By now most of the cranberry bogs of the fabled Pine Barrens have been flooded to allow farmers to easily scoop up the scarlet fruit as it bobs to the water’s surface. But don’t expect many of those so-called rubies of the Pine Barrens to grace your Thanksgiving table — at least not in anything other than liquid form.
Although New Jersey ranks third nationwide in cranberry production, with about 3,100 acres of the fruit, the vast majority of the state’s output is sold to juice processors, explained Ray Samulis, an agricultural agent with the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Burlington County.
To be sold fresh, cranberries must be either dried off immediately after wet harvesting or be dry harvested — that is, picked by machines designed to navigate the uneven bogs. “It’s a lot slower process than the wet harvest,” said Robert Brick of Brick Farm in Medford (Burlington County), whose family has dry harvested cranberries since 1918. “We’ve always done it this way. It is not the most efficient way to harvest cranberries; it’s very labor-intensive. But this is the way I do it.” Brick started picking his 41 acres of cranberries mid-September. “I have no end date. We can stop and start. It’s not like we have to flood the bog,” he said. “I’m never done until the weather stops me.” He sells his fruit to a broker who distributes it through the Philadelphia Produce Terminal. He also retails his fresh berries for two dollars per pound at his storage facility in Medford. (Customers should call first to confirm availability and hours: 609-654-2200.)
Overall, growing conditions were good this year, except for a late summer hailstorm, said Samulis. Dry weather late in the season reduced the overall size of the fruit at his farm, “but the quality is excellent,” said Brick.
Although Thanksgiving is still three weeks away, cranberries can keep for two months if refrigerated, and well past that if frozen. “You can buy them today and put them in the freezer and take them out a year from today, and they’ll be as good as they are today,” said David Farrimond, executive director of the Cranberry Marketing Committee in Wareham, Massachusetts.
Still, fresh berries account for only a small percentage of overall cranberry sales. In 2007, Americans consumed just under a pound of fresh cranberries per capita, compared to almost two pounds of the fruit in processed form. According to Farrimond, over the last three to four years, demand for sliced and diced dried sweetened cranberries, such as Craisins, has increased about 20 to 25 percent. The latest trend is for whole dried sweetened cranberries, he added. At Newark Nuts/NutsOnline.com, these retail for $7.99 per pound.
High in vitamin C and proanthocyanidins, or PACs, cranberries (in fresh, juice, or dried form) prevent harmful bacteria from sticking to the urinary tract, stomach, and teeth, whereas other antioxidant-rich foods, such as green tea and dark chocolate, do not, explained Amy Howell, an associate research scientist with Rutgers University’s Philip E. Marucci Blueberry and Cranberry Research and Extension Center in Chatsworth. “It’s not killing the bacteria, so you don’t get a super-resistant bacteria build up. It’s a very elegant way to prevent certain infections and diseases that are bacterial-related,” such as urinary tract infections, ulcers, and oral decay, she added. Moreover, “you can cook cranberries, and you don’t lose this anti-adhesive activity,” she said.
At the Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster, executive chef David C. Felton taps not only the flavor but the eye appeal of cranberries at this time of year. “The color is always beautiful. It’s hard to make cranberries ugly,” he said. He cooks fresh cranberries in a vinegar reduction to make cranberry gastrique for duck. Cranberry compote accompanies wild boar. “The sharp acidity of the cranberries helps to cut the gaminess,” he explained.
When making his own cranberry sauce, Felton likes to add a bit of citrus zest and cuts back on the sugar. To sweeten the astringent fruit, he prefers agave nectar or a maple syrup reduction. Other favorite flavorings include star anise and ginger in place of the typical cinnamon and nutmeg. On its own, the sauce goes nicely with duck or chicken, as well as turkey. Combined with whole-grain mustard, it can be used to accompany salami and other cured pork products, said Felton.
Bounce Test: Look for plump, shiny cranberries that are firm to the touch. Fresh cranberries will bounce if dropped. Let them tumble into a bowl and watch what happens. Remove those that don’t bounce or feel soft to keep decay from spreading to the other berries. Store cranberries, unwashed, in a tightly sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator until ready to use. Bear in mind that bagged cranberries may already be a month old at point of purchase.
Fun Fact: Native to North America, cranberries were first harvested by the Lenni-Lenape people.