So Useful, So Tart

It’s a pity this is the only time of year we start to think about cranberries. Chances are, the only time any of us eat them is in their canned or jellied form, courtesy of Ocean Spray, at our Thanksgiving feasts.

This is a pity because fresh cranberries are delicious and healthful (they’re one of the super fruits, folks!) and can be incorporated in many more dishes and relishes all year round. They can also be found in some local bogs throughout the Walking Dunes on Napeague.

Cranberries are low, creeping evergreen shrubs or vines. They have small evergreen leaves with dark-pink flowers, then white berries, which ripen to red. Native Americans used cranberries as food, arrow-wound poultices, and dye for rugs and blankets. They mixed cranberries into “pemmican,” a dried, preserved meat mixture that was kept fresh longer by the acidic qualities of the berries.

They called the berries “sassamanash” and introduced them to the English settlers in Massachusetts, who incorporated them into the first Thanksgiving meals. A Revolutionary War veteran by the name of Henry Hall is credited with being the first to farm cranberries, in Dennis, Mass., around 1816.

Cranberries are a unique fruit. They can grow and survive only under special conditions, requiring an acid peat soil, adequate fresh water supply, sand, and an eight-month growing season. Contrary to popular belief, they do not grow in water; they grow on vines in impermeable beds layered with sand, peat, gravel, and clay. If the vines are undamaged, they can survive indefinitely. Some vines in Massachusetts are 150 years old.

The cranberry probably got its name from Dutch and German settlers who called it “craneberry.” When the vines bloom in late spring and the flowers’ pink petals twist back, they resemble the head and bill of a crane. Over time, the name was shortened to cranberry.

Most cranberries are grown in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and Canada. Ninety-five percent of the crops are used for juice and jellies; only five percent is sold fresh.

In the 1800s, English visitors were impressed with the cranberry sauces served with various game and fowl. A visiting French delegate, however, had a different impression. In a memorandum dated 1808, he referred to “a most villainous of sauces, cranberry sauce, vulgarly called ‘cramberry’ sauce from the voracious way they eat it.”

Cranberries store well for a number of reasons. One is their high acidity, exceeded only by lemons and limes. Another is their very high content of phenolic compounds, some of which are antimicrobial and probably protect the fruit in its damp habitat. Many of these phenolic materials are also useful to us, some as antioxidants and others as antimicrobials.

A particular pigment, also found in blueberries, prevents bacteria from adhering to various tissues in the human body and so helps prevent urinary tract infections. Cranberries are also rich in vitamin C and pectin, which is why a barely cooked sauce gels almost immediately. They can even cause alcohol to gel when macerated in it.

We have learned that fresh and dried berries, as well as juice, are very good for you. Don’t bother with extracts and pills, however, as they don’t retain much nutritional value. Be aware also of the sugar content in juices, and try to find unsweetened, dried cranberries.

To enjoy fresh cranberries year round, freeze them on cookie sheets, then place them in plastic bags that keep them well frozen for at least nine months. Try them in apple crisps and pandowdies, chutneys, and sauces.

For the adventurous foragers among you, there will be the 11th Annual Cranberry and Dunes Hike on Nov. 20, a Saturday, at 10 a.m., brought to you by the East Hampton Trails Preservation Society. Meet at the end of Napeague Harbor Road, prepared with rubber boots and a bucket or plastic bag for your harvest of this lovely, healthy, late-fall fruit.