by Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely
When the Puritans arrived in Plymouth, they recognized the cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarbon, from a smaller red-berry cousin of northern Britain.The native American plant grew wild along the rocky coastline of what is now Cape Cod and Massachusetts Bay.
Wampanoag Indians taught the colonists how to use the cranberry’s preservative qualities, as in their pemmican, a high-energy convenience food of venison, melted fat and berries. Versatile in cooking fresh or dried, high in acid and vitamin C, the brilliant berry could also serve as an antiseptic for wounds and a dye for cloth. Ever since the early 17th century, the cranberry has been strongly identified with New England and autumn.
On a misty midsummer day, Brad Doyle has been showing me around several cranberry bogs that he leases from the town of Duxbury, on Boston’s South Shore, 60 to 70 acres in all. As you drive on Route 3towards Plymouth and Cape Cod, you might see some old, irregular bogs, goingback to the early 19th century, situated behind the sand dunes. Cranberries thrive in this acidic peat soil with a ready supply of fresh water nearby, terrain unsuited for growing much else. In 1971 the town bought these bogs from the E.W. Loring family for conservation purposes, to keep the land from development and to give residents a beautiful place to enjoy year round. It is beautiful and peaceful here,with the Duxbury Town Woods on one side and people occasionally walking their dogs along the dirt roads beside the bogs.
We cross the little moat around the periphery and step onto the bog, dry under foot, to look closely at a cranberry plant—actually an evergreen shrub or vine. Here and across the bog, Doyle is pleased to see lots of little pink blossoms, whose form in the past was thought toresemble a crane’s head, hence the name cranberry. Pale green berries, a fewbeginning to blush, grow along the vines amid the small spiky leaves. To encourage fruiting, he explains, nearly an inch of sand is spread on the vines to anchor the runners and promote upright growth with new rooting systems.
We are looking at the Early Black variety, directly descended from the wild cranberries of Cape Cod and so named because they ripen early into small, dark red fruit with excellent flavor and keeping qualities. Doyle can see at a glance where the Howes are growing, another old Massachusetts variety whose berry is larger than the Early Black, lighter in color, higher in pectin and later ripening. Together the two varieties make up three-quarters of the Massachusetts crop. They complement each other and their separate ripening time is convenient.
The Howes cranberry was first grown in 1843 by Eli Howes of East Dennis on Cape Cod. Captain Henry Hall begun cranberry cultivation in 1810 when he transplanted vines to a man-made bog layered with sand, peat, gravel and clay. The connection between the cranberry and seafaring is strong. Sailing ships could easily transport the berries in their holds, where they kept well, and by this time the tart fruit’s ability to prevent scurvy was recognized. When shipbuilding and fishing declined, cranberries took up some of the slack.
Cranberry bogs are planted by cuttings, Doyle explains, not from seed. To replant this bog, even though it produces less as it ages, would be far too expensive, about $40,000 per acre.When he plants a new bog now, he uses the newer hybrid varieties, Stevens or possibly Ben Lear. These are a bit finicky, he says, but yield a much larger crop, about double, partly because they are new vines.
The state of Wisconsin recently has overtaken Massachusetts as the nation’s largest cranberry producer, about 40 percent of the total United States production of 8 million barrels (100 pounds each) per year. Massachusetts ranks about 12 percent, with New Jersey and the West Coast following behind. Some Canadian provinces are also significant growers.
Doyle takes me into an old shed with a corrugated metal roof beside the bog. It’s a pump house, with its original lift pump still working and in use. It sits between the bog and Round Pond, actually a deep kettle hole left by the glacier. Along with sun and oxygen, the cranberries need lots of fresh water throughout the year, water which is recirculated,not lost. In the past, if a frost threatened in early spring, it took several hours to pump enough water to flood the bog and protect the berries and vines from freezing.Today, this can be done in an hour. Cranberries are heavily dependent on fresh water in every season. In summer, water irrigates. In fall, flooding allows harvest of the berries. And in winter, during the dormant period they require, water protects the plants from cold and wind. The frozen bogs also provide ice for local kids to skate on. “The bogs are only ankle deep,” Doyle tells me, “so there’s no real danger.”
The harvest of the Early Blacks begins around Sept. 15, after a cold snap that starts their color turning.The Howes follow.Today machines comb through the bogs where vines are trained to grow in one direction, like a comb through hair. Much of Doyle’s crop is dry picked, which is labor intensive and lower in yield but reaps high-quality berries thatare sold fresh (but freeze well). For the wet harvest, used for the newer hybrid varieties and virtually the only harvest method used in Wisconsin, the bogs are flooded to float the berries out. These cranberries break down quickly in water, with no shelf life, so they are frozen in a couple of days to be processed into various sauces and juice preparations.
Doyle shows me several other bogs in Duxbury and Middleboro that he leases and manages. Along the way, he points out where a century ago backwoods engineers pumped water uphill to one elevated bog— no mean feat. He is fascinated by the early cranberry growers. Another even older pump house, filled with picturesque clutter, old wooden crates and an antique pump in working order, has metal walls sprayed with gunshot holes. Before the roads were put in, he muses, no telling what people did out here in the bogs.
To the side of every bog are several stacks of beehives needed for cross fertilization, as well as an abundance of good fresh water. He shows me one organic bog, well away from the others, with its separate reservoir and wild bees to ensure the organic label for those special berries. Brier and other weeds grow among them that, without chemicals, get culled by hand every few years. These vines are now at the peak of blooming and are on schedule to be harvested in the fall a week and a half behind the others, when he’ll have finished the rest of his bogs. These Early Blacks and Howes are premium berries, his very best.
One large irregular bog off East Street is especially tricky to harvest, and the machine operators know they must be careful. The weight of the harvester machines off track can sink into the moist clay in pockets of quicksand, impossible to recover. Tucked away on the side of this bog, secluded between rocks and trees, he points out one little wild bog that “takes care of itself,” he says. It has found a protected spot, away from wind and frost, where it flourishes “with no help at all.” Whatever the variety of berry, this must be how the Indians and Puritans found cranberries growing in the wild, in New England’s prehistoric past.
Doyle sells his berries to several companies aswell as under his own Standish Farm private label, and he turns some of the best older varieties into his own whole-berry sauce, Old Fashioned Organic Cranberry Sauce as well as other products. He gives me a jar of this sauce, which proves to be exceptional.
You can find his Standish Farm whole-berry sauce at Allandale Farm in Brookline, Foodie’s in Boston, Fruit CenterMarketplace inMilton, Idylwilde Farm in Acton, Out Post Farm in Hilliston, Russo’s in Watertown, Savenor’s in Boston and atWhole Foods Markets.
Elizabeth Gawthrop Riely's dictionary, The Chef's Companion (John Wiley & Sons), is in its third edition, surveyingthe edible landscape. She travels vicariously with friends giving wine and food evenings at
the BostonWine School.