The cranberry trail

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Christmas wouldn’t be the same without cranberry sauce to accompany the turkey. But cranberries can be enjoyed year around, in your cooking or as a sauce, jelly or juice. As the landscape of New England in the States takes on the hues of autumn, with rich gold, burnt sienna and terracotta, acres of dazzling scarlet appear. That essential part of Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations – the cranberry – is ready for harvest. Cranberries are one of only three fruits native to North America (the other two are the blueberry and Concord grape), though they also grow wild in the UK, as well as other parts of Europe. And long before the first Pilgrim Fathers arrived in 1620, the American Indians had many uses for the red bitter berry growing among the boggy marshes.

Native Americans used the cranberries as food, in poultices to heal wounds and as a dye for blankets and clothes. They also showed those first settlers how to survive the harsh winters with pemmican – survival cake – made by mashing deer meat with fat and cranberries.

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Legend has it that the Pilgrim Fathers celebrated the survival of their first harsh winter in 1621 by sharing their first Thanksgiving feast of wild turkey, cranberries, squash and cornbread with the American Indians who’d helped them through it. Today, cranberries are grown throughout New England, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington state, Wisconsin and parts of British Columbia and Quebec in Canada. And by far the largest producer is Ocean Spray, which started as a co-operative of three cranberry growers and now numbers more than 650 growers, many of whose farms have been handed down through the generations. A perennial plant, the cranberry grows on long-running vines in sandy bogs and marshes. Some are dry harvested using a machine that looks like a giant lawnmower. These are sold as fresh cranberries and arrive in our shops during November at the tail end of our own autumn fruits.

But the vast majority are wet harvested, by flooding the bog with water and then using ‘water reel’ harvesting machines to gently loosen the berries from the vines. The berries then float to the surface, producing the dazzling acres of floating scarlet that are a common sight from September to mid-November. The berries are then corralled into conveyors to begin their journey to processing plants. These cranberries are made into a variety of produce, from sauces and jellies to juices. In the 1880s, New Jersey grower John ‘Peg Leg’ Webb discovered that only the freshest berries reached the bottom of the steps from the storage loft of his barn (because of his wooden leg, he poured the berries down the steps rather than carrying them). This led to the invention of the bounce board, which is still used today only those berries that bounce seven times over four-inch wooden barriers are considered good enough to be sold fresh.

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A good source of vitamin C and other antioxidants, cranberries have long been used to maintain a healthy urinary tract. Bladder infections, such as cystitis, affect around 50% of women at least once in their lifetime. Research shows that drinking a glass of cranberry juice a day can help guard against infection by stopping harmful bacteria sticking to the wall of the urinary tract. They may also be a useful ally in helping prevent the stomach-ulcer causing Helicobacter pylori from taking hold. Some studies suggest cranberry juice can be as good for your heart as red wine!

The Cranberry Facts

  • The first ready-to-serve cranberry sauce was produced in 1912 by Ocean Spray. It finally arrived in the UK in 1976.
  • Nowadays, cranberries, whether fresh or dried, take a starring role in many dishes, from the traditional Christmas turkey to game, poultry and ham.
  • Americans consume 400 million pounds of cranberries a year, 20% of them during Thanksgiving week. In the UK, cranberries are consuming more each year and cranberry juice is now the third most popular flavour (after orange and apple).
  • The number of cranberries produced in North America last year, would stretch from Boston to has Angeles more than 565 times.

Jean Elgie for Fancy Magazine