Long and Delicious History of Cranberries in Canada
Made into pemmican for centuries by Aboriginals, cranberries are now a holiday favourite. The
fruit was first farmed in North America on the east coast of Canada and USA
Cooked into tangy sauces, squeezed into bright red juice, folded into muffin batter or added to turkey stuffing, the cranberry has a long, delicious history in Canada and the United States. The cranberry is native to North America, along with scrumptious berries like the blueberry, Saskatoon berry, chokeberry and huckleberry. Pounding dried cranberries and other fruit into a mash with sliced and dried buffalo or venison meat, and a dash of animal fat, “pemmican” was a foodstuff made by natives. Since it didn’t spoil quickly and was full of nutrition, pemmican was a food staple, valued by Indians, fur-trading explorers and settlers alike.
Settlers Used the Cranberry
Initially perhaps named the crane berry by German and Dutch settlers because of the resemblance of the light-pink flower blossoms to a crane’s head and bill, the name evolved into cranberry. Vegetarian settlers on Canada’s Prairies, such as the Doukhobors from Russia, used the cranberry as part of their diet in items like “Fruit Piroshki”, said Collections Canada, adding zing to berry tarts. The cranberry not only supplied tasty nourishment, it helped to stave off devastating diseases like scurvy.
Cranberries Grown Dry, Harvested Wet
The cranberry is a crunchy, crisp berry that grows on vines. The cranberry plants are hardy, able to withstand poor soil, cool temperatures and drier environments. The sandy-soil cranberry fields are called bogs or marshes, not because they are swampy, but because they are able to be flooded when the cranberry crops are ready for harvest in the fall. Pumping water knee-deep into the fields causes the ripe cranberries to float to the surface when loosened by machines. (Hollow spaces around the inner seeds enable the cranberry to bob on the water.) The berries are then corralled.
A conveyor belt or pump sweeps the floating cranberries up and into trucks, to be taken to facilities for processing. The berries are put through a test of ripeness – they are dropped on machinery surfaces. A ripe berry bounces and an unripe berry thuds flat. Leaves and twigs are removed, said Canadian Cranberries, and the berries are graded by colour and quality. Approximately ten percent of cranberries are still picked by hand using a two-handed comb or other equipment. Stored in burlap bags, they are then sold as fresh fruit.
Canada’s Oldest Commercial Cranberry Farm
Indian Garden Farm of Hebbville, Nova Scotia near Bridgewater, is Canada’s oldest, commercial
cranberry farm. Commenced in the late 1800s by William Webb, the fruit farm has passed down through family hands for four generations. The productive farm is also known for a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables.) On December 23, 1998, the Nova Scotia government’s Department of Agriculture and Marketing honoured Indian Garden Farm with an historic plaque to celebrate over 100 years of commercial cranberry cultivation.
The cranberry is now grown across Canada in almost every province. British Columbia is the largest producers, supplying over half of Canadian market share.
The tangy flavour of the cranberry adds colour and interest to the Christmas feast, the Thanksgiving dinner and crystal-clear red juices. The deep red berry shares with diners a taste of the mouth-watering fruit that provided sustenance and health to countless Canadians of the past.
Have a look at this wonderful guide to cranberry growing and harvesting in British Columbia, published by the BC Cranberry Marketing Commission: The Cranberry Story.