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Posts Tagged ‘blackberries’

Even in lean times, there are harvests to be found. I’m making sure my eyes are open to all the harvests I can possibly find; it’s the best way I know to keep my spirits up. Spring weather here in New Jersey has been uncommonly beautiful, with just enough rain yielding to sun to make plants happy.

Wild mint is going haywire, not that mint needs an excuse to be anything else. Every weekend I pick a handful of stems, plunk them in a glass of water, steep a handful of torn leaves in a Mason jar of filtered water in the refrigerator, and sip it all day.

Yesterday I found blackberry brambles woven into the tennis court fence by the lake and in the hedges surrounding a local church that dates back to 1903. I’ve walked past these places hundreds of times in my life, and am so grateful to find bounty, happy surprises, where I’d never seen them before.

Thought I’d need to relinquish picking strawberries at my favorite farm this year, not keen to court disaster by handling plants with Joe Q. Public’s fingers all over them, but went for it … and put them in a hot oven briefly afterward to destroy any sneaky C-19s.

And my beloved honeysuckle is blooming. I made a simple syrup and added flowers to it to infuse it, then made custard and stirred some in. My strawberry pie got a little sweeter, but we need a bit of extra sweetness now.

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Does everyone have a white whale? Something we’ve looked for all our lives, or it definitely seems it? And on wildly rare occasions we find it, but most often we end up like Ishmael — living to tell the tale, but that’s it?

I think I may have found mine. I’ll know in a few weeks.

It started with a hot tip.

When I told my friend Sandy that I forage for Concord grapes, he gave me a memory: During gym class he and his high school classmates would run along the treeline behind the school and snack on grapes that grew there. This was back in the ’60s, but I sometimes I see shows at this school and know that treeline still exists, because the road to the theater runs parallel to it. Last week I took a half vacation day and drove out there. Concords aren’t ripe until late summer, but the vines stick around. I’d be able to identify those.

The back of this property is far off the road. Besides the homeowners on the other side of the fence and stream, who weren’t around, and the school groundskeeper, who idly waved and kept mowing, I was alone. Ideal.

The vines were still there, after 50+ years. And they’re easier to access than my usual beloved spot. This is good, because as nature (and the ticks and vicious wild rose canes therein) swallows up more of the path every year, picking Concords there will soon require me to wear clothes that cover every inch of bare skin. It’s not a thought to relish in late August, so I welcome a Plan B.

This recon mission would have gotten an A+ if the grapevines were all I found. But next came the crabapple tree and cousins.

(Just a quick aside to let you know I am not a science wonk, let alone a botanist, by any remote stretch of the imagination. Do you need an example? Here you go: In college I studied my butt off in bio, but could not coerce the data into my grey cells if I’d had a crowbar. I expected to flunk. When I learned I had been awarded a D- for the semester, I was elated. At least I wouldn’t have to take the stupid course again. That’s how crap I am at science.

So why, with empirical non-prowess under my belt, do I notice that mulberry trees and elderflowers virtually always grow near water? And why did I realize last week when I saw members of the Rose family growing together that they often enough tend to?)

First I spotted an ancient crabapple tree. Then it was wineberry canes (which fruit in July and are profoundly tart. Imagine a raspberry after it ate half a bag of Sour Patch Kids, watched the remake of “Cats,” and suffered the inevitable existential crisis). Then it was wild rose canes, which might be flowers and nothing more, or might be wild raspberries, or blackberries. Either way, giant family reunion. They’re all Roses.

And so is the little white whale, the shyest member of this family reunion. I looked down in the shade and thought it was a stray blossom blown down from the crabapple or rose canes; they all feature a similar flower. Then I saw the serrated triple leaves and just stared.

For years upon years I have been hoping to come across fraise des bois, aka woodland strawberries, aka Alpine strawberries. Powerfully, intensely sweet — called a delicacy and deserving it — and far better known in Europe. I don’t know if it’s because there are more there or because we no longer have a foraging culture here in the U.S. and just don’t notice them. But I’ve never come across a wild strawberry during my hunts, beyond yet another Rose cousin, the wild strawberries that begin with a tiny yellow flower and produce a tiny bland fruit.

Woodland strawberries begin with a white flower. And I’ve never seen nor tasted a sweet one until, maybe, fingers crossed, if the deer don’t get them first, inside a month from when I write this.

You’re picturing me parking next to them with a sleeping bag, like I’m on line for Stones tickets, aren’t you? You’re not crazy.

A few weeks ago I read an interview with a guy who lives most of his life as a hermit. He said the best way to get through monotony, as we do now during the pandemic, is to find something you can track. Foragers never stop tracking — seasons, rain, sun, groundskeepers. Strawberries fruit in late spring, Memorial Day at the very earliest. This was a cold spring. But June is on the horizon.

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This time of year I spend a lot of time under blackberry canes. It’s not hard, since the ones at my favorite farm tower over my head. And unless you count the bees*, I always seem to have the spot to myself. An hour or so will go by as I pull off ripe berries, letting ones that aren’t ripe stay on the cane a little longer. This experience, like paddling a canoe or hiking, chills down the old bp and helps me to clear my head. When that happens I end up making connections that I wasn’t able to make before. Which is cool.

There’s an awful lot of clutter in the world right now, a lot of noise, a lot of BS to cut through. When we’re able to narrow down What Matters, it’s a blessing. Just to sit in a truth is a blessing. And for what it’s worth, here’s what I learned this week under the canes:

Berries that are ready for you will practically drop off the cane. They only need the slightest coaxing.

Berries that aren’t ready will fight you. They hang on. And even if you’re able to yank them down it won’t have done any good because they’re too firm and tart. Let them be, because they’re not worth the effort.

Working toward something that you know will bring a good outcome is useful and rewarding—worth all it takes. Working too hard, swimming against the tide, having to fight just to fight, all for something that doesn’t want to be won—this is not worth it.

Easiest and sweetest is what *wants* to fall into your hand.

*Tip: When picking berries, go where the bees go. They know which are ripest. Just remember to defer. I’ve been surprised before by a bee, and have had to say, as graciously as I could muster, ‘I beg your pardon. Enjoy your berry.’

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When I was a kid, the jobs that required unusual patience were given to me, for better or worse. My sister Amanda will remember that I took over the Easter bread dough every year at the very end of the process, when it needed cup after cup of flour kneaded into it until the dough was smooth and elastic. It’s tempting to add it in a heap and get on with your life, but then you end up with a mucky, sticky, dusty mess. It has to be done slowly.

Then there was melon-balling for our Fourth of July barbecue. I’d work the flesh out of half of a watermelon the size of an ottoman and add it to honeydew and blueberries to make fruit salad. Then the whole shebang would go back into the watermelon half. This took a while, and there was no way to cut a corner.

Along with not rushing the processes we can control, I wait for seasonal produce. I know I’m an exception. But I maintain that waiting all winter means a kaboom of true green flavor when you bite into that first stalk of roasted asparagus, greenness that gets right in the face of all of the cold and mud and ice and grit you’ve endured for months. It tells you, without question, it’s OVER.

Waiting means strawberries that are so ripe that they stain my fingers red when I pick them, and taste like sunbeams. It means the immense joy of a warm, slightly soft, utterly ripe heirloom tomato; a freshly picked apple that cracks audibly when you bite into it; and the mellow richness of a Lumina pumpkin, chosen from a wagon 32 steps away from the vine where it snoozed in the sun all summer. (Mario Batali got almost misty when he described the flavor of fresh fall produce: “You can taste that the ground has changed.” I can’t do better.) Our ancestors had no choice but to wait for what grew, and reaped the benefits of waiting. They knew from flavor.

There’s an art to holding out for something until it’s ready. Bite into a peach that’s gorgeous and hard as a rock and you’ll get a mouth full of nothing. A blackberry that’s glossy and firm guarantees you an almost painful tartness. A ripe berry will fall off into your palm with the gentlest tug. Forcing it means it’s not ready and not worth the lack of flavor.

Sometimes fruits and vegetables look (to our persnickety, Madison-Avenued eyes) their worst when they’re the most delicious and ripest. Passion fruits are ready when they’re half shriveled. One of my readers, a retired Southern farm wife, swears by the exceptional flavor of summer squash that’s covered in blemishes and warts. And fresh figs—they’re hardly worth eating if they’re not cracked and oozing.

You won’t find produce in stores looking like this, because consumers have grown detached from what food looks like when it’s ripe, and won’t buy it. Seek it out at farms, farmers’ markets, and orchards if you can’t score some off your neighbors who have a fig tree.

There’s an art to waiting for edibles and for non-edibles, for the things we can control (a little or a lot) and the things we can’t. And while I have been credited with having great patience…full disclosure, it ain’t always easy. Sometimes the art fails me. Sometimes it’s bloody hard.

This helps: I think back to a couple of weeks ago when I took a walk along the lake and found two or three patches of wild mint. It’s growing in profusion, because mint can hardly grow any other way. No one planted it. The universe deemed the time and place right, so up it came, and healthy as the day is long, too. If I tasted it in March, it wouldn’t have the bite and sweetness it grew into under the sun and rain all of these months. Mint, like all growing things, is ready when it’s ready. It’s a reminder that I can work for the things I can control, but everything else will come in time, the way it’s supposed to. That’s a comfort. And I couldn’t stop it if I tried.

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Blackberry blossom.

Picked blackberries last week. The plants (canes, they’re called) are long and trailing, and are trained to grow in rows across strong cables. This forms a kind of cavern of blackberry canes.

Most visitors to the farm go for the front-and-center fruit, which makes sense. It’s pretty. It’s right there. It’s an easy get. But experience has taught me that the berries on the outside of the cavern tend to be too tart. You’ll occasionally find ripe berries shimmering in the sunshine. But the tenderest and sweetest ones are not usually outside. They’re inside.

Out of the glare of the sunlight, it’s surprisingly dark in there. I have to lift the cumbersome canes even to see inside. And this is an organic farm, so it’s not like it’s just berries living inside. Many’s the time I will be about to pick a berry only to see a fruit fly on it. (Somehow he manages to look thoroughly irked, even when I say, ‘I beg your pardon. Enjoy your berry.’) There are spiders and their webs. Dragonflies, which can pinch. I get tired and sweaty and sore, contorting into odd positions to reach. A cane will slip and knock my hat over my eyes, or smack me across the face. I’ll lose my footing as I reach in, and slip. Luckily I tend to be alone when I pick, which is good, so people don’t tend to see me emerge with purple stains all over me like a virulent tropical rash and with a fistful of leaves in my mouth.

I do it because the berries inside, in the dark, with the spiders, are better. They’ve had longer to ripen because no one sees them. Because no one’s looking. I do it because they’re bigger, often twice the size of the berries in the sunshine. I do it because they’re sweeter and mellower. Invariably. Yes, sometimes I get bit; yes, sometimes I fall; yes, sometimes the berries are so overripe that they fall apart in my hands. But enough don’t. I do it because it’s worth it.

The good stuff is underneath. Every time I pick blackberries or peaches or whatever I’m picking I think of this, but last week it hit me especially profoundly—one, because we lost Robin Williams to the ravages of depression, and two, because I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a lot of friends recently about stuff that’s bugging them, stuff that you can’t tell by looking at them because they’re so good at keeping it under wraps.

And curiously—or heck, maybe it’s not actually a stretch at all—I’m finding that among the most expressive, the most brilliant (on the outside) in my own circle there is often great sensitivity (inside). They knock me out with their talent and charm, all of them. That’s the topside world that they show, and it really does shimmer in the sunshine.

But I’m lucky that after a while they trust me enough that they want to show the bottom-side world inside—the sweetness, the whole 3D person. I’ll lift the canes and come into the dark with them. Get cobwebs in my hair. I don’t mind. It’s nourishing. I have fallen, to be sure, sometimes when I get into the messy stuff with friends. I have run out of energy. I’ve had friendships fall apart in my hands. But I never wanted a life that was too sanitary. I’m shooting for sweetness.

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One of my college roommates is an army wife, the kind whose husband gets stationed in Iraq for over a year, leaving the onus of running the house, the three children and the three pets in it (and oh, yes, herself) pretty much on her shoulders. But this heroine still insisted on making her daughter a birthday cake, and used her favorite family recipe.

Her great-great grandmother’s recipe, to be exact. (I did the math.* This cake goes back to a time when anything but a tricorn hat was death on the red carpet). It’s easy to make. And the result is a tender, powerfully vanilla-y cake with a crumb that manages to be hearty and delicate at the same time.

There it is above with some of the mulberries from the tree outside my balcony. But this cake is versatile!

-It can be split, filled, and frosted with butter cream for a birthday.

-It can be topped with ice cream and hot fudge, or powdered sugar or creme fraiche.

-Or it can be sliced warm, unceremoniously plopped into the bottom of a bowl, and topped with yogurt or creme anglaise along with any manner of fruit. Here we are the top of August: choose something that’s ripe and ready now. Peaches. Plums. Blackberries. Raspberries. Blueberries. The cake will slurp up any sweet liquid and make it luscious.

1 1/2 c granulated sugar

1/2 c unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs (lightly beaten)

2 c all-purpose flour

1 c milk

1 tbsp. baking powder

2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

A pinch salt (my addition)

Set oven to 375. Grease two 8″ cake pans. (Use springforms if you have them, or shanghai them from a friend; they have removable bottoms and make it easier to take the cakes out.)

In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs. In a smaller bowl, combine flour with baking powder. Add to butter mixture, alternating with milk. Add extract and mix until combined. Bake for 25 minutes until golden and a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean.

Enjoy…and thanks, Beth 🙂

*I’m crap at it, but I did it.

 

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This is the time of year when my uncle’s cherry tree would be starting to sprinkle its petals like powdered sugar over the yard. The tree wasn’t a tidy, perfect, Martha Stewart-esque magazine deal. You’ve seen those, the kind that are practically sparkling in some verdant pasture. This was planted a few yards from the tree house, next to the driveway, and almost hidden among other shrubs and trees. But those cherries—sour ones—made the best pies and cobblers I’d ever tasted.

Once my uncle lost interest in harvesting them, some ten years ago, he’d let us go over with a ladder to get them down before the birds or rain got to them. The pie above is reminiscent of the tree itself—not perfect—but like so many things in life, it was galaxies better than perfect.

A few years ago my uncle sold the house he and my aunt and cousins had lived in since the early 60s. The current owners must not have known what they had, because they took down the tree house and my uncle’s plantings and the tree with them. The yard is now tidy and prettified. But I remember it all, and can still taste those pies.

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Wildly gorgeous lilacs that still grow at the edge of the honey guy’s driveway.

Next stop on the sweet memory train is the above. I finally turned into the low gravel driveway one day to look around. What I found was an old man in an older building, in a small room lined with honey jars. He’d collected it all. The hives—weathered, seafoam-green wooden painted boxes—were stacked like lopsided sandwiches the end of the steeped gravel driveway. There were no decorations on the walls; it was plain shelving, the jars, and him. It might as well have been his garden shed.

And I never got his name, but haven’t forgotten his Steven-Wright delivery.  “This is the best,” he said, handing me a jar of blackberry honey. The local bees knew where to source the berries—there was a blackberry field just a few yards away. And the guy was right—that honey was impossibly spicy-fragrant with blackberries. “You’ll be back for more,” he said.

A month later I walked in and and he didn’t even say hello. Just looked at me and smirked, “Told you you’d be back for more.”

It’s now a women’s clothing store or some such nonsense, because there aren’t enough of those in the world while we can barely cross a Wegmans without tripping over jars of local blackberry honey, right?

Grr. And to further emphasize: Grrrrr.

Never had anything like that blackberry honey, before or since.

 

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Last stop is another regret, but thank goodness I had the foresight to take pictures before the owner ripped out his Christmas tree farm way off the road within an old-growth pine forest in order to build a cluster of houses with aluminum siding.

This place was a dream. A pine-soaked, wood-smoky dream. Your gloves and boots would be stuck with sap and pine needles and your coat would be dusted with the remains of funnel cake and then you got to take home a Christmas tree. The look and the feel and the smell of this place—I swear it was like Scandinavia or Iceland (wait–is it Iceland that’s covered with ice and Greenland that’s covered with green or the other way around? Crap.), not that I’ve ever been to either place. But that was the thing about it—you were there anyway. It was a dream. The particulars didn’t matter. That’s a picture of the view on the drive in to the center of it all, and the owners’ kids’ tree house overlooking the lake. Can you feel it?

They had a suckling pig twirling around on a spit. You’d pay for your tree at a cute little shed and the girl would give you loose apples to take home. And their hot chocolate was served in yet another cute little shed amid a bunch of others that sold greenery and the funnel cake. The hot chocolate was basic stuff, but it was creamy and hot and good; and the experience of drinking it just amplified the delicious sensory explosion going on around and above.

What are you still tasting?

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The past month was at once great (crewed two shows back to back and had a raging good time) and hellacious (less-than-enjoyable correspondence with my more-than-schmuck-like landlord). So, looking back at July, I’d sum it up with ‘tiring’.

There are those who, when tiring happens, get a seaweed wrap and later curl up on the futon with the remote and ‘Supernatural’.  And there are those who take naps to catch up on sleep and then regroup by digging in the dirt.*

Recently I saw the post on Silverton Farms’s (Toms River, NJ) Facebook page that customers were invited to dig for potatoes. My heart raced. I don’t know why I’m wired up like this, but I am. I couldn’t wait.

Elena, dauntless future farmer, handed me a plastic bucket and showed me where to look for russets. (That’s a dried brown potato stem in the pic above.) And after the woman picking blackberries** in the nearby patch had left, I had the area to myself.

The thing that surprised me most was how simple it was. I thought I’d be DIGGING digging. Instead, I more or less moved dirt around a bit and there the little guys were.

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Another young worker there, Christine, loves harvesting potatoes. She once grinned, ‘You get to dig like a dog.’ But for me it was like hunting for Easter eggs, and so surprising that I kept giggling. You keep finding them, you see. Some were the size of plums and others as small as hazelnuts. It’s a crack up. It’s hard to stop.

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I did stop once my fingernails were completely caked with dirt. Great feeling, but turns out the next part was almost as good a time as picking. Elena pointed across the yard to where I could wash my hands—not at a sink, but at a pump. Red, and positioned next to an ancient barn, like in a production of The Miracle Worker. ‘Pull down the handle and take off the hose before you wash,’ she said. And I thought I was low tech.

As I washed my hands and dried them on my jeans, Tom, who owns the place, ambled over. ‘Makes good drinking, too,’ he said. ‘Is this well water?’ ‘Yep!’

I leaned over and pulled down the handle a little too hard, half expecting to be blasted back across the Parkway, but I wasn’t. And the water really was fantastic—like drinking from a pond in the middle of the Appalachians.

When I got home I set the oven at 425 degrees F. Then I washed Toms River dirt off a few potatoes, cut them up, tossed them with olive oil, and set them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet to be oven baked. Here they are pre-chopping. The droplets look cool in shadow.

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I amuse easily.

Then I put them in the oven for 15 or so minutes, then tossed them a bit, then put them back in for another 15 or so. I like ’em pretty brown and toasty. They go on a plate and are sprinkled with kosher salt. Then, intensely creamy on the inside, some popping their skins as you bite into them, they’re eaten—quickly enough that I didn’t take a picture.

*Normal I ain’t. Oh, and then I watch Doctor Who.

**…while inexplicably wearing fancy little flats. I will never understand how women can go to a farm to pick produce and yet insist on looking like Grace Kelly from the ankle down.

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