Trying to compare a wild cranberry bog with the waist-deep cranberry-filled lakes in the Ocean Spray commercials, is like trying to compare a red sweater with a ladybug. The only thing remotely similar is their color: red. Though, a cranberry in the wild is actually crimson — a deep, luscious rouge with a purple hue that varies between each berry.
Until three years ago, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a wild cranberry bog. (I know.)
The discovery came about at our annual Friendsgiving potluck, when my wild foraging teacher and kindred sister, Sarah Kelsen, brought her famous cranberry sauce. Rich and lightly sweetened, I couldn’t get enough. “How did you make this?” I implored, hoping to unearth a secret family recipe.
Sarah replied, “Oh, I just defrosted the cranberries I harvested last year at the bog, and boiled them down with a little homemade maple syrup, lemon zest, and spices. That’s it.”
“Wow. This is unlike any cranberry sauce I’ve ever had!” I balked. “And, what do you mean, ‘the bog?'”
Sarah stared back incredulously. “That’s it. I’m taking you next week. There should still be some cranberries to harvest.”
Sure enough, the following week we set out together on a frosty afternoon, bundled in thick layers of wool. The hike into the bog was a gentle meander through the forest, eventually opening to a lake with a crescent of low-lying plants, that in some parts, extended into peninsulas. But it was no ordinary wetland; I had the distinct sense that I’d crossed into an otherworld territory, guarded by fairies or whatever forest folk you believe in. The air was biting cold, but the setting sun cast a fierce glow that consumed the bog – and us – with warmth. The last, frost-bitten leaves on the trees glinted gold, reflecting in the clear water. Sarah ventured out first, in knee-high boots, stepping cautiously for “solid” ground.
The bog is not some meadow where you can simply tear off at a run, avoiding the occasional ditch. It’s a floating, springy, and delicate carpet of multi-colored sphagnum moss that requires you to be present. There are holes and softer spots where the icy water will come rushing over your boots and leave you longing for a hot bath.
A deliberate, thoughtful pace is well-matched to harvesting the wild fruits, for the berries themselves hide amongst the feathery plants. Most of the time, I parted plants to find one red jewel clinging to a small branch, plodding forward one berry at a time. But every ten steps I would happen upon a patch flush with cranberries, rewarding my patience and adding slightly more weight to my bucket.
But the goal of harvesting wild cranberries was starkly different from the u-pick farms we visited as children, where the focus was on volume. There, my mother would unleash us amidst the rows of fruit with a seemingly simple challenge, “see who can fill the most quart containers – not your bellies – with berries!” Back at home, she would transform our harvest into jams, jellies, and frozen fruit that would last our family of six through the winter.
In the wild, harvesting has less to do with the amount you harvest, and more to do with the amount you leave untouched. In fact, it’s good practice to harvest less than 10% of a wild crop, leaving a share for the creatures, other foragers, and future generations to come.
Whether commercially or organically produced, food from farms is deliberately cultivated to proliferate and generate income. On the contrary, food in the wild is intricately tied to an ecosystem, serving to nourish living beings while also adding nutrients to the earth, cleansing the water and air, and so much more. In this grand scheme, the edible fruits are a gift exempt of payment. And not only do these gifts provide sensory joy, nutrients and vitamins, but they also provide a primal experience that awakens our soul: dressing for the elements, breathing in fresh air under a blue sky, witnessing the peacefulness and grandeur of the plant’s home, exercising our bodies in the harvest, giving gratitude for the food, processing it in our kitchen, and finally, sharing the bounty with loved ones.
Eating this way is the seed of pure connection: with ourselves, with each other, and with the natural world around us. It’s as simple as that.
“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” – John Muir
So, while the contents of my bucket may not have been up to par with my u-pick harvest, their source of nourishment was profound.
As dusk fell, so did the temperature, and the berries retreated into the shadows. We ambled back onto shore, popping cranberries into our mouths as we made our way to the trailhead.
Wild cranberries are not accessible everywhere, but I encourage you to look for organic cranberries when you’re shopping for this recipe and the holidays. Cranberries are a good source of Vitamin C year-round, so I generally like to keep them on-hand in the freezer for adding to smoothies beyond holiday season.
This recipe takes after Sarah’s simple approach, adding orange juice and zest for a fruity dimension that compliments the cranberries and maple syrup. This sauce will be a delicious compliment to your Thanksgiving spread, and is equally good smothered on bread with butter for breakfast any morning. I also like making a simple dessert parfait with layers of creamy, plain yogurt, cranberry sauce, and granola. Buon appetito!
Thank you Allison Usavage for your beautiful photos.
Stay tuned for next week’s Crock-Perfected Cheddar Cornbread!
And, and, and… you’re the first to know that my cookbook is now available for pre-order! Take a peek inside Feast by Firelight: Simple Recipes for Camping, Cabins, and the Great Outdoors. Later this week I’ll be sharing — at long last — the story of writing my book and a video trailer to get you excited about putting it to use. In the meantime, consider gifting a pre-ordered copy for the holidays, paired with a piece of cast iron cookware from Barebones Living. (Receive a 30% discount on all Barebones products when you use code FRISCHKITCHEN at checkout.)
Multiply this recipe for a crowd, accounting for about 1/4 cup cranberry sauce per person, or 1/2 a cup if you love smearing it all over your Thanksgiving plate like me.
- 4 cups cranberries, fresh or frozen (see Note)
- 1 orange, zested and juiced
- 1/4 cup maple syrup, or more as needed
- Add the cranberries, orange zest, orange juice, and maple syrup to a medium pot over medium-high heat, and bring to a boil, 3 to 5 minutes.
- When bubbling vigorously, uncover the pot and reduce to a simmer. Stir the cranberries with a wooden spoon, gently smashing them against the side of the pot. Continue cooking for about 15 minutes until the jam is thick. It should coat the back of a spoon and resist sliding off the spoon.
- Transfer the jam to a small mason jar and seal tightly. Serve warm or cool with cornbread. Store leftovers the refrigerator for up to two weeks, or freeze for up to 6 months.
If using frozen cranberries, defrost in the refrigerator up to 24 hours prior to cooking.