These traditional winter favourites brighten up savoury dishes and make desserts shine, says Clarissa Hyman with recipes by Linda Tubby
The crimson fruit of the bog is so tooth- clenchingly astringent it makes you wonder how the Native Americans ever ate it raw. But they did, long before the first Europeans arrived, and also cooked the fruit with maple sugar or honey. You could say, therefore, cranberry sauce was invented by Native Americans, who esteemed the fruit for its nutritional and medicinal value, and used it to dye fabric and feathers. They also pounded the berries with dried deer meat and melted animal fat in an early version of a high-protein, long-lasting ‘snack bar’.
The Pilgrim Fathers were familiar with similar northern European berries, but the New World variety is larger and more succulent. When sugarcane plantations were established in the West Indies, settlers swiftly put this new source of sweetener to use. John Josselyn, who visited New England in 1639, wrote: ‘The Indians and English use them much, boyling them with sugar for sauce to eat with their meat, and it is a delicate sauce, especially with roasted mutton. some make tarts with them as with gooseberries.’
Cranberries are hardy and have a long season from autumn to Christmas, and beyond. They store well thanks to their large amounts of benzoic acid, a natural preservative, and protective waxy skin. For this reason, they were among the first American fruits to be shipped commercially to Europe, stored for the voyage in barrels of water. At first, the exotic fruit fetched high prices: in the early 18th century ‘Cape Cod bell cranberries’ were sold on the Strand, in London, for the exorbitant sum of four shillings a jar. Their colour, which ranges from maraschino to ruby red, must have lit up the grey streets. From England, the fruit found appreciative markets in Europe, particularly in Germany.
There are many small, red, acid wild fruits that are called cranberries or are close relations, such as lingonberries, blueberries and bilberries. They all belong to the heather family (ericaceae) which thrives in the acid soil of bogs, marsh and moorlands. The commercial leader, however, is the large American cranberry (vaccinium macrocarpon).
Commercial cultivation began in the 19th century; the first beds were planted in 1816 by Revolutionary War veteran Captain Henry Hall in Massachusetts. Today they are mostly grown in New England, but also in Wisconsin, the Canadian border area, Washington and Oregon. There is little difference in taste between wild and cultivated fruit (or fresh and frozen), but it is a different matter when it comes to yield.
Cranberries require a unique combination of factors: acid peat soil, fresh water, sand and a long growing season with a dormancy period in the winter. Growers do not usually replant: some vines in New England are more than 150 years old.
Although native to wetlands, they do not grow in water but on vines in impermeable beds layered with sand, peat, gravel and clay. These ‘bogs’ are flooded so the fruit can be scooped up for harvesting, processing and freezing. They make a spectacular sight, like vast floating magic carpets. Most of the crop is wet-picked or ‘beaten’ off the vine, but a small amount is dry-picked or ‘combed’. The latter method is more expensive, but the berries are less bruised and can be sold fresh.
Choose shiny, full berries when buying fresh, and avoid packs with squashed or shrivelled fruit. Fresh berries will keep in the fridge for several weeks, and they can be frozen and used without being thawed.
Cook cranberries in water or orange juice until they pop before you add sugar, or the skins will remain tough. They are high in pectin so work well in preserves. They are also good in fruit pies with pears, apples, blackberries or raspberries. Their flavour pairs naturally with chocolate, orange, vanilla and cinnamon, and you can stud muffins or tea breads with fresh or dried fruit. A sharp cranberry sorbet is deliciously refreshing after a rich meal.
The fruit can be used in savoury dishes too. Add to duck, chicken, lamb and game sauces or a chestnut stuffing. Try them with trout and other oily or firm-fleshed fish to add zesty interest. Or throw a handful into a rice salad with walnuts or pecans.
For a fun festive drink, mix cranberry juice with soda water and white wine or grape juice, or with orange juice and vodka. Then raise a toast to a little colonial fruit that’s travelled a long way from home.
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