A tart little number

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The Independent Culture
HERE'S A marketing brief to make you weep. "We have an agricultural product that grows only in peatbogs carpeted with sand. If you harvest the product in the most economic way, you will not be able to use it fresh. If you harvest it in the expensive, labour-intensive way and then eat it fresh, you will gag. You will have to use all your ingenuity to find uses for the product; there is almost nothing you can do with it that doesn't taste disgusting. If you don't sweeten it with massive amounts of sugar, you can't do anything with it at all."

Sounds like a no-hoper? Then think of the Cosmopolitan and the Sea Breeze, two of the truly great cocktails invented in the last decade or so. Neither could have existed without the crop in question, described even by the people who sell it as "a feisty little fruit that likes its soil acidic and its climate cold. Truth is, it would bite you in the tongue if we didn't add some sweetness and charm to its personality." The product is the cranberry. It sounds like the cash crop from hell. Yet the thirst for cranberry drinks has given it a new lease of commercial life.

Cranberries are indigenous to New England and the Canadian mari-time provinces. Cultivation began, for reasons that are lost to the gastronomic record, in Cape Cod in 1816. The tart little globes, being high in vitamin C, served as anti-scurvy supplies for the American navy. Lately they have also been found to protect against urinary-tract infections. (Think about that the next time you sink a Sea Breeze.) Production spread in Massachusetts and later to New Jersey, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon and Canada. Today, about 1,500 growers (many of them families) have about 40,000 acres under cultivation. And even as you read these words, they are starting to bring in the 1999 harvest. Harvesting starts in early September and peaks about mid-October, and total production has roughly doubled over the last two decades. This year they're expecting a record crop of about 575 million pounds.

Cranberry production is a strange and beautiful phenomenon. If the cranberries are destined for manufacturing, the bogs on which they grow are flooded. Then a machine comes in and "reels" them - snips berries from stems so that they float on the surface. Workers in wading boots gather them into wooden booms, or "racks", which keep the massed pink berries from floating away. From there they are sent for processing into relish, sauce or the concentrate from which juice is made. If they're to be sold fresh, they have to be dry-harvested - a process that David Farrimond, General Manager of the Cranberry Marketing Commission, describes as "more of an art" than a mechanical process.

Cranberries reach their height of taste and versatility in juice. And the world has recognised that fact since 1963, when cranberry juice was sold commercially. Previously the juice had been a home-made product. You'll find a recipe in The United States Regional Cookbook (1947), and Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Cookbook (1961) tells you how to make Age of Innocence Cup, a punch containing tea, fruit juices and ginger ale. Then Ocean Spray, the Massachusetts cranberry co-operative which controls about 90 per cent of the market, introduced Cranapple juice, a blend of cranberry juice and apple juice which, sadly, they chose not to call Crapple. The drink was an instant success. Today some 95 per cent of berries are used to make juice, which has driven an average annual growth rate of 5 to 6 per cent. A couple of dozen cranberry-based juices have followed, and new ones keep appearing. For cocktail purposes and general drinking, most bartenders keep going back to plain old Cranberry Classic.

The UK market saw its first cranberry juice in 1986. After a slow start, the market is now worth about pounds 50m and has been growing at about 60 per cent annually. We're now the largest market outside the US, doing much to compensate for flat sales in the USA and declining sales in Asia. And who knows, one day we may even get our own outpost of Ocean Spray's Cranberry World West. In the meantime, you'll have to go to Henderson, Nevada to visit the Cranberry Cinema, where Carina the Cran- Cran Girl stars in Cranberry Tales. And where a series of multimedia exhibits tells you everything about cranberry production and cultivation. I think of it as Cranopolis. I can't wait to go.