By Linda Wallace

Author's thoughts on the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


I was relieved to see in the November 23 issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that we don’t have to worry about running out of cranberries during this year’s holiday season. An August hailstorm in Wisconsin destroyed millions of pounds of fruit, but representatives of the cranberry industry are reassuring consumers there will be plenty of cranberry sauce for Christmas. Wisconsin is expected to match or exceed its record 2005 output of 3.66 million barrels.

I was surprised to learn that Wisconsin leads the U.S. in cranberry production and has done so, as of this year, for 12 consecutive years--in fact, growing more cranberries than the next top four states combined. Massachusetts is second, New Jersey third, Oregon fourth and my own Washington state fifth with a forecasted160,000 barrels. One barrel equals 100 pounds of berries.
I visited the Pacific Coast Cranberry Research Foundation in Long Beach, WA, in September of this year. I took the above photos there. The Foundation site includes a delightful little historical museum, a gift shop and year-round self-guided walking tours of their experimental fields. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m-5 p.m., April 1-December 15, and by appointment. The farm showcases different varieties of cranberries, irrigation systems and how crops are planted and cultivated. During October, visitors can also see the crop being harvested. I would love to go back sometime to see the flooded fields with their rafts of floating crimson berries. I’ll probably skip the gift shop on my next visit, though. The prices there are way too high for my penny-pinching consumer style. I was going to buy a jar of cranberry chutney, but when I saw the sticker price, I decided to stick with the cranberry compote that I make myself most every year.
Bog cranberry is a Washington native plant, Oxycoccus oxycoccos or Vaccinium microcarpum. I’m a Washington Native Plant Steward, so that makes the cranberry of particular interest to me. Another native cranberry is lingonberry or mountain cranberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea. Native Americans of the Northwest Coast highly prized cranberries. They usually cooked them and served them in oolichan (a small fish) grease or oil. Cranberries were also stored fresh in moss or by drying into cakes. The cakes were made by mashing the berries and either boiling them in boxes or allowing them to sit until thickened. The resulting jam was poured onto skunk-cabbage leaves within rectangular cedar-wood frames and dried on racks over an alder-wood fire. Other berries, salal being one of the most important, were made into cakes in the same fashion. Mixed-berry cakes were also common. The Cranberry Research Foundation Web site says, "…Native Americans combined crushed cranberries with dried deer meat and melted fat to make pemmican…," but my Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast field guide doesn’t mention pemmican, so maybe the Foundation is talking about aboriginal peoples of the East Coast.

The cranberries now grown commercially in Washington, however, are not native. In the 1870s, a Massachusetts visitor observed the native berries growing in the marshes and was impressed with the area's resemblance to Cape Cod. Convinced that the peat soil could be successfully adapted to the cultivation of cranberries, he brought in East Coast vines. The non-native vines also brought with them non-native pests, a common problem with introduced species. Pests and frost were only two of many problems faced by cranberry farmers over the years.

Cranberry farming began here more than 100 years ago. A partnership of 4 entrepreneurs purchased more than 1600 acres of Peninsula marshland between 1872 and 1877 for as little as $1 an acre. Many of those original bogs are still producing today, but now raw land suitable for cranberries costs over $5,000 an acre. Cranberry farming is definitely big business.

What I ultimately care about, though, is eating the berries. The Ocean Spray Web site has lots of recipes, along with a mildly amusing video on its home page of farmers in a flooded bog. Of the current 235 growers on the West Coast from British Columbia to Oregon, 99% are part of an Ocean Spray cooperative. In the what-a-hoot category, the Ocean Spray site offers a beverage recipe called the Lava Lamp. Apparently, if you put sweetened dried cranberries in champagne, the cranberries will begin to slowly float up and down in the glass.

I was planning on sharing my favorite cranberry recipe, Cranberry Keeping Cake, but after I located the grease-stained newspaper clipping dated December 4, 1991, and realized how long the ingredient list and directions are, I decided I don’t have the necessary motivation to type it all up. I’m still not that adept with my new scanner to just scan the recipe into the post. What’s interesting about this cake is, that though it’s ready to serve after a few days, it continues to improve for weeks and will keep in a cool pantry for at least 3 months. Perfect for mailing to far-flung friends and family for Christmas. I’m not sure what keeps the cake from molding, maybe all the spices: cinnamon, coriander, cardamom and cloves. And unlike the much-maligned fruitcake, this cake tastes delicious. But since I’m not giving you the recipe, you’ll just have to take my word for it.

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At 11:48 AM, Blogger EilisFlynn said...

We went out this year, since it was just the three of us (me, The Hub, and The Sister), and doing so meant that we didn't do two things that we look forward to -- a cranberry relish and The Hub's Family's baked corn. Since I intend to make the corn recipe this week, maybe I'll make the cranberry relish too!

At 9:43 AM, Blogger Linda Wallace said...

Right. Got to keep those Washington cranberry farmers in business.


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