Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh & Muskoka Lakes Winery for permission to include it.
Flowers, Berries, and Bogs
Cranberry fields are not very exciting to look at in the summer. It is more the idea of what is to come that is exciting.
By late summer, if you get up close, you can spy the red berries among the green vines hugging the ground. Okay, this is beautiful.
When the bogs are flooded for harvest — now that is a vision! All the ripe fruit floats to the surface of the water, 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 fields are flooded for harvesting. The air pocket also causes berries to bounce. Good cranberries bounce and float; rotten ones do neither. I learned that on the first day of Home Ec in seventh grade at Dartmouth Middle School where we learned how to make cranberry jelly and biscuits.
Some cranberries are white. Know that they are still ripe. I read that if you put white berries in the freezer, or cook them, they will turn red as the red pigment, anthocyanin, is released.
Horticulturally, cranberry vines are perennial plants; many have been growing for over one hundred years. Cranberry bogs consist of different types of layers of dirt. The first layer is the 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. As you can imagine, it was laborious. In the 1890s wooden scoops with built-in screens were invented and replaced hand-picking. My friend, Kendra May, 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 perfect cranberries are the ones that end up in cellophane packages for baking.
In 1960 a wet harvesting machine was invented. This machine crawls over flooded fields and acts like an egg-beater to dislodge berries from their vines allowing them to float to the surface where they can be easily corralled and vacuumed up by farmers. Ninety percent of cranberries are harvested in this way. These are the berries that go into making juices, sweetened dried cranberries, and canned sauces.
About a foot of water is piped into the field for this process. Water is also piped in before a winter freeze to protect vines. As warmer 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. They were sent to me by a friend of hers. Thank you, Minda!
Interestingly, cranberry plants were traded by early colonists in exchange for goods coming in from Europe. On board ships, the berries were eaten to prevent scurvy because of their high vitamin C content. 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 these sour berries.
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. Both are highly nostalgic for me.
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 simply so I could continue to admire the vine and the berries after I left the fields in September and headed back home.
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 whole 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 gorgeous harvesting photos.
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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.