Cranberries

 

Agnes deLanvallei March ‘05

 

I wrote this article and it was published in Rolling Scone (SCA cooking periodical) some years ago (perhaps in the early 1990’s).  This is a slight revision and I update it with more current information as I get a chance.  Suggestions welcomed.

 

Were Cranberries Known and Eaten in Europe in the Middle Ages?

 

To establish that cranberries can be used in recreating Medieval European cooking, I show here that 1) there are European cranberries, 2) that they were probably used by people in Europe in the Middle Ages and 3) European cranberries are suitably represented by commercial cranberries.

 

1.     Europe has cranberries.

 

The common name “cranberry” is applied to several plant species that are grouped together in the genus Vaccinium, plants of the heath family Ericaceae (Hendrickson 1981).  Vaccinium contains many low-growing shrubs with edible berries, native to cool areas around the world.  Blueberries, (Vaccinium myrtillus) are the most familiar of the numerous species with blue fruits.  Cranberries are another branch off the genus, producing red fruits.  People in all climates where cranberries grow, including Europe, eat them. (Examplesof red-fruited  Vaccinium species eaten by locals include species that you can only get in particular locations, for example at the hotel in the town of Volcano on the big island of Hawai’i (Vaccinium calycinum) (St. John 1973) or in the Caribbean highlands (Vaccinium meridonales) (Adams 1972). European and North American examples are discussed below (Harrison, Masefield and Wallis, 1973)).

 

               Yet, everybody knows that cranberries are “The All-American Fruit” and a quick scan of books entitled “cranberries” in my city and university libraries reinforced that: there was no mention of Europe at all (e.g. Ocean Spray 1980).  The problem is with the name and with the success of an American species of Vaccinium.

 

The word “cranberry” was coined by American colonists, based on the Dutch kranbeere, literally “crane-berries. (Ocean Spray 1980; Hendrickson 1981; Simpson and Weiner 1989).  They applied it to any edible red-berried Vaccinium species they saw. In the eastern U.S., that was mostly Vaccinium macrocarpon, the true or American cranberry, but included also V. oxycoccos, the northern or small cranberry.  As colonists spread across the U.S., they added V. erythrocarpum, the southern cranberry, found in the mountains of Virginia, and V. quadripetalum, the Indian cranberry, of the Pacific Northwest (Henrickson 1981).  Of these, V. macrocarpon has far the biggest fruit and so became the most important.  It was quickly exported to Europe. According to the Oxford English dictionary, the name first appears in 1686 and “it began to be applied in the 18th C to British species” (Simpson and Weiner 1989 p. 1112), replacing earlier English names.  “Cranberries” will never be found in authentic Medieval references because the name is post-Medieval.

 

               Most commercial cranberry production uses the American species V. macrocarpon and that species has been exported to Europe and is a minor commercial crop there (e.g. Polunin 1972; Hendrickson 1981).  However, Europe shares some species of Vaccinium with North America including those to which the name cranberry is applied by modern Europeans.  Vaccinium oxycoccos, the northern cranberry, has a circumboreal distribution: it is native to cool areas in North America, Europe and Asia.  In Europe, it is found in England, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia and probably cooler or higher areas of central Europe (Hansen 1920; Harms 1967; Polunin 1972; Toman and Felix 1974).  This cranberry can be gathered in boggy areas of the northern United States, reaching as close to Calontir as Minnesota and Wisconsin (Fernald 1970).  European flower books currently call it simply ‘cranberry’ (Harms 1968; Blamey and Grey-Wilson 1989; Readers Digest Association 1989).

 

               In addition to Vaccinium oxycoccos, Europe has another common edible red-fruited Vaccinium species, V. vitis-idaea, most commonly called the cowberry in English, but also the mountain cranberry (Harrison, Masefield and Wallis, 1973). This is the lingonberry of Sweden (Hendrickson 1981).  Vaccinium vitis-idaea has a broader ecological range than V. oxycoccos and is a staple of modern Swedish cooking.  To a modern person, the cowberry is a berry that only the sort of people who can distinguish between German and Roman chamomile are going to distinguish from cranberries.  Local people in England, especially where northern cranberries don’t grow, call cowberries cranberries (Simpson and Weiner 1989). 

 

2.      Mountain Cranberries and Cowberries (red-fruited species of Vaccinium) were eaten in the Middle Ages.

 

               This is the weakest link in my argument.  I can show pre-Medieval use, modern use and quote vague quotes about “eating wild berries”.  So far I have not found a cookbook or archaeological reference that unambiguously establishes consumption of V. oxycoccos or V. vitis-idaea beween 600 and 1600 in Europe.

 

Pre-Middle Ages:  Remnants of “cranberry wine” were found in Bronze Age birch buckets in a grave in Denmark (Sheltelig, Falk and Gordon 1937).  Brass caldrons found at another site in Denmark from about 200 A.D. were analyzed to show they had contained “wine made from barley, cranberries, and bog myrtle” (Shetelig, Falk and Gordon 1937 p. 313).  There is no clarification of “cranberry” but it is most likely V. oxycoccos, as discussed above.

 

What Plant are They Talking About?  Finding references to document the use of cranberries is hampered by confusion of names for plants, in English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Russian, etc.  Modern writers tend to say “cranberries” (as in the quote above) and leave it at that.  From the dregs of an 1800 year old bucket, it seems likely that they may even be guessing whether its cranberries or bilberries (a blue-fruited Vaccinium species). (Modern DNA techniques could probably resolve this but these studies are from before that technology). Again, only botanists and good countryfolk distinguish between the red-fruited Vaccinium species.

 

               Since the name cranberry is not Medieval, and the Linnean system of Latin names of plants is also modern, it is difficult to know what name V. oxycoccos (northern cranberry) would have in Medieval sources.  In English, the Oxford English Dictionary states that 16th and 17th century herbalists knew the European cranberry, V. oxycoccos as “fen-berries”, “fen-whorts”, “marsh-berries”, “marsh-whorts”  or “moss-berries” (Simpson and Weiner, 1989).  “Cowberry” is also a relatively recent name, Vaccinium vitis-idaea having been previously called red whortleberries, as far as I can determine (Simpson and Weiner 1989).  (The whortleberry is the European blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), variously known as hurtleberries, wortles, whortles, whirtleberrries and other spellings). I could find no entry for bogberries, moss-berries marsh-worts etc. in the Middle English Dictionary, and it hasn’t reached the “w’s” where whortleberries would be expected. (Surely this can be updated now-A.)

 

               As seen in dictionaries, the Swedish language has a distinct term for cowberries (V. vitis-idaea), that is lingonberries (lingonbar) (Molde 1955).  In Norwegian, however, cowberries are tyttebaer and V. oxycoccos are cranberries (tranebaer) or bogberrries (myrtryte) (Brynildwen 1917; Bjerke and Soraas. 1963).  Vaccinium oxycoccos is also tranbar in Swedish (Molde 1955) but there may be other synonyms.  Lingonberries have a variety of other Swedish common names (Ekvall, 1990).

 

               The problem of recognizing what plant the speaker refers to is well-illustrated in modern Scandinavian cookbooks.  One cookbook made the following changes:  the 1968 edition’s “cranberry jam” changed to “red whortleberry jam” in the revised edition (1972) and “scrambled cowberries” became “stirred red whortleberries”. (Sverdrup 1968, 1972).  The latter is clearly V. vitis-idaea but what plant is the former?

 

               A search of Russian recipes might be fruitful, but it is beyond my ability to read the Cyrillic alphabet.  Russia certainly has both V. oxycoccos and V. vitis-idaea and Soviet scientists in the early 1980’s published a number of papers about developing a commercial industry using their native cowberries and cranberries.

 

Cranberries in the Middle Ages.  Just as in the modern literature, finding V. oxycoccos and V. vitis-idaea in the Medieval literature requires knowning what plant is meant by the word you find.  Use of cowberries is generally clear (Harrison Masefield and Wallis 1973; Wilson 1974; Simpson and Weiner 1989). I was trying to specifically show the use of V. oxycoccos, the Northern cranberry, unconfused with other species, and that eludes me.

              

               Beyond nomenclatural confusion, since both cowberries and northern cranberries were gathered not cultivated, they are less-mentioned in Medieval sources. Gathered fruit are under-described in existing cookbooks from the Middle Ages.  I searched Sacs (1973) Hieatt and Butler (1976) and  Renfrow (1991) as well as giving a quick check to Fettiplace and a translation of the Goodman of Paris, without picking up cranberries, cowberries, bogberries, or fen berries or any other synonym. They also make little mention of other wild berries (haws, brambles, currants, gooseberries) that one might gather rather than raise.  Perhaps they are not mentioned because it was too obvious that if you had a bumper crop of an edible berry, it should be turned into juice, jelly or wine, perhaps because they were too unreliable as foods to waste book-space on.  On the other hand, cranberries don’t grow in the warmer, drier parts of Europe and any authors from those areas would be unlikely to know of them (e.g. Gunther 1934; O’Hanlon 1981).  Secondary sources list some of the wild berries used:  bramble, bilberries, cloud berries, raspberries, from Medieval Scotland, bilberries and barberries in England, but no recognizable statement of cranberries or cowberries (Steven 1985; Wilson 1974).

 

Post-Medieval References: It is relatively easy to find recipes for “red berries” where no species at all is specified, in modern Scandinavian and not-quite-old-enough English sources.

 

               The Reader’s Digest Field Guide writes: “Cranberry. Vaccinium oxycoccos: In her autobiographical Journal of Our Life in the Highlands, Queen Victoria described with relish a dinner at Balmoral Castle that ended ‘with a good tart f cranberries’  For centuries the fruit of this little bog plant with its distinctive sharp flavor, has been prized in Britain for filling pies, as jam, and in the form of cranberry sauce, as an accompaniment to roast venison and turkey. The cranberry had a variety of names including marsh-whort, fen-berry and moss-berry” (Readers Digest Library, 1989, p. 217)

 

               If one had cranberries, it would seem likely that they would have been used.  All the modern plant books carefully note that cranberries and cowberries (lingonberries) are edible (Hansen 1930; Harms 1967; Polunin 1972; Toman and Felix 1974; Blamey and Grey-Wilson 1989; Readers Digest Library 1989).

 

               Proving the consumption of cranberries may be more difficult than with some fruits because their tartness gives them more restricted use as foods.  In modern times they are chiefly found as sauces or, sweetened, in beverages.  Consider how much more versatile the less tart blueberries are.  Modern Norwegian recipes for ptarmigan (an arctic bird) to “serve with cranberry relish and browned potatoes” (Sverdrup 1968) and Swedish pancakes with lingonberry cream (Asselin 1970) suggest traditional Scandinavian cooking used cranberries much like we do, as does the Victorian quote above. Infrequent mention may reflect the narrowness of the way they were used.  However, they are also a delicacy in Swedish cooking:  I know of no Medieval Swedish cookbooks, but I would expect to find a lingonberry recipe there.

 

               A major use was probably in brewing.  The two archaeological references are for cranberry wine.  Brewing is an effective way to use a fruit that is not particularly tasty by itself or to preserve a perishable food.  Furthermore, modern sources comment on the use of cranberries in brewing, to color beer red (Usher, 1974).  

              

               For northern Europeans, cranberries and cowberries were there, were edible, were eaten by their ancestors and are eaten now.  It seems likely they were eaten in the Middle Ages.

 

3. Modern Commercial Cranberries are an acceptable substitute for Medieveal European “cranberries” (both northern cranberries and cowberries) 

 

               If you gather northern cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccos) in the wild in Wisconsin, there is no question you would have an authentic Medieval fruit.

 

               In buying and eating commercial cranberries, we are using the American cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, a plant not known in Medieval Europe.  However, using commercial cranberries should be acceptable in the Society for Creative Anachronism:  Vaccinium macrocarpon is not the same thing eaten in the Middle Ages but neither are most modern foods.  Modern strawberries are a hybrid of two strawberry species not known in the Middle Ages and bred to be very large, but we use commercial strawberries in the Society.  Apples, lettuce, carrots etc. as found in grocery stores are different from those raised in the Middle Ages.  It is traditional Society usage to allow very close relatives to be substituted freely, especially where the common name is identical and the biology is all mixed up.  By that tradition, since “cranberry” is broadly applied to edible red-fruited Vaccinium species, commercial cranberries can be used in the Society to recreate medieval uses of the plant.

 

(Which is not to say it wouldn’t be great fun to experiment with northern cranberries…)

 

Literature Cited

 

Adams, C.D. 1972.  Flowering plants of Jamaica. University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.

 

Asselin, E.D. 1970 Scandinavian cookbook. Charles E. Tuttle, Co.  Publishers, Rutland, VA.

 

Bjerke, L. and H. Soraas. 1963. Engelsk-Norsk Ordbok. H. Aschedhoug and Co., Oslo.

 

Blamey, M. and C. Grey-Wilson. 1989.  The illustrated flora of Britain and northern Europe. British Museum, London.

 

Brynildsen, J. 1917. Nordsk-Engelsk Ortbog. H. Aschhoug, Innc. Kristiana.

 

Ekvall, U. 1990. Gotlandska vaxtnamn. Almqvist and Wiksell, International, Stockholm.

 

Fernald, M. L. 1970 Gray’s manual of botany. 8th ed. D. Van Nostrand Co., New York.

 

Gunther, Robert T, editor. 1934. The Greek herbal of Dioscorides.  Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.  {written approximately 64 AD, “illustrated by a Byzantine A.D. 512. Englished by John Goodyer A.D. 1655”]

 

Hansen, H. M. 1930. Studies on the vegetation of Iceland. J. Frimodt, Publisher, Copenhagen.

 

Harms, G. 1967. The natural history of Europe. Paul Hamlyn, Middlesex.

 

Harrison, S.G., G. B. Masefield and M. Wallis. 1973. Oxford book of food plants. Oxford University Press, London.

 

Henrickson, R. 1981. The berry book. Doubleday and Co., Inc., New York

 

Hieatt, C.B. and S. Butler. 1976. Pleyne delight. U. Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada.

 

Molde, B. (ed.) 1955. Illustrerad Svensk Ordbok. Natur och Kultur. Stockholm.

 

O’Hanlon, David P.  1981. Macer’s Virtue of Herbs. Hemkunt Press, Delhi.

 

Polunin, O. 1972. The concise wildflowers of Europe.  Oxford University Press, London.

 

Renfrow, C. 1991. Take 1000 eggs or more. C. Renfrow. No location given.

 

Sacs, L. J. 1973. To the king’s taste. The Metropolitan Museum of New York, New York, NY.

 

St. John, H. 1973.  List and summary of the flowering plants of the Hawaiian islands. Cathay Press, Ltd. Lawai, HI

 

Shetelig, H., H. Falk and E. V. Gordon. 1937. Scandinavian archaeology. Oxford University Press, London.

 

Simpson, J. A. and E.S.C. Weiner, 1989. Oxford English dictionary.  2nd ed. Oxford University Press, London.

 

Steven, M. 1985. The good Scots diet. Aberdeen U. Press, Aberdeen, Scotland.

 

Sverdrup, E. 1968. Norway’s delight. Dishes and specialities. Johann Grund and Tanum Forlag, Oslo 6th ed.

 

Sverdrup, E. 1972. Norway’s delight. Dishes and specialities. Johann Grund and Tanum Forlag, Oslo 6th rev ed.

 

Toman, J. and J. Felix. 1974. A field guide tin color to the plants and animals.  Tr. M. Schierlova and O. Vojtisek. Octopus Books, Prague.

 

Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc. 1980.  101 all-time favorite cranberry recipes.  Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., Hanson MA.

 

Reader’s Digest Library. 1989.  Field guide to wildflowers of Britain.  Reader’s Digest Association, Ltd., London.

 

Usher, G. 1974. A dictionary of plants used by man. Constable, London.

 

Wilson, A.C. 1974. Food and drink in Britain. Constable and Co., Inc. London.

 

 

 

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