For some reason I never thought to use an Internet translating widget to figure out the Danish word for “cranberry.” It is tranebær. In both English and Danish the name refers to the resemblance of the flower to a crane’s head. This would have come in handy about 15 years ago when we introduced Thanksgiving to Denmark. Because we were heading over there in November, we decided that it would be fun to get together a bunch of people and celebrate this distinctly American holiday.
Some of the foods that go into the preparation of the traditional holiday meal are (we thought) uniquely American. I thought that since cranberries were Holarctic in distribution, they would have been known in Denmark. If they are, they are not known among Flemming Andersen’s circle of friends. No one had ever heard of them, nor did anyone know the Danish word, which would have been the crucial clue to knowing a native recipe.
So we brought cans of cranberry sauce on the plane with us. This was really more suitable anyway, because both of us had grown up eating the “jellied” sauce from the can rather than anything our mothers made from fresh cranberries.
Now that we have the Danish Wikipedia, I have been able to find out how the Danes use tranebær. The answer seems to be “not much.”
“Cranberry juice [is] used (primarily in the form of tablets and supplements) in the prevention of urinary tract infections and cystitis, but new research suggests that the juice has no significant effect.”
There is no suggestion that they are grown commercially in Denmark, but are instead known from the bogs of northern and western Jutland and rare elsewhere in this extensively cultivated country. There is reference to the American tradition of serving the sauce at Thanksgiving, but interestingly no mention of the use of cranberries in England, Scotland or the rest of Scandinavia. In England the sauce is served at Christmas.
The cranberry growing industry is apparently a more cooperative one than is usual in U.S. agriculture with growers working together to harvest, process, and distribute cranberries and cranberry-based products. In fact, after a late 1950s scare during which the pesticide aminotriazole was found in the commercial cranberry supply. Sales plummeted and the industry realized that they couldn’t rely on fall holiday sales to get them through the year. New products were created (e.g. blending cranberry with other juices and developing dried cranberries or “Craisins”) and marketing campaigns deployed in order to sell cranberries all year long.
The most well known cooperative is the Ocean Spray company, established in 1930 with the merging of three other companies. It has 700 member growers in the U.S., Canada, and Chile. Cranberries are grown on a large scale in Europe (albeit not in Denmark).
The European plant that is harvested is Vaccinium oxycoccos and the North American one is V. macrocarpon. Both of them are in the same genus as the blueberry (V. corymbosum). The blueberry and cranberry, along with the fox grape (Vitis labrusca) are said to be the only three native North American berries that have been cultivated commercially.
Although I grew up with the jellied cranberry sauce in a can, I have learned to like and even prefer the homemade whole-berry variety. I can’t find a reference that pins down the date of origin for the jellied variety. It always seemed so manufactured to me (I loved, for example, that we served it as a sort of log with the imprint of the can interior still on it), but as with so many comfort foods these days, everyone is making it themselves again. The key difference is that the berries are blended after they are boiled and then strained. The jellying process is pretty much the same way you make a jam or jelly: by adding pectin and sugar.
The Danes had never had cranberry sauce in any form before and they loved the jellied stuff. Next time I do a Danish Thanksgiving, I’ll have to make it from fresh berries, but to do that I guess I will have to go to Jutland and pick them myself.