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Cranberry sauce is the classic Thanksgiving condiment, and Thanksgiving is the quintessential American holiday. That’s why, during a recent reporting trip to China, I was surprised when I heard about man living in a remote corner of the country who makes and sells his own artisanal cranberry sauce.
I had to find this guy and try the sauce for myself.
His place was not easy to get to. I took a flight to Heilongjiang province, roughly 1,000 miles north of Beijing. From Jagdaqi airport, it was about another hour’s journey to a one-level concrete house in the country owned by a man named Jin Peng.
Jin, who is about 40 years old, is the owner of Willow's, a tiny artisanal food company with about five employees, that does most of its sales online. Around 2011, Jin and his wife left their jobs in Beijing to become what he calls "food craftsmen," making and selling small-batch products from produce they forage in the wild.
Among his best sellers, he said, is a sauce made from wild cranberries. This intrigued me, since I thought that cranberries were only grown in the U.S., Canada and Chile. I told him that I had no idea cranberries grew wild in China and asked if I could see the place where he harvests them.
Together, Jin and I jumped in his van and drove deeper into the mountains in the direction of the Russian border. After a few hours on the road, we pulled over, got out of the car and began pushing into the forest. As we entered, we were immediately swarmed by a cloud of mosquitoes. Eventually, we reached a thicket of thigh-high shrubs.
During harvest season, Jin said, these bushes are so full of ripe berries that your shoes become stained with red juice as you walk. And although there were no berries that day, because the harvest was still a several months away, Jin assured me that we could see the cranberries back at the farm.
A few hours later, when we had returned to Jin’s house, a syrupy red liquid bubbled away inside a large clay pot. A couple of his employees were cooking up a fresh batch of cranberry sauce made from last year’s harvest. I asked to see the raw berries, so Jin went to a freezer and pulled out what looked like a bag of tiny red marbles.
That’s when something seemed off.
While the taste was tart like a cranberry, these berries were smaller and rounder than those I'd seen in Massachusetts. I did a quick internet search on my phone, and that is when I realized that the base of Jin's sauce, the fruit I'd traveled 1,000 miles across China to taste, was not a cranberry at all.
It was a lingonberry.
I brought this to Jin's attention, and to my surprise, he said that yes, he knew these were lingonberries. Years ago, when he and his wife first started making the sauce, they sold it as lingonberry sauce.
"Later, we found out that people don’t know what lingonberries are," Jin said. "So we thought we might say they are cranberries, and then everyone understands."
His business, he said, was no doubt the beneficiary of the cranberry's increasing popularity among Chinese consumers in recent years.
So in the end, I did not find Chinese cranberry sauce. I did, however, bring some cranberry sauce from Massachusetts for Jin to try — the jellied kind in the can, of course.
After tasting the Ocean Spray version, Jin was less than impressed.
"The fruit flavor is ... bland," he said, adding that it tasted "mass produced ... like KFC or McDonald's."
By contrast, Jin said, his lingonberry sauce tastes fresh, so fresh that you can practically taste the mountains in it. Having tried it myself, I have to agree that it is quite good.
And although it wasn't cranberry sauce, it would probably still go well with turkey.
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