With the beauty of the fall colours comes an increase in the ever-present danger of frost.
For some, this is evidence of a balance between good and bad, for others it is proof that we can have our cake and eat it too. Ice on the puddles is an indication that a transformation is taking place inside one of the Yukon’s favourite wild foods: cranberries.
Also called lingonberries, we’re talking about Vaccinium vitis-idaea, literally the vine of Mt Ida. The low-growing, creeping shrub has gorgeous, sweet-tart berries that are famous for warding off scurvy, treating urinary tract infections, and more recently, keeping turkeys company.
While some patiently wait for the frost to deepen the berries to an inviting burgundy-purple, I have been surprised at how many folks are out avidly picking already. I have been known to munch on the odd not-yet-frosted fruit, but I am invariably dissuaded from picking any quantity until they have developed the sweetness that comes with a good hard freeze. In fact, springtime often finds me grazing on newly uncovered berries — that’s when I find them most irresistible.
As the water in berries freezes, the solutes – particularly the sugars – concentrate in the unfrozen water, which causes increased sweetness. The ice crystals also break open cell walls, making for messier picking and berries that don’t hold up quite as well if not processed quickly.
The benefits of early picking are that the berries are brighter and easier to see, they are more solid and are less likely to squish as they are picked, and the odds of picking with warm hands are certainly higher before frost.
For some, an added advantage for early season picking is that the berries are not as tempting, and fewer find their way into the mouths of harvesters.
Traditionalists counter by arguing that we seldom have the opportunity for naturally ripened produce in the Yukon, as everything that gets shipped from the south is picked somewhat green in order to survive the long journey to our shopping baskets.
There is no comparison in my mind to a fruit that has been able to ripen fully “on the vine.” There are plenty of other plants to keep me occupied at this time of year that do not improve with frost, so I am quite content to leave the cranberries to do their thing until they, and I, are good and ready.
Whichever route you choose, I wish you happy picking. Reports are good this year so grab a bucket, bear spray and some kneepads, and sing your way to the berry batch.
The Secret to Drying Cranberries
To make dried cranberries with a pleasing texture, rather than being dry and brittle, either crack the skins by dipping them in boiling water or freezing them, or toss them in a light syrup before drying them. With this method I’ve dried cranberries successfully in a dehydrator and on shelves above my woodstove and ended up with lovely berries that keep for more than a year and are wonderful in granola and trail mix.