Monday Author: Susanne Skinner
Two things mark the transition from a New England fall into the long stretch of winter. The first is the absence of color, and therefore leaves, on the trees. They have migrated to the yard. The second is our cranberry harvest
The Cranberry Bog State
Massachusetts is a bog state. We produce over half the cranberries grown in the United States, along with Wisconsin, New Jersey Oregon and Washington. These states have the favorable weather conditions, sandy bogs and marshes that will yield over 10 million barrels this year. For the record, it takes 45,000 cranberries to fill a barrel.
There are more than 11,000 acres of cranberry bogs under cultivation in Massachusetts. One acre of bog yields 150 barrels of berries. Dollar for acre, cranberry bogs are among the most expensive farmland in the state and the humble cranberry is a big business.
Cranberries were discovered by the Indians, who found it growing wild. But it was the early settlers of Massachusetts who named it. In late June and early July the cone-shaped blossoms of the low vines, a relative of the honeysuckle, reminded them of the beak of a crane, and over the years, ”crane berry” became cranberry.
Ocean Spray is probably the most well-known name in cranberries. They are an agricultural cooperative with over 700 member growers headquartered in Lakeville/Middleborough, Massachusetts. The farmers who grow the berries own the company.
Cranberries are a labor-intensive crop. They grow from April to November, which means a broad range of temperatures. Extreme heat and cold are threats and farmers pay close attention to spikes. Sprinkler systems offset the summer heat because cranberries can require up to a quarter of an inch of water per acre per day. If temperatures drop to the mid-20s cranberries freeze, becoming soft and mushy. To prevent this, the farmer again turns on the sprinkler system to coat the berries with fine water droplets that freeze on the surface to protect them.
There are two methods used to harvest the crops. Dry harvested berries are combed off the vines with a machine that looks like a lawnmower with a bag attached to collect the berries but only about 10% are harvested this way. In order to dry harvest the fruit, the vines must be completely dry. A light dew or shower is enough to delay a harvest until the bog dries out. Once a cranberry is exposed to water it must be processed. Only the dry-harvested berries are sold fresh.
The remaining 90% of crops use the wet harvesting method. The bog is flooded with water the night before the harvest. The next day large water reels nicknamed eggbeaters churn the water to shake the berries form the vine. Each berry has a pocket of air that allows it to float to the service where they are corralled together and loaded into trucks or even helicopters.
After harvesting, the berries are graded for color, size and quality. They pass through a separator, which removes chaff, screens them for size and separates the good from the bad. The berries must past a bounce test — they are dropped down a chute with a series of four-inch-high barriers. Those failing to clear a barrier after seven tries are discarded.
There’s a Dish for That
Despite being best known as a Thanksgiving accompaniment, the cranberry is a versatile cooking component. Cranberries are a superfood, high in antioxidants and equally good in sweet and savory dishes. The darker the berry, the higher the nutrients.
Long before we got all up in the business of making gourmet cranberry sauce it came in a can. There were two options – jellied and whole berry sauce. My mom was a disciple of The Can. She had a special dish and spoon for the jellied red tube and it held a place of honor in the center of the dinner table. We loved it, and it doesn’t feel quite like Thanksgiving without it.
Cooking with Cranberries
But we can be creative with cranberries and I would be remiss if I did not offer a few of my favorite recipes, like the cake I just tried and a cranberry pie that’s in the works.
This Cranberry Apple Bundt Cake hits all the right notes and I made it for the first time a few weeks ago. I brought it into the office (also known as my test kitchen) and it was gone before lunch. For me, this recipe needed additional flavor, so when I made it again I added 1 teaspoon of my own apple pie spice. You can also add 1 teaspoon of cinnamon and ¼ teaspoon of nutmeg. Perfection!
Despite the heritage of mom’s cranberry dish, I like to make my own with fresh cranberries. I’ve made many variations, from plain and simple to chutney full of spices. There is something for everyone. I use leftover sauce as an accompaniment for Giada’s Ricotta Orange Cake and top it with mascarpone whipped cream. If I’m living on the edge I add a splash of Grand Marnier.
A 1970s favorite will usually appear at our house sometime during the holidays and nobody complains. I’m talking about the cranberry chili meatballs. No meatball shaming till you’ve tried them.
With winter on the way the crock pot becomes my friend. I love to walk in the door and smell dinner already done, and I love this cranberry and pork roast dish. I’ve used a boneless roast and the tenderloin, depending on how many I’m feeding.
Regardless of its beginnings, Thanksgiving is America’s “gather round the table” meal. It’s celebrated as a time to reflect on things we’re grateful for and an opportunity to indulge in traditions — including cranberries — handed down through families and friends.
There is always something
to be thankful for!