So ubiquitous this time of year, it’s hard to imagine that only 5% of all the cranberries harvested in the United States are sold as fresh fruit. The remaining 95% go into drinks, sauces and dried cranberries.
The cranberry is a highly seasonal fruit native to North America and harvested from September into early November. Thanksgiving and cranberry sauce go together like French fries and ketchup, and during its fresh season the cranberry makes its way into our kitchens almost exclusively to accompany that holiday. Fresh sauces, chutneys, relishes and preserves abound.
You’ll find fresh cranberries from New England in Union Market stores from October through the holidays. Massachusetts was the first state to cultivate the crop back in 1816, but Wisconsin produces about half of the cranberry crop in the U.S. New Jersey, Oregon and Washington State also produce significant annual harvests, as do most of the Canadian provinces.
The method for harvesting cranberries is almost as famous as the fruit itself. They are, of course, planted in bogs, low-lying beds that can be flooded at harvest time. Ripe berries contain enough air to float, so flooding the beds gently lifts and breaks the berries away from the bush. They float on the surface and can be corralled by the thousands for easy gathering.
The health value of cranberries encompasses both fact and folklore. Native Americans ate them raw and ground them into paste as a primitive antibiotic. Their pilgrim neighbors believed they aided in the treatment of scurvy. Modern medicine sees the power of cranberries more as preventative rather than curative. Their levels of vitamin C, antioxidants, vitamin K, dietary fiber and manganese have linked them to improved cardiovascular and immune systems, the prevention and treatment of urinary tract infections, the reduction of dental plaque, anti-cancer benefits and anti-inflammatory properties.