Highbush Cranberry Time

Saturday, we drove upriver in search of moose and high bush cranberries.

Highbush cranberry, also known as viburnum and a variety of colloquial names, is a true autumn jewel. The bush is a small, spindly sapling with vaguely maple-shaped leaves, which in autumn may turn crimson. The berries ripen to a translucent, day glow red or pumpkin orange.

These berries taste somewhat like cranberries (hence the name) although they’re much more tart. A frost or two may sweeten them a bit, but not much! This makes them a good berry for picking, as does the large flat stone inside. Both qualities tend to discourage snacking on the job, so yields are better than when we pick sweeter berries. Growing in bunches, they can be harvested by the handful.

We went to an area called Porcupine, on a road that ends at the landing for the Chilkat River. Being higher up the valley, it’s gotten a fair amount of frost already, and the autumn colors are spectacular. We didn’t see any moose, although we found wolf tracks in the Tsirku River mud, but the berries kept us plenty busy. We’re processing them today. There’s a storm blowing, we’re warm by the fire—it’s a Hunker Down Day, but we’ll be productive yet again.

Highbush cranberries have a pungent smell, slightly like old gym socks. It’s one of those smells, like cooking broccoli, the kind that hits you hard when you walk in the door, yet your “oh yuck” response suddenly turns to “oh yum” when you realize what, exactly, you’re smelling. Context is everything, I guess.

We got the juicer a few years ago. It has really changed our processing, especially highbush cranberries. In short order we get hot juice concentrate, which can be canned and kept for whatever comes next. We make syrups, ketchups, and jellies. We’ve even made wine with them, although it was a little light for our taste. We also make a hot drink by adding cloves and other spices, and a generous dollop of honey in hot water. Not only is it refreshing, it’s high in vitamins and nutrients. With the honey, it’s a good sore throat cure, and general cold tonic. That funky smell now tells us it’s autumn, winter’s coming—almost time to settle in, fortified by hot drinks and good company.

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