The Cranberry, it’s All-American!
From the Sept/Oct issue of The Essential Herbal
Written by Susanna Reppert of The Rosemary House
A holiday favorite since that first great feast, there is nothing so American as cranberries. First discovered by the Indians who introduced them to the Pilgrims. John Josselyn wrote in 1663, “The Indians and the English use them much boyling them with Sugar for Sauce to eat with their Meat, and it is a delicate Sauce.”
Because of their fine keeping qualities – up to a year- and elevated Vitamin C content, early New England sea captains took casks of cranberries aboard clipper ships to prevent scurvy. The tart “crane berries” were soon a part of the trade between the new colonies and Merrie Olde England, where they were enjoyed by all including himself, King Charles.
The astounding acidity of this remarkable small fruit is something to marvel at. Once called ‘bogland medicine’ it is used today as daily vitamin C and is quite helpful with urinary tract problems. You will see it on the shelves in markets in gallon jugs, outselling all other fruit juices. Popular and available 12 months of the year, cranberry juice makes an extraordinary spiced drink, brilliantly ruby red in color. See recipe at the end of the article.
Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) grow on low evergreen shrubs that were found growing wild in the bogs of New England. Called “crane berries” after the birds who feasted on them in the marshes, they are a bright red cousin to our more perishable blueberry. They have been transplanted as far a field as the state of Washington which in now one of the largest producers of this succulent fruit.
Although some ornamental garden shrubs with berries are called “high bush cranberry” or low bush cranberry” these are viburnums and in no way related. The tiny berries from these shrubs are edible if you are desperate enough, but are best left to the birds who will feast on them in winter.
Under continuous cultivation since 1816, when commercial bogs were first established on Cape Cod, cranberries have been hybridized into a good plump size making them easy to string into ruby colored jewelry for the Christmas tree. Easier yet to make is a stunning wreath. All you need is a pound of cranberries, a foam wreath form and toothpicks. First poke the berries on to the picks and then into the wreath closely, voila! You have a stunning door piece. Place greens on it if you want to make it larger or poke in a ruffle of magnolia leaves along the outer edge. Use a pretty bow to finish off your creation and enjoy throughout the holidays. The birds will enjoy it when you are finished with it.
Because of their amazingly high acidity, cranberries can be crushed and used in an emergency to quickly clean silver for your holiday meal. The acid berries were also used by the Indians to preserve meat. Pounded into dried game they made their famous “pemmican” a trail meat that kept indefinitely.
Too bitter to be eaten raw, the fresh new crop now available can be turned into delectable dishes when cooked with sugar, honey or maple syrup. Available in cans year round, cranberry sauce can be served as a condiment anytime. A favorite trick is to melt a can of cranberry sauce with a bit of honey to glaze a ham. Candied Cranberries can easily be made by placing 1 pound of cranberries in a shallow baking pan and covering with 2 ½ C sugar. Let stand 30 minutes and then cover and bake at 350 for 30-45 minutes stirring occasionally. Chill to use. ‘Course then there’s cranberry sorbet and cranberry cordial and on and on with these marvelous native American berries.
American Cranberry Tea
1 qt cranberries
½ t cinnamon
4 qt water
½ t allspice
2 ½ C sugar
Juice of 3 oranges
½ C cinnamon candies
Juice of 3 lemons
½ t nutmeg
Bring cranberries and one quart of water to a boil. In another pan, bring three quarts of water and sugar to a boil; add cinnamon candies, cloves, and spices and simmer. Put cranberries through a sieve and combine with other liquid. Before serving, add juice of oranges and lemons. Serve Hot. 12-15 servings.