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Cranberries belong to the family Ericaceae (Heather) which includes other plants such as blueberries, huckleberries and gooseberries. Although they can be found growing wild in many parts of the northern hemisphere, it is the cultivated large-berried variety, vaccinium macrocarpon which is the most widely eaten.


Cranberry Origin and History


The English word cranberry derives from the word craneberry, because when the  flowers dip down they resemble the head of a crane and also the fact that cranes were seen eating the  berries which grew in bogs where they nest. The botanical name vaccinium comes from the Latin vacca, meaning cow because cows seem to be fond of them. They are also known as Bearberries because bears like to eat them.


They were well known to American Indians long before Europeans arrived and were considered a symbol of peace,  used as food,  medicine and even a dye.  These peoples already knew about the natural preservative power (benzoic acid) in the berries and used to mix them into pemmican, a sort of cake made with dried meat which was pounded into a paste and mixed with animal fat and grain to extend its keeping time.


By the 1820’s commercial cultivation was well under way in America and the fruit were being exported to Europe however it wasn’t until 1864 when General Ulysses S. Grant apparently ordered cranberry sauce to be given to the Union troops during the siege of Petersburg that the serving of Cranberries at festive times in the US became a well entrenched tradition.  Cranberry sauce was first commercially tinned in 1912 in America.


Cultivation and Growing Cranberries


The Cranberry plant is an evergreen groundcover plant which spreads via runners (rhizomes). In the wild they look more like a small shrub, however when commercially cultivated, they are grown  as low trailing vines which eventually create densely packed beds.  The flowers form on the short, upright shoots which bloom from May to June with the fruit ripening in late September to early October.


Contrary to common belief, the beds are kept dry until harvest time at which point they are flooded with water to a knee-deep level. Fresh whole berries are sometimes hand-picked which makes them more expensive however much of the crop is  now harvested by machine..


The machines travel through the bog shaking the berries off the vines which are then skimmed off.  The berries are bounced down a stair-stepped processor to separate out the old berries from the fresh.


Buying and Storing Cranberries


Fresh cranberries are  firm and should bounce if dropped giving rise to the nickname “bounceberries”.  They should be shiny and plump although they can range in colour from bright light red to dark red.  Shrivelled berries or those with brown spots should be avoided.


Because the berries contain a natural preservative called benzoic acid they can stay fresh for a relatively long time. 


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Store fresh cranberries in a plastic bag or box with a tight seal in the refrigerator when they will last up to 8 weeks. As with all berries, if one starts getting soft and decaying, it will quickly spread to the rest so make sure you  remove any soft fruit if you plan on storing them for any length of time.

Cooked cranberries can last up to a month in a covered container in the refrigerator and if cooked with alcohol, can last for many months in the refrigerator.


Fresh whole berries can be washed, dried and frozen in airtight bags up to one year.


Dried berries are also available and should be stored similar to raisins i.e. in a cool, air-tight container.


 Cooking with Cranberries

Although cranberries have too tart a flavour to eat as a fresh fruit by themselves, their taste goes very well with many ingredients in both savoury and sweet dishes.  When cooking fresh cranberries, stop cooking once they pop as over cooking will make them mushy and bitter tasting. When using frozen cranberries in cooking, there’s usually no need to thaw the berries.


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