Cranberries are a bit of a strange fruit. Related to bilberries and blueberries they tend to get wheeled out only for the festive period in the form of a sauce or jelly to accompany turkey and all the trimmings. Either that, or we drink the juice, which reputedly has great qualities for curing bladder problems. The flavour of cranberries is certainly unique. They are very tart and can’t really be eaten without some dose of sweetener. I’m not sure if it’s the tartness but they have a strange after taste too which I find really hard to describe but which has a sort of drying effect on the mouth. I know, I wouldn’t get a job for the cranberry marketing board, would I?
They are mainly associated with America and Canada where they grow in moist, acid, boggy soils. It’s commonly thought that they grow in water but it is only at harvest time that the beds where the cranberries grow are flooded to aid the harvest. A special machine removes the cranberries from the plants and then the fruits float to the surface creating the spectacular sight of red covered lakes. I was surprised to find out that they do grow in the wild here in the UK. In fact, there used to be a place in Lincolnshire known as Cranberry Fen because of the quantity of the fruit that used to grow there in the peaty ground. Draining of the fens changed the growing conditions and the native cranberry declined but they can still be found in parts of the Peak District, Cumbria and the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire.
I have never been much of a fan of them to be honest but then we inherited a cranberry plant 2 winters ago when we took on our allotment. At first, we weren’t sure what the straggly looking plant in its own dedicated raised bed was. I had an idea it might be something that needed ericaceous growing conditions and so had a look through a few books before coming to the conclusion it must be a cranberry. The raised bed itself was in the way of my plans for a path on my newly designed allotment and so the cranberry was going to have to be moved. Wellyman and his reluctance to get rid of anything wanted to give the cranberry a go so we found a home for it in a large pot filled with ericaceous compost in a shady part of the garden at home.
From a central clump the cranberry sends out long stems, known as vines in the commercial cranberry growing circles, and if you had the right soil conditions could make good ground cover. It’s evergreen with the leaves taking on reddish tints from late summer and then, in spring, tiny pink flowers appear. As the summer progresses the tiny light green fruits swell and then start to flush red from August with them being ready to pick from November onwards. I hadn’t really given much thought to actually using them last Christmas but then I spotted a recipe card by Delia Smith in my local supermarket and thought why not give making my own cranberry sauce a go.
I can’t eat much sugar which means the whole festive period is a bit of a torturous experience but this recipe used mainly orange juice as a sweetener. Initially, I wasn’t so keen on the resulting concoction but after 24 hours in the fridge the flavours had developed and it did taste good.
This years crop is much smaller in comparison to last year. I think the flowers suffered from the cold spell, all the rain and the resulting lack of pollinators. There should still be enough to make some sauce for Christmas Day though.
Would I recommend growing your own cranberries? I guess it depends on how much you like them. I have come across several recipes that use them which don’t involve simply having them as part of a Christmas dinner, so they can be more versatile that you might first think. They are easy enough to grow but for me they are too much of a novelty to make them worth buying a plant or two. Still, if you have your own plant at least it means you don’t have to rely on your local supermarket providing them. I hear there have been runs on cranberries in some stores over the last few days.