Long before the Pilgrims arrived in America in 1620, native Americans were mixing mashed cranberries with deer meat to make pemmican — a convenience food that kept for long periods of time. Cranberries were also used for medicinal purposes and their juice was a natural dye for rugs, blankets and clothing.
The cranberry is one of only a handful of fruits native to North America – the Concord grape and blueberry being the others. As documented by the Pilgrims, cranberries were found in abundance in Massachusetts in 1620, and rumor has it that they may have been served at the first Thanksgiving dinner, although we have no way of knowing for sure. Written recipes using cranberries date back to the 1700s, and the first recorded cranberry crop in history dates back to 1816 in Dennis, Massachusetts on Cape Cod. Cranberries soon cemented their place in New England life by serving as a vital source of vitamin C for whalers, and a valuable natural resource to residents.
While the Pilgrims may have been the first westerners to use the berry, it was Dutch and German settlers who gave it its name; calling the tart fruit “crane berries” because of the resemblance of the blooming cranberry flowers to the head and bill of a crane.
The hearty cranberry vine thrives in conditions that would not support most other crops: acidic soil, few nutrients and low temperatures, even in summer. Contrary to popular belief, cranberries do not grow in water, but in sandy bogs or marshes. Because berries float, some bogs are flooded when the fruit is ready for harvesting, giving the illusion that the fruit grows in water. Growers then use water-reel harvesting machines to loosen the cranberries from their vine. They are then corralled onto conveyer belts, and into waiting trucks, which take them to receiving stations and eventually processing plants.
About 10 percent of the cranberries grown in Massachusetts are dry harvested and sold as fresh fruit. To dry harvest, growers use mechanical pickers with comb-shaped conveyer belts that pick the berries and carry them to attached burlap bags. These bags are emptied into bins and delivered to fresh fruit receiving stations where they are graded and screened, based on color and the ability to bounce — soft berries do not bounce.
Cranberries are primarily grown in five states — Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington. Another 5,500 acres are cultivated in Chile, Quebec, and British Columbia. There are nearly 1,000 cranberry growers in America. Normally, growers do not have to replant since an undamaged cranberry vine will survive indefinitely. In fact, some vines on Cape Cod are more than 150 years old!
Look for bright, plump cranberries, avoid soft, crushed, or shriveled berries.
Peak season is September through December.
Fresh cranberries will keep in the refrigerator for 4-8 weeks.
You can freeze fresh cranberries for longer storage.
You can substitute frozen cranberries in most recipes calling for fresh.
Do not wash cranberries until ready for use, as moisture will cause quicker spoilage.
When a recipe says “cook until the cranberries pop,” don’t expect popcorn. This simply mean the berry’s outer skin will expand until it bursts.
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Cheri Sicard is the editor of FabulousFoods.com where you’ll find recipes, an online cooking school, celebrity chef interviews, holiday and entertaining ideas, free cooking newsletters and more. http://www.fabulousfoods.com