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Cranberries: 'More American than apple pie'

 

fresh cranberriesNot terribly delicious raw, cranberries are nonetheless plucked from their homes in 'cranberry bogs' and transformed, phoenix-like, into a multi-million pound American culinary institution. Dee McQuillan paid an autumn visit to New England's spectacular season of cranberry harvesting. Photographs by Peter Knab

cranberry treesDuring autumn in New England, a time that used to be given the poetic title 'the fall' by Americans but is now in danger of becoming known as 'the foliage season', the dying leaves turn to brilliant shades. This is a world-famous fact around which a big tourist business has been built. Foreign and American visitors follow the special foliage reports before setting off to find the best flame-coloured forests. What surprises strangers who cross the Massachusetts countryside in pursuit of leaves is the sight of pools of colour that match the cherry-pink maple trees and form on the surface of little lakes. They look like unseasonal blossom, but on closer inspection turn out to be a mass of tiny berries that make a moving mosaic in red, white and pink. They are cranberries and the pools are cranberry beds that have been flooded so the berries can be harvested.

Cranberries are one of the United States' most traditional food-stuffs. 'More American than apple pie' is the Massachusetts joke, alluding to the fact that the cranberry, along with the blueberry, is one of the few fruits native to North America. It is said that the Wampanoag people presented cranberries to the Pilgrim Fathers who had landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 and that they were part of the original Thanksgiving feast in 1621. More disinterested investigators have pointed out that the British settlers were likely to have recognised them anyway as a fruit similar to the smaller wild cranberries that grew on wet heathland back home.

The driver who took us from Boston was another disinterested observer and he said, 'Eat raw cranberries? Hell, no. Even the birds can't eat them off the bushes.' He was not on the payroll of the mighty Ocean Spray Inc, which sells more than 80 per cent of the American crop, but neither was he a cynic, making the point that it was an extraordinary achievement to transform such a sharp and troublesome little berry into an ingredient sold around the world. After a few days stomping around the bogs and talking to the farmers, I realised how pertinent his introduction had been.

Although as far as many Americans are concerned, the history of the cranberry begins with the celebration of Thanksgiving (a New England custom made a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863), its origins are far more ancient. The story of the berry really starts at the end of the Ice Age, when the action of glaciers scooped out rock and smashed up boulders leaving clay-lined dips into which vegetation fell (the leaves again) and, decaying, was transformed into rich, acid peat bogs.

Cranberries remained a wild fruit tended only in a rudimentary fashion until 1816, when Henry Hall, who is revered as the founding father of cranberry cultivation, gave his bog some serious scrutiny and began to experiment by putting a layer of sand over the plants. Left to itself, the cranberry bush is really a long, trailing vine, less than a foot high, which sends out a mane of shoots. Hall discovered that a coating of sand encourages the shoots to put down roots and become separate, less unruly shrubs with bigger berries.

Armed with this knowledge, bog owners were able to produce bigger and better crops for a wider market. They learned how to create bogs rather than be limited to the 'kettle holes' the glaciers had left behind. As demand grew, cranberry-growing conditions were carefully mimicked in Wisconsin and the northwestern seaboard. In 1912 a Cape Cod grower canned his own sauce and called it Ocean Spray. It did so well that in 1930 two other growers decided to join him in a co-operative venture, later called Ocean Spray Cranberries. Ocean Spray remains a co-operative owned by the growers.

The word bog is the local term but a misleading one in the sense that the cranberry beds are usually only bogged down artificially by irrigation. Most of the time they are firm and dry, and lie slightly below the level of the surrounding ground separated by tiny canals so that they look like purple versions of bowling greens.

Our guide around the bogs was Irene Sorenson, whose knowledge is exhaustive but who was feeling rather anxious about her tour because, after a hot dry summer, the season was out of sorts and her growers either seemed to have finished or not to have started their harvest. Colour, she explained, was a consideration but is not a simple indicator of ripeness. The side that gets the sun will be the deepest red and there are also maverick white berries in most bogs. 'We are trying to persuade the public that all cranberries do not have to be uniformly red.'

At Edgewood Bog we managed to watch two stages of the wet harvest under a perfect blue sky. Bogs had been flooded the night before and now one was being winnowed by an unlikely looking machine, nicknamed the egg beater, that trundles through the water and frees the cranberries. A man walked in front of the machine using a long pole to test the bottom for pot holes. 'Well, it is easier to rescue him than the machine,' joked Irene.

The next bog had already been given the egg-whisk treatment and had become a paddling pool filled with berries and burly men wearing extra-long waders. Using floating booms and rakes, the men swept the cranberries together and then hauled them to the side of the lake. From inside this brilliant red enclosure the fruit was raked on to a conveyor belt which separates out some of the debris and drops the cranberries into the back of a waiting lorry. Dramatic though it is to see, the water harvest is not the way to produce top-quality cranberries that will be sold as fresh fruit. The water can weaken the berry's waxy coating and means that it will not keep as well. A carefully harvested berry will keep for months in cool conditions, but the water-gathered ones are immediately trucked to the packing stations, where most of the crop is frozen for later use in Ocean Spray's enormously successful products.

We tracked down Dot and Jack Angley dry-harvesting one of their bogs. The Angleys seem to be everyone's favourite cranberry growers. She is a one-woman supreme court at any cranberry cooking competition and he is a jazz lover whose family ('Not me, I've got other ideas about having fun') has recently traced their antecedents back to seven of the original Mayflower colonists. Jack was busily combing the berries off the bush by pushing a machine that looks something like a leaf sweeper.

Dry-harvesting has to wait until the dew has evaporated, and the Angleys tend to pick in the afternoons, helped by high-school pupils. Sometimes the dry-harvesters arrange for an expensive helicopter lift when truck access is not easy, as they had done on this particular afternoon.

As the dry-harvested fruit keeps better it is often stored overnight then fed into the filters that clean and sort it by size. But size is not the most important criterion – the bounce test is more relevant. Cranberries contain hollow air pockets and when they are harvested in perfect condition they have quite a bit of bounce to the ounce. A vertical caterpillar track tests this by dropping them a few inches so that the sound ones ping out on to a conveyor belt. From this track they move into a complicated junction where they are individually inspected by a roomful of friendly women who convene every season. Further inspection under ultraviolet light eliminates those with the slightest shadow of damage. The combination of careful scrutiny and the cranberries' innate keeping quality means that the bagged, chilled fruit will keep for months.

So where else to go after such a glut of cranberries than to the annual Massachusetts Cranberry Festival? It is held at Carver, complete with a person disguised as a cranberry directing the cars, a cranberry bouncing competition and a fierce contest for the best cranberry pie (in single- or double-crust categories).

Dot was there, and Jack and many other folk from Ocean Spray, and there was a country-and-western band plus cranberry honey, soap and wine. It made an impression on me, and now at least I know that when someone says the name Massachusetts, the first thing that springs to mind will no longer be the Bee Gees' hit single.


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