Ah, the cranberry. As I reflect on the days of my youth, the cranberry conjures up memories of Thanksgiving and that gelatinous glop that came out of cans in one solid block and took on the form (and sometimes the taste) of the can. It was then sliced into manageable portions and wiggled around like jello on your plate before being slathered on pieces of turkey. Since then, I guess my tastes have become more refined and I have graduated to eating only fresh cranberries. Naturally they are a little harder to prepare but they are so much tastier and better for you. But I digress…

Of all the fruits that you can name, only three can trace their origin to the soils of North America. Today, we're gonna focus on one of them, the American cranberry. (See bottom of this node for the other two)

Where are they grown?

In the States, they are grown commercially in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Maine, Michigan, Connecticut, Rhode Island New Hampshire, New York, Oregon and Washington. Our neighbors to the north, Canada, produce cranberries in British Columbia, Quebec and the Maritimes.

Of the approximately 30,000 acres in use today that support the cranberry industry, about 13,000 of them are in Massachusetts, however, Wisconsin has recently surpassed Massachusetts in the total number of cranberries produced.

How are they grown?

It takes a combination of circumstances to start cranberry growth in motion. First of all, you need a soil base that is a combination of acid and peat, a large supply of fresh water and a growing season that starts in March/April and runs through October/November. Natural cranberry bogs in Massachusetts had their origin in glacial deposits that left holes lined with impermeable materials. When these holes filled up with water and decaying matter, it created the ideal environment for cranberry growth. In a commercial environment, one would need a network of support acres, streams and ponds. Contrary to what one might believe, cranberries do not grow in the water, they grow on the vines that surround the bogs. These vines, if handled correctly, are virtually indestructible and some in Massachusetts are estimated to be over 150 years old.

How are they harvested?

Harvest season for cranberries usually occurs sometime in late September through mid-October. Originally they were hand picked but this practice proved to be time consuming and labor intensive. Somebody then noticed that the cranberry, since it had air bubbles inside of it, would float. They came up with the ingenious idea that if one was to flood the bogs, (hence the need for plenty of fresh water), the fruit would fall off the vines and float on the surface. They could then be “herded” into large groups and raked in and sent off for packaging. This proved to be the most effective method and is still in use today.

What’s so good about ‘em?

Well, taste wise, if you like things that are tart, the cranberry should be right up your alley. Fresh cranberries have a very distinctive flavor that to me is pleasing to the taste and not bitter.

Health wise, they are high in Vitamin C and have been used to combat bladder infections and to maintain urinary tract health. Other recent studies have concluded that cranberries prove to be an excellent source of antioxidants. An antioxidant is a natural plant product that may offer a degree of protection against cancer and, heart disease.

Wanna try some?

I’ll now offer up a recipe for a cranberry relish that I found a while back and prepare every Thanksgiving. It beats that stuff outta the can hands down. This works best if you have a food processor but can be prepared in more traditional methods. It should make somewhere between 3 ½ to 4 cups.

Here’s what you’ll need

About 1 pound of fresh cranberries
1 small orange, unpeeled and cut into quarters
Depending on your taste, somewhere between 1 to 1 ½ cups of sugar
3 or 4 tablespoons of good bourbon or Grand Marnier

Here’ s what you do

Add about ½ the cranberries and half the orange to the food processor. Pulse until the mixture is to the texture you desire. (I prefer mine kinda chunky and not quite pureed). Remove and repeat with remaining cranberries and oranges. Add ‘em all back together and pour in the sugar and the liquor of your choice, (I prefer the Grand Marnier). Give the entire concoction a quick mix and a quick taste. Add more sugar/liquor as desired and you're ready to go. I prefer mine chilled so I’ll usually refrigerate the stuff for a couple of hours before serving. Enjoy!

Oh yeah, the other two fruits that had their origins in North America are the blueberry and the Concord grape.