Saturday, January 21, 2012

Highbush Cranberry or Fruit of Crampbark

In the harsh, cold weather of January we often dream of harvests from the garden or from the wilds.  We picture green leaves and short sleeves.  But there is one fruit that is best harvested in the coldest months.  That is highbush cranberry, a fruit that is better the colder it gets. 

First let's give a brief description.  Highbush cranberry is considered to be a small tree or large bush.  It is mostly found in open woods or edges of fields.  The more sun you have, the more berries will be found on each bush.  In the winter the fruit hang off of clusters.  The big clue is that it hangs, meaning if you find fruit sitting upright on a branch in a bunch it is NOT highbush cranberry.  The fruit can be different shades but this time of the year it is usually a reddish color, though some bushes are more orange and others more maroon.  The branches and leaves (which you can only see the scars of this time of year) come off opposite of each other.  If you were to see the tree before the leaves fall off they have a distinctly maple like look to them, with three lobes that are sharply pointed

Here is a picture of a highbush cranberry tree from October when the fruit was just ripening.

Now, to say this is my favorite wild edible fresh off the tree would be a huge lie.  Eating it fresh off the tree, no matter how many freezes, is not the most pleasant of experiences.  Even in January it will be sour with a hint of bitterness.  If you pick it when it is ripe in October it will be almost unbearably bitter.  The bitterness mellows with the freezing.  The longer you can let it stay on the tree (some people call it a bush) in freezing weather the better it tastes.  There are a couple problems with leaving it too long on the tree.  First, many woodland birds and animals eat it in the cold months too.  Wait too long and you'll come out to a stripped tree.  Second is if you wait until spring, the fruit may begin to ferment, and while it makes an excellent wine, fermented fruits don't do well in jellies and fruit mixes.  So on some of the coldest days in January is when you find most people gathering up this northern wild edible and medicinal.

Why highbush cranberry is not most people's favorite fruit is because in its raw state it is a medicinal, not so much an edible.  The bitter flavor in it is viburnin which is one of the best anti-spasmodic on either nature's shelves or a stores shelves.  If your muscles are sore or cramping do to over exertions, menstrual pains, or diarrhea, a hot mug of tea made from the berries will help relax the pain away.  There is much more viburnin in the inner bark however and that is what most people use for medicine, which is where it gets the name "cramp bark" from.  But as wonderful of a medicinal the fruit is, most people don't like the bitter taste.  Not to fear, when cooked the bitter flavor is muted so much so most people can't taste it.  When cooked it has a similar flavor to bog or lowbush cranberries and that is how most people use it.

The three things I use it for is wine, jelly, and sauce (usually mixed with apples). 

The wine is easy to make, in fact if you leave the berries sitting in water in a warm place it will probably make itself.  For a bit more control we boil up a gallon of berries in a gallon of water.  This gets all the juices out of the berries and kills off any unwanted yeast that may make your wine a bit funky in flavor.  Then we strain out the berries and toss them to the chickens or back out into the woods for the deer to eat.  Of course we have saves the juice to which we add about 2 pounds of sugar or equivalent.  My favorite is adding a quart or a bit more of maple syrup.  In fact spring's maple syrup seemed to be made to go with highbush cranberries.  Heat this just until the sugar is mixed in.  Let cool to body temperature or just a wee bit higher.  Yeast works well at about 100 degrees F.  Sprinkle on your favorite yeast.  I'm cheap so I use a heaping tablespoon of my brick of bread yeast.  If you are a wine fanatic though that thought probably makes you flinch.  Feel free to add your favorite wine yeast.  Cover and let set until the bubbling slows down.  Then put it into whatever carboy you've scrounged up (a cleaned out liter wine jug works well).  Put a balloon over the top of the jug and let it set for a month or until there is no more bubbling.  Rack or pour this into mason jars and let set on the shelves for at least 6 months.  Open one up and enjoy.

Here's a good recipe for jelly made from the highbush cranberry:

4 cups highbush cranberries
6 cups water
Additional water (as needed)
7 cups sugar
1/2 tsp. margarine or butter
1 pouch liquid pectin (Certo)

Bring the berries and water to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Crush the
berries or put through a food mill. Strain the juice in a cheesecloth-lined
sieve. Add any additional water if need to bring the juice up to 5 cups.

Bring the juice and sugar up to a boil. Add the margarine, then the liquid
pectin. Bring back to a boil, stirring constantly boil hard for 1 minute.
Remove from heat. Skim foam from surface and pour into sterile pint jars and
seal. Process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes.

This is great on game meats or used in stuffings.

Then there is simple highbush cranberry sauce.

Cook up a couple cups of de-stemmed highbush cranberries.  Mash them through a sieve.  Put the juice back on the stove and heat slowly (throw the leftover berry bits to the deer) to thicken.  Meanwhile chop up really fine a couple of apples, sweet if you have them, and put either ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg or a combination into the apples.  When the highbush cranberry has thickened a bit put the apples and spices into the pot and pour over around 1/2 cup of maple syrup.  Mix this well and cook until thick enough for you.  You can eat this warm on a cold winter's day or freeze it or use it over pork or wild game meat. 

So while your neighbors are all huddled in their houses dreaming of getting back into nature on a warm spring day, you can bundle up and go out and gather this winter's treasure.  Don't eat it fresh off the tree (it won't kill you but it will make you make a face), but bring it home and cook it up.  You'll find that nature doesn't forget about us when the snow is deep.  And knowing that even though the garden is resting and the chickens have slowed down on their laying, there is still food to be had without have to rely on someone getting it to the store shelves.

Highbush cranberries or cramp bark, one of the best muscle medicines out there and during the cold months, one of our edibles from the wilds.

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