Friday, November 9, 2007

True Tale of a Wild Cranberry Harvest

NOTE: This is the tale of a wild harvest. No location will be divulged, out of respect for Matt, my Cranberry Foraging Guru. The secrecy also serves to preserve my safety.

(I was warned not to talk too much.)

It was a few years ago that some friends told me about their annual trip to gather cranberries in a bog, here in the Northwest. Intrigued, I asked lots of questions - and a couple of years later was actually INVITED to go along.

The equipment: rubber boots, extra clothing, a bucket, and empty mesh bag - the kind in which you buy fifty pounds of onions. A sack lunch, and a thermos of hot coffee. And most important: a canoe. (Really.)

The four of us gathered well before sunrise at Matt's house on a cold November morning. We hoisted the two canoes onto his van, then hit the road for a very long drive to a remote lake.

It just so happened that I had shaved my head completely just the day before, in support of a friend with cancer. Aware that we lose most of the heat through our head, I was still not prepared for the way that cold dawn fog insinuated itself into my very pores. A wool cap was far from sufficient: I still felt somehow naked. I verged on a headache.

In the half-light, we carried our canoes down an icy wooden ramp, clambered in and began paddling. The sun was just starting to come up, and birds were piping up all around.

After about 20 minutes at a good pace, we moved toward a narrow channel. The water was shallow, and our paddles kept getting tangled in weeds. Eventually, it was clear we would have to get up and carry the canoes across at least part of the channel.

(Why, in all those excited conversations about the romance of cranberry picking, was portaging in cold muddy water never mentioned, HMMMMMM????)

I stepped out of the boat and promptly sank knee deep in the mud, my rubber boots filling with icy water. A loud yelp from another member of the party let me know she was, if you'll pardon the expression, in the same boat.

Somehow, the other two were able to stay above the mud and pulled us out. The mud smelled awful, and the water in my boots was so cold it hurt; what was worse, though, was I just couldn't get enough traction to lift the canoe. My partner Brian made me sit in the craft, and to my amazement LIFTED the front of the canoe and slid it across the mud till we reached enough water to start paddling again!

After a while, the bog came into view. This was when I learned a bog is actually a floating island of peat and moss, and in this particular case, supports a huge mass of cranberry bushes. As we hopped on to the bog and started walking across it, the whole island shook.

Matt knelt down and started chipping at the thin ice with his fingers. There, nestling in the moss, were scads and scads of gorgeous, plump cranberries, ranging from white to salmon to a deep crimson. Some were very hard, some were a little mushy, and all were ours to gather to our hearts' content!

Unlike picking strawberries or huckleberries, though, one is not tempted to sample raw cranberries. They are bitter and tart, and make one's face pucker up with an expression as acrid as their taste.

We put the berries into buckets, which we then emptied into our mesh bags. Martina and I noticed that Matt's and Brian's bags were filling considerably faster than ours, and did our best to coax our frozen fingers to speed up. It wasn't till we got back home that we realized the two men were scooping up handfuls of berries along with leaves, twigs and bits of moss while we were fastidiously picking the fruit berry by berry.

We got to know the perils of the bog as Matt walked to a fresh patch, stepped into a weak spot on the bog hole and sank to his chest. After the rescue, the conversation turned to the subject of bog people.

From Wikipedia: "...bog people are preserved human bodies found in sphagnum bogs in Northern Europe, Great Britain and Ireland. Unlike most ancient human remains, bog bodies have retained skin and internal organs due to the unusual conditions of preservation. Under certain conditions, the acidity of the water, the cold temperature and the lack of oxygen combine to tan the body's skin: skeletal preservation is very rare in these bodies, as the acid in the peat dissolves the calcium carbonate of bone. The bodies provide very useful research material for archaeologists. Some of the bodies retain intricate details like tattoos and fingerprints."

Idly, I wondered what scientists of the future would make if they found the body of a bald Asian woman in a peat bog in North America.

My bag was about two-thirds full when I felt my back and knees would not hold out any longer. The rest of the party was ready to quit at the same time, so it was time for a meal and some warmth. Our wet clothes were steaming in the sun. Matt gathered some driftwood and quickly made a small fire. That, the food and thermoses of hot coffee, were as welcome as cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving.

The paddle back to the van went much more easily, with no muddy misadventures.

At home, I emptied my berries into big tubs of water to clean them, and marveled at the sight of all the shiny fruit - must have been at least twenty pounds of it.

It took a few days before the aches and pains of the trip subsided, after which I busied myself making batches of cranberry sauce, juice, and more.

Here's my recipe for my favorite sauce, which involves oranges and star anise. If you like the taste of licorice, this will floor you.

Juice and zest (I like to leave it in strips) of two large oranges
2 star anise
2 cups sugar (white or brown, or a mix)
1 pound of cranberries
Pinch of salt

Put the whole lot in a saucepan on medium heat. Cook till the berries pop, then stir and continue cooking till it looks jammy, about 15 minutes. Add more sugar to taste, if desired. Put into sterilized jars and refrigerate. It keeps for months!

Besides pairing with turkey, this sauce is great on a piece of bread with cream cheese.

Cranberries are incredibly versatile. I've used my wild harvest in a chocolate cranberry torte (recipe), the accompanying deep red sauce flavored with Chambord. They make beautiful salad dressings, and the shockingly pink cranberry relish from Mama Stamberg. Last year, I was delighted with my first batch of cranberry vodka. With tonic, it's DIVINE.

I made the canoe trip to the bog twice more after that, but with my knees getting a little stiffer, last year passed the torch on to my teenage son. Sadly, this year neither of us went, and I understand pickings were slim. So it's store-bought stuff for me this year, which will suffice, but will most definitely be short on the thrill and pleasure of canoeing to the cranberry bog.