Sunday, November 20, 2005

Independent on Sunday: Mouth Watering

The Broader Picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Michael Dwyer / AP Photo: opens in a new window

Farmers the world over have a close affinity with water, regardless of whether they have too much or too little of it. But cranberry producers have a closer relationship than most. During the normal growing season, the marshy wetlands where cranberries are cultivated require about an inch of water per week. The bogs are also flooded twice a year: once in winter, to cover the vines with water and protect them from frost and dry winds; and again when it is time to harvest the berries.

It is the harvest flood - which takes place anytime from September through to November - which is the most spectacular. The bogs are covered in up to a foot of water, to allow the ripe berries to float to the surface for gathering.

But why go to so much trouble? Cranberries hardly seem worth the bother; they're small and taste rather tart, after all. But this versatile fruit can be both good for us (its saintly juice is high in antioxidants and fights bacteria) and rather bad for us (when put to more sinful use in a Sea Breeze or Cosmopolitan).

And this week the cranberry takes on perhaps its most important role, as the US prepares to celebrate Thanksgiving Day on Thursday. The cranberry is a native of New England, where the Pilgrim Fathers began the custom of Thanksgiving by celebrating their first harvest in 1621, and cranberry sauce is now as much a part of the traditional menu as that other American native, the turkey.