high bush cranberries

One sunny afternoon I found myself at home, bored, and decided to head out into the birch trees to pick all the high bush cranberries in our yard.

If you’ve never had them, highbush cranberries can be summed up in a single word: sour. Now, whether it’s a good sour or a bad sour is entirely a matter of taste. They grow in abundance here in southcentral Alaska and because they aren’t one of the preferred berries amongst the berrypicking droves, they usually stay on the bush. There seem to be two kinds of people. You either love them or hate them. I, for one, love them. I even like that funky smell they put off in autumn — some describe it as a dirty sock smell and yep, that’s about right.

But when have you ever seen dirty socks this pretty?

To the untrained eye, these might look a little past their prime because they’re soft and dented rather than plump and smooth. But it’s after the first frost that they get a little sweeter and tastier. In my opinion, they’re really best in the middle of winter. While out snowshoeing or cross country skiing it’s such a treat to pluck a few of these off the bush and pop them in your mouth — they’re all tart and frosty and slushy. They have a flat pit in them so there’s the added bonus of seeing how far you can spit it.

In one of the guides on my bookshelf, Alaska’s Wild Plants by Janice Schofield, the harvesting directions say:

“Many foragers gather highbush cranberries before frost, when they are higher in pectin and have a fresh aroma. Some prefer harvesting after cold snaps, as chilling sweetens the fruits somewhat.”

Highbush cranberries aren’t actually a member of the cranberry family at all. They belong to the honeysuckle family. And their Latin name, viburnum edule, translates to edible wayfaring tree. I like that.

I happen to have a really good recipe for highbush cranberry sauce, which is why I picked a half gallon or so. I haven’t made it in a few years because my recipe got lost in my gigantic stack of other recipes and magazine clippings but I just dug it out and I’ll be making it for Thanksgiving dinner this year. Unlike traditional cranberry sauce, this recipe is almost more savory than sweet — I think it’s the onions and vinegar and salt and pepper that give it a twist. So if you have cranberry sauce lovers, you might want to make some of the classic stuff too so as not to break their hearts.

I found this recipe years ago on the internet but it’s since been removed from whatever website it was posted on, so it’s a good thing I printed it out. It’s credited to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It makes alot so you’ll probably have to cut the ingredients down to size. The description says, “Use as a sauce or ketchup. It’s good served on poultry, meat, or baked beans. Other berries may be substituted but this is one of the very best ways to use highbush cranberries when they are abundant and in season.”

I can testify to how good it tastes served warm alongside Thanksgiving turkey so get out there and pick some cranberries!

Spiced Cranberry Sauce

Makes about 3 pints

12 cups highbush cranberries

3 cups onions, chopped fine

1 cup water

2 cups vinegar

4 cups sugar

1 T ground cloves

1 T cinnamon

1 T allspice

1 T celery salt

1 T salt

1 T pepper

Cook the cranberries in the water until soft then put through a food mill or sieve. Add remaining ingredients and boil until mixture thickens. Makes about three pints.

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