Cranberries are a necessity on the Thanksgiving table, yet somehow they remain a bit mysterious. Perhaps it’s because they are rarely seen in their natural state – 95% of the crop is processed into juice or canned cranberry relish; the rest is sold “fresh”. And the quotation marks aren’t there because of some modern trickery involving being held months at cold temperatures in an oxygen deprived environment; the quotation marks are there because cranberries are not an item we eat raw or straight out of hand. Cranberries are low in natural sugars and they’re nearly as acidic as lemons; plus they’re full of sour-tasting tannins makes them a prime candidate for human intervention. Only the most adventurous taste them fresh and unfettered – and that usually only happens the one time before the lesson is learned.
If you have seen the commercials, the ones where two guys in waders pitch the virtues of the cranberry, you’d be left to believe a few things: The farming of the berry is solely the purview of comically accented New Englanders and fruit somehow grows underwater. Not accurate. The berry is native to the Northeastern US and Canada, but it is Wisconsinites who are the largest domestic producers of cranberries (Oregon ranks 4th nationally). Cranberries grow on solid ground just like their cousin the blueberry. It is only at harvest time that the fields are flooded to aid harvesting – the ripe berries float to the surface, where they are easily collected undamaged.
Portlanders are fortunate to be close enough to the source to get to know some local growers of this crimson fruit. PFM is one of the area Markets that offer shoppers Vincent Family Cranberries. The Vincent family has been in the cranberry game since 1957. The family tends 15 bogs spread over 27 acres about a half mile from the ocean in Bandon, Oregon. Because of the location and microclimate of the land, what the French would call terrior, the Vincents are able to produce bee-pollinated, rich, red, slow growing, sweet cranberries – a flavor unique to their land and their growing methods.
Still aren’t sure about the enigma of the cranberry? Follow the lead of our friends at Sassafras Catering who employ the fruit in their Peach Cranberry Chutney. Proprietor Tricia Butler tells us she uses the cranberry, “to offset the sweetness of the peaches…The tartness of cranberries is perfect for this purpose, and we get that sweet yet savory result that we’re looking for.” Not to give away trade secrets, but Tricia offers a cooking tip they practice at Sassafras, “We actually use dried cranberries since they hold up better during the cooking process, and they tend to keep it a nice golden color instead of making it pink.” Just as cranberry relish is a perfect condiment for roast turkey, the sweet/sour taste of Sassafras’ chutney goes great with everything from pork to creamy cheese & crackers
We are consuming 1/3 more cranberries than we were 10 years ago. The berry’s reputation has been elevated this last decade. Possibly as a way to calm our nerves from Y2K, our nation embraced the Cosmo craze at the beginning of the millennium. As in Cosmopolitans, the cocktail of triple-sec, vodka, fresh lime and cranberry juice shaken over ice and served up that Carrie Bradshaw and Co. made so famous. As we moved away from the turn of the century jitters, the cranberry has gained traction as the perfect health food – the fruit’s natural anthocyanidin flavonoids, polyphenol antioxidants, vitamins and tannins have been proclaimed to do everything from preventing cancer to fighting plaque.
Even with new research showing a cranberry a day keeps the doctor away, most of our cranberry intake comes in the form of juice – Much of it heavily sweetened. Our local growers, the Vincents offer an agave sweetened Cranberry juice that has 30% less sugar than most cranberry juices. Vincent Cranberry also pairs the cousins together with 60/40 blueberry/cranberry mix—both available at our Markets, or look for their brand locally at Zupans, Whole Foods, New Seasons and Food Front Coop. This year’s crop of fresh berries (congratulations on Harvest 53!) will be available at our Markets beginning October 9th.