If there’s one thing we can all expect to see on our Thanksgiving tables this October, it’s cranberry sauce. Love it or hate it, turkey dinner really isn’t complete without this tart berry condiment. Cranberries often end up being a backup dancer to the turkey but these berries really deserve a share of the spotlight.
On a cranberry quest, this little piggy drove down Cranberry Road and ended up at Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh in Bala, Ontario. At Johnston’s, with 27 acres of cranberry production and over 400,000 lbs of fruit produced each year, cranberries play second fiddle to no one!
Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh is a second generation family marsh, started in 1952 by Orville Johnston. Johnston’s is one of three cranberry marshes in Ontario, though not the biggest, they are the oldest, situated in Bala – the cranberry mecca of Ontario.
At Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh, cranberries are the star all year long. They draw in the crowds during harvest time at the end of September to the end of October. Bus loads of people from all over Ontario and even as far away as Japan and Sweden come to see the little cranberry in all its glory. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the marsh by Johnston’s own winemaker, Matt French, as well as farm owners and cranberry couple Wendy Hogarth and Murray Johnston.
Did you Know?
Before I get down to the cranberry nitty gritty, there are a few things about cranberries you absolutely MUST know! Contrary to popular belief, cranberries don’t grow in water! Cranberries grow on low shrubs or vines that get flooded three times a year: during harvest time, as well as before and after the winter to freeze and insulate the vines from frost damage!
How to tell if a cranberry is ripe? Throw them! According to Matt, good berries bounce. Cranberries are also referred to as “bounceberries”! If they don’t bounce, don’t eat them!
Cranberries go by many names, like atoca and bearberry, but their current title is all thanks to early settlers who named the fruit “crane berry” due to the resemblance of the pink blossom’s to the head of a crane.
Cranberries are crafty little things and each is equipped with its own internal life jacket. Cranberries have four internal air chambers that help them float to the surface during harvest time.
Cranberries have all kinds of tricks up their sleeves – besides their ability to bounce and float their skin also contains a natural preservative, this gives them extra long life! British sailors carried limes on their ships (those limeys) to prevent scurvy and North American sailors took cranberries!
Cranberries are extremely versatile lending themselves amazingly well to a wide array of uses – such as sauces, baked goods, preserves and even wine!
According to the Field Guide to Produce, cranberries, along with blueberries and Concord grapes are the only commercially grown native North American fruits. That’s right Canada, brag away! Cranberries thrive on mountainsides and in bogs, all places that have acidic soil.
Cranberries are grown from vine cuttings rather than seeds and take five years to mature and produce viable cranberries. Cranberry vines are evergreen, which means they keep their leaves all year long. Once established, cranberries can produce on the same vines for hundreds of years – super berry or what?
Cranberry bushes actually preserve the wetland on which it grows and become part of the natural ecosystem. Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh lies on a natural watershed, which makes it easy to flood. Don’t be surprised if you see beavers, bears, birds and more – wildlife thrive in this area.
Getzinger Retracto-Tooth Picker
There are three main methods of harvesting cranberries. The most common method, used by 95% of cranberry producers is called “beating”. During this method a machine beats the berries off the vines and they float to the surface of the water. The berries are then herded into a corner of the bed and sucked off the marsh into a truck. This often bruises the cranberries, but the berries end up being either frozen or processed immediately into juice, sauce or dried, rather than eaten fresh.
Farmer Murray assured me that Johnston’s cranberries don’t get beaten up. Instead, they use the “wet rake” method, where the cranberry beds are flooded and a willy-wonka-esque machine called a Getzinger Retracto-Tooth picker gently combs the berries off the vines. The last method of picking is called the “dry rake” method where the beds are not flooded, but picked mechanically.
Once picked cranberries go through a process to separate any vines and dirt that may have gotten mixed in with picking. They are rinsed and dried before being sorted by hand. Yes, by hand! The cranberries continue by conveyor belt to be packaged into bags and boxes for sale on the farm and wholesale across the country.
Just Eat It
Cranberries are hitting stores now and if you’re not quick they’ll be gone before you know it! Grab as many as you can because they last up to two months in the fridge and can be frozen for over a year! That’s right, you can enjoy cranberry goodness all year long! Not only are they versatile, but they’re really good for you too. Cranberries are packed with Vitamin C and contain significant amounts of antioxidants that work to prevent cancer, heart disease and other diseases. It’s a no brainer – cranberries taste delicious, they’re good for you and the environment. Everybody wins! For more info on the health benefits of cranberries, check out the Cranberry Institute.
One of the reasons why I love going to farms and learning about how things grow and get to my Thanksgiving table is to meet the farmers and producers who work hard all year long. Their passion for what they do is palpable and you can see it on the faces of all those who work at Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh.
Owners, Wendy Hogarth and husband Murray Johnston live and breathe cranberries. After taking over the marsh from his father, Orville Johnston, the marsh has become a family affair. Wendy and Murray’s four boys have become a strong labour force on the marsh! I don’t think I saw Wendy or Murray without a smile on their faces the entire day, despite the huge crowd of tourists vying for samples of their award winning cranberry wine! You can tell that the Johnston’s love what they do and you can’t help but catch a small portion of their cranberry fever – I definitely left the marsh with a few big bags of cranberries and a huge smile on my face!
Speaking of wine, in 2001 the Johnston’s created Muskoka Lakes Winery, featuring a wide array of wines created from their very own berries. I was lucky to have a tour from their passionate cranberry enthusiast and resident wine maker Matt French. Matt explained that the winery is based on the French concept of “terroir”, a sense of place, where all the winemaking starts with fruit that thrives in the marsh and surrounding areas. Turns out, cranberries make delicious wine, which, thank goodness, is available at the LCBO, along with their gorgeous cranberry/blueberry wine – which I could have sipped on all day! Matt’s grandma, Alice, who goes way back with the Johnston family, comes to the marsh every year during harvest time to sell her apples from Windwood Farms in Beamsville, Ontario. Matt snagged me some hot cranberry apple cider and I immediately realized where Matt got his talent for beverage making from. Don’t leave the marsh without a bottle of wine, cider and a bag of cranberries!
In a previous piggy post about blueberries, I noted that Farmer Morris at Barrie Hill Farms had a tremendous amount of blueberries this season. I was told by Janette, my wine tasting coach, that Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh ended up buying a huge amount of his blueberries to produce their wine next year! I love how everything comes full circle and farmers work together to produce the best products coming out of the best produce in Ontario. Hearing that made me one happy little piggy – it wasn’t the wine, I swear!
The passion shared by those that run and operate Johnston’s can also be found in the wild amounts of cranberry goodness to be found within their shop and the Cranberry Café. They’ve got cranberry everything – from candles and tea to “Mrs. J’s” Preserves made by Murray Johnston’s own mum! The cranberry café serves up delicious treats like cranberry sausages with cranberry jelly as well as a famous cranberry treats like cranberry apples – cranberries dipped in candy apple mix! These get sold by the thousand during harvest time and it’s impossible to leave the marsh without them!
If there’s one place on earth that cranberries get to be the star it’s the Bala Cranberry Festival. In it’s 25th year, thousands annually pay homage to the mighty cranberry. For additional information on Ontario cranberries, click here.
If you can’t make the festival or harvest time at Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh be sure to stock up on cranberries when you see them in stores now. Once you realize their full potential and versatility you’ll be wondering, turkey who?