Cooked, dried or juiced, cranberries add bold colour and tart, refreshing flavour to winter menus.
Cranberry grower Evelyn Ernst makes a mean cranberry sauce and wishes everyone else did, too. “I try to encourage everyone to make their own, as it only takes five minutes and it is so much better than the stuff in a can,” says the co-owner of Terra Beata Cranberry Farm. The farm and U-pick borders the Atlantic Ocean near Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.
People usually serve cranberry sauce with turkey at Christmas and Thanksgiving but it can be appreciated in many other ways. “We always keep a jar in the fridge and enjoy it with a meal, on yogourt for breakfast, in chicken sandwiches and even as an ice cream or cheesecake topping for dessert,” Ernst says. She recommends adding other berries, such as blueberries or raspberries, so the sauce takes on their flavours.
The cranberry enthusiast doesn’t stop there. Ernst uses cranberries in a variety of recipes, from chutneys to muffins to pork. Their bright red colour adds flair to many dishes, their tartness is unusual and refreshing, and these nutritional powerhouses are easy to find and store. Part of the attraction, Ernst says, is that the fresh berries are crunchy.
One of her specialties is a Cranberry Feta Stuffed Pork Loin. “Feta and cranberries are a great combination and really tasty with pork,” she says. She suggests using dried cranberries as a colourful addition to salads. Sprinkle them on a tossed salad or spinach salad, or stir them into a chicken salad with chopped celery and serve on lettuce or in a wrap.
Indigenous to North America and known as marsh apples, cranberries are ubiquitous in Atlantic Canada. The berries were popular among aboriginal people for food and medicine long before commercial harvesting began in the 1870s.
Ernst and her husband bought their land 12 years ago when cranberry prices were high and the government was encouraging cranberry cultivation. They now cultivate six hectares, an average sized operation for the region. While raising their four children, the Ernsts have busy days farming cranberries. “You have to look after the plants, water them, check for bugs, analyze nutrients and decide on fertilizing,” says Ernst, adding that cranberry plants can grow for 100 years.
The Ernsts sell the berries, fresh, frozen and dried, as well as juices and preserves. They operate a U-pick in the fall and host hundreds of people for open farm days. For some visitors, it’s their first time trying the berries. “If it’s a raw one, I explain it’s going to be sour and crunchy,” Ernst says. “It’s very much a love it or a hate it thing.”
One enthusiastic picker is Wayne Kincaid, a retired schoolteacher from Upper LaHave, Nova Scotia. Picking cranberries has been his autumn ritual for the past 20 years. He travels by boat or all-terrain vehicle to a wild cranberry field 90 minutes from his home.
“Last year we got 1,000 pounds [454 kilograms] in three trips,” Kincaid says. “I give them to people and they light right up as soon as they see them. I have friends who depend on them now.” He keeps a freezer full of cranberries. Since he doesn’t drink, he takes cranberry juice to potlucks instead of wine.
Kincaid uses a rake to gather the wild berries that grow on an evergreen vine. While they blossom in July, high-bush berries aren’t ready for raking or hand picking until early October. The commercial harvest starts in November. Cranberries don’t grow in water, but growers plant them on peat bogs that can be covered in water to withstand winter chill. The berries float to the top and are harvested by machine.
Kincaid uses his berries mostly for juice. “They’re really bitter,” he says. “You have to drink it fast but it’s good with sugar or even day-lily syrup that my wife makes.” He also looks forward to a Newfoundland friend’s Cranberry Potato Cakes.
German-born chef Marcus Ritter at Europa Inn and Restaurant in St. Andrews, New Brunswick didn’t know what to do with cranberries when he first saw them in Canada. But he soon discovered he could use them as a substitute for a popular German berry called preiselbeeren. “It’s similar to cranberries but looks like a red currant,” he says. “I would eat it with game, so I eat cranberries with game.” Ritter makes a straightforward cranberry sauce but adds red wine or port and a bit of orange juice and zest. He says it can be served with the pulp, or strained through a food mill and thickened with corn starch.
Ritter also makes a classic Cranberry Bread Pudding. He likes cooking with cranberries because the colour looks “fantastic” in dishes and the berries provide important vitamins in the wintertime. Cranberries have antioxidants that help protect against cancer and heart disease and prevent urinary tract infections.
The health benefits are an added bonus to a local product that’s so fun, tasty and versatile. How you cook, eat and serve cranberries is only limited by your imagination. “Cranberries have been part of our pantry for thousands of years,” notes Ernst. “Native people used them. They were on Champlain’s menu at the Order of Good Cheer [a dining society in the 1600s in Port Royal, Nova Scotia]. They are abundant here and we should enjoy them.”
Cranberry storage tips
- Store fresh whole cranberries in a tightly sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator. They will keep for several months.
- Cooked cranberries can last up to a month in a covered container in the refrigerator (and even longer if there is liquor in them).
- You can freeze fresh berries (that have been washed and dried) in airtight bags for up to one year.