You're probably familiar with cranberries from consuming one of the many commercial products made with these cultivated beauties: cranberry juice, cranberry sauce, or dried cranberries. But you need not purchase them to experience their flavor, as they grow in the wild throughout New England. Cranberries are in the same genus (Vaccinium) as blueberries, and like blueberries, they tend to grow in acidic soils. I found these plants growing in a dense patch on the edge of a small pond.
I generally avoid eating “food products”, preferring instead to focus on whole foods and simple cooking techniques. So, while I've tasted various store-bought cranberry-flavored foods and drinks in the past, these days I stick to the real thing, without added sugar and chemicals.
While picking some cranberries last week, I tasted several fresh, savoring their bright flavor on my palette. Each one popped and released a burst of tart juice. Later I bagged and froze the majority of my haul, though I also added some to apple sauce (made with Northern Spy and Golden Russet apples, and some cinnamon) and tossed handfuls into soups. What do you do with fresh cranberries?
If you find a patch of ripe cranberries, take some time to comb through the plants. I found that much of the fruit lies close to the ground, hidden among the leafy stems. And while you gather, stay alert to the wildlife nearby. Is anyone else eating the fruit? Are there birds calling nearby?
Biking near my home last week, I found these ripe Summer Grapes (Vitis aestivalis). This wild vine produces grapes that are much smaller than Fox Grapes (Vitis labrusca) -- see the photo of Fox Grapes in my hand for comparison. Despite their small size, they still manage to deliver a mouthful of flavor.
Kousa Big-bracted-dogwood (Benthamia japonica), or Kousa Dogwood, is a commonly planted ornamental tree with showy flower-like bracts in spring and fruit resembling lollipops in late summer.
Not only is the fruit distinctive and often terrifically abundant, but it is also edible. Every year I snack on this tree when its fruit is in season, enjoying the one-of-a-kind treat that this tree provides. You'll know the fruit is ready when you find the ground under a tree dotted with drops. Search for fruit that is dark red and slightly soft and that easily detaches from the branches. I recommend sampling a few to get a sense of the spectrum of ripeness -- from hard and dry to overly mushy and rank.
The pulp is what I eat, which I squeeze out of the skin and separate from the seeds in my mouth. Here's a series of photos showing the process:
The pulp tastes to me like a tropical fruit purée. Give this fruit a try, and let us know below what you think it tastes like.
Last week, I found some ripe Fox Grapes (Vitis labrusca) in Plainville.
These wild grapes have seeds, which can be chewed and consumed, or alternatively spat out. If you just want strong grape flavor with no chewing or spitting required, simmer the grapes in a little bit of water, mash them up and strain out the skin and seeds. You can use the resulting dark, pungent liquid to make jelly, sauce, or wine, or you can simply drink it straight or thinned with more water.
Preferring a whole fruit experience, I typically just eat them out of hand.
It's once again time to gather Black Elderberries (Sambucus nigra). The large clusters of small purple-black fruit provide a powerful medicine. The juice of the ripe berries can be boiled down into an herbal syrup or dried whole fruit can be tinctured. They contain high levels of antioxidants and have proven effective in supporting the immune system. Some people simply enjoy them as food or drink -- using them to make jam, jellies, pies, and wine.