Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 12, 2017

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Cranberry fields forever

A Muskoka festival proves these berries aren’t just for Thanksgiving

It’s known as the cranberry capital of Ontario, and every autumn, the town of Bala, in the heart of Muskoka, pays homage to its favourite fruit. The Bala Cranberry Festival (tel: 705-762-1564; balacranberryfestival.on.ca), which draws more than 20,000 visitors a year, rules this picturesque cottage community against a scenic backdrop of brightly coloured fall foliage.

"Cranberries have traditionally been reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas, as a sauce for turkey. But that’s hardly the case anymore," says Margot More, chairperson of this year’s 26th annual festival which will take place October 15, 16 and 17. "Today, there are so many new products. You can even buy cranberry wine and cranberry sausages."

Cranberry juice or cider, cranberry crêpes, cranberry maple syrup, hot cranberry tea and pork-on-a-bun with cranberry chutney are all on offer at the festival. Bags of fresh cranberries for the home cook to make cookies, muffins, stuffings, sauces and relishes will also be on hand.

"Even cranberry candles and soap are up for grabs," says More, who describes the event as Bala’s last hurrah of the summer season and a local community fundraiser. There will be plenty of vendors selling art and crafts, clothing and cottage decor. There is also a children’s midway, entertainment and shuttle buses from nearby Port Carling and Gravenhurst.

But the highlight is a front-row seat for the harvest at one of two local growers — Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh (tel: 705-762-3203; cranberry.ca) or the Iroquois Cranberry Growers (tel: 705-762-5725; iroquoiscranberries.com), which is owned and operated by the Wahta Mohawks.

"It’s one of fall’s most spectacular harvests," says Matthew Commandant, manager of the Iroquois Cranberry Growers, the largest of Ontario’s three cranberry producers. "The colour in the trees and the beauty of the berries floating in the water make an incredible picture."

Muskoka harvest

Contrary to popular belief, cranberries don't grow in water. Instead, the perennial plant grows on beds layered with sand, peat, gravel and clay. These beds, called bogs, were made by glacial deposits.

The most common harvesting method is beating. Growers flood their bogs (hence the image of cranberries floating in water) and use water reel machines to loosen the berries from the vines. The cranberries then float to the surface, creating a brilliant sea of crimson. The berries are then corralled and scooped up for their juice, sauce or other products.

"Bala has all of the right ingredients to grow cranberries — acidic soil, sand, ample water and a moderate climate," says Murray Johnston of Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh, whose father Orville started the farm in 1952.

Surprisingly, music also plays a role in why the tart gems are grown in Muskoka. Local legend has it that Orville Johnston was attracted to Bala because of Dunn’s Pavilion, now the Kee. Back in the 1940s and '50s, Dunn’s was a popular dance club known for its big bands.

"In addition to being a cranberry grower, my dad was a very talented singer and piano player," explains Johnston. "He used to moonlight as a musician to help feed his family."

Eventually his two sons, Murray and Blake, took over the farm’s daily operations. Today, Murray, and his wife Wendy run the Bala farm, which cultivates more than 11 hectares and produces about 137,000 kilograms of cranberries a year. Blake also owns a cranberry farm in Nova Scotia.

In 1969, Orville Johnston worked as a consultant to help establish a cranberry farm on Wahta Territory. Iroquois Cranberry Growers was the result. They now have about 28 hectares of cultivated land and produces about 375,000 kilograms of cranberries annually.

"The cranberry industry has become very important to Bala," says Johnston. "Next to tourism, it’s the biggest industry by far."

During the season, which runs for about four weeks starting in late September, Bala’s cranberry industry attracts thousands of visitors to the area.

In Canada, cranberries are grown in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and British Colombia. But about 80 percent of the Canadian crop is grown on the Fraser Delta, near Vancouver.

Tart smarts

Why have cranberries become so popular in recent years? "Aside from their unique flavour, cranberries have plenty of medicinal purposes," explains Johnston. In addition to being rich in vitamins C, A, and B, cranberry juice has been recognized by the American Medical Association as effective in the treatment and prevention of urinary tract infections.

According to the Cranberry Institute (cranberryinstitute.org), research has shown that cranberries contain proanthocyanidins (PACs) that can prevent the adhesion of certain types of bacteria to the urinary tract wall (including E. coli, associated with urinary tract infections).

The anti-adhesion properties of cranberries may also inhibit the bacteria associated with gum disease and stomach ulcers. Recent research shows that cranberries and cranberry products contain significant amounts of antioxidants and other phytonutrients that may help protect against heart disease, cancer and other diseases.

"The health benefits have really pushed the market and created a huge demand for cranberry products," says Johnston.

However, all this interest isn't new. Cranberries were highly sought after 300 years ago. Cranberries are one of North America’s few indigenous fruits and First Nations used cranberries for food, dye and medicine. They quickly became a staple for European settlers. In fact, they were so important to the Pilgrims in Massachusetts that laws were passed to protect them. Settlers thought the delicate cranberry blossom resembled the head of a crane, hence, the name “craneberry” which evolved into cranberry.

Put a cork in it

But interest in this crimson fruit goes beyond health and wellness. About 10 years ago, Johnston’s Cranberry Marsh decided to open Muskoka Lakes Winery (tel: 705-762-3203; cranberry.ca). Crafting wine from local fruit, the winery offers quality wines ranging from sweet to dry. Their flagship cranberry wine has a crisp, tart and fruity flavour. It makes the perfect pairing to turkey, ham or even venison.

The award-winning winery sells about 5000 cases per year. The wines are available online, at the shop or at select liquor stores. Despite the bevy of new ways to enjoy cranberries, Johnston’s favourite way to eat the fruit is still straight off the vine. "Eating them raw isn’t for everybody," he says with a smile. "It’s definitely an acquired taste, just like fine Scotch."

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