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Posts Tagged ‘wineberries’

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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In every story worth telling there comes a point when the narrative plateaus, and in order to advance the story to a new place a Something needs to happen. Sometimes the Something shows up as a whisper, sometimes as a Steinway to the head. Either way, it’s guaranteed to move things along; and with any luck, bring the story to a right and happy conclusion.

Narrative #1.

Last summer Matt, an awesome pastry chef I’ve worked with, told me he picks wild raspberries in a park nearby. And he was kind of nonchalant about it, like it wasn’t a big deal. I said something along the lines of ‘cool,’ and didn’t exactly rush out there. I figured he cleaned out the couple of raspberry canes he found, and either way, how would I find them in a 787-acre park? I didn’t know how he found them. At their thorny wrath, maybe.

Yesterday while parking my car I noticed the wineberry canes (a cousin to raspberries) I found last summer, and was reminded of the conversation I’d had with Matt about raspberries. I drove out to the park, thinking if I found them, I found them.

You might say I found them. 787 acres though there may be, 785 of them were prickly with raspberry canes. I’m serious—pretty much everything that wasn’t trees or skunk cabbage was a raspberry cane. I’ve never seen anything like it. Along the road. Deep into the woods along a scrabbly trail*. Even organized over a trellis. That’s why Matt was so casual about it. All of Monmouth County could pick them and have enough to sprinkle on their Frosted Mini-Wheats for a week. But this is one of those times when I’m glad John Q. Public tends toward the clueless, because I have big plans for when the fruit shows up this summer.

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See you in July.

As a bonus, I also came across four very old apple trees in blossom. Can’t wait to see what kind they are. I’ll be back for those in October.

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With four baskets.

Next narrative, and again it starts in the summer—many summers ago, actually.

I grew up at the beach, and the lagoon at the northernmost end of our beach was my favorite spot. It was sort of like a sunken living room, encircled with enormous rocks and containing powder-fine grey sand. My sister and I and our friends would play and hang out and dig for sand crabs there. People harvested mussels there, too, piling them up in pickle buckets to take home. It was a soothing and generous sanctuary.

Last summer it was announced that the lagoon would be filled in with sand as part of a massive beach replenishment project. Its intent was to hold back the ocean a few hundred feet and reduce the stress of the people who owned oceanfront property.

I cried the way I would for a death, because it was, as well as a 40-million-dollar waste. It’s sand, people. It moves. Filling in the lagoon destroyed ecosystems and ruined surfing along this part of the shore, and for what? It’s all going to wash back out to sea anyway.

Which is why I stopped crying, but it doesn’t mean I’m ready to go see the what the bulldozers have wrought. They filled in the lagoon a week ago, and since then I’ve taken my walks in the opposite direction, to the lake. Our public works guys cut back a lot of the overgrowth along the banks and I was hoping they didn’t take out the wild mint. They did, but no worries—it did what mint does: grow. Here it is, all new and tender and dark green.

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And coming soon to a tabbouleh near you.

That cheered me up a lot, seeing it so healthy and happy. Nature always wins.

So there we have it, a wineberry whisper and a lagoon Steinway, two Somethings that advanced my story and brought me straight to raspberries and mint (and hey—apples, too!). I’m stoked.

And I’m posting a shot of the lagoon—not as it is now, but the way it was, and the way it will be again. I can wait. And I’m not worried.

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*I cannot resist a scrabbly trail. The kind four white-tailed deer know about and no one else. Once I almost got lost in a Polynesian jungle because of this weirdo idiosyncrasy of mine. And brother, if you think everything looked alike in the park I’m talking about above, go hiking in the heart of Mo’orea sometime. Everything—trees, plants, the trail itself—is the same otherworldly green. And the deeper you go into the jungle, the darker it gets.

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Wild persimmons, Navesink, NJ.

Last week I tossed my stepladder in the car and headed out to pick more persimmons in the woods, and right about now you’re all wondering if I ever actually pay for anything I pick, aren’t you? Between the mulberries and wineberries and peppermint and beach plums and quinces and—wow, it really has been a banner year for wild pickings.* The answer is yes; I pay when I pick at my favorite farm, and will from time to time pick n’ pay at an orchard. But the thrill of the hunt that many get from Black Friday I get from what I spot driving down the road or taking a walk. Two plusses on my end: 1) No wallet necessary, and 2) no one’s squalling in line with me. Three, actually: 3) I never have to wrap what I find and stick on a bow, either.

The fruit above was spotted by my friend Lauren, who was picnicking with her kids in a beautiful wood that is also shared by a cemetery. She sent me a photo and asked what it was. I knew they were persimmons, but these didn’t match the shape of either Hachiya or Fuyu, common Japanese varieties. They were as small as cherry tomatoes. A Google search proved it: they’re wild ‘uns. SCORE.

I climbed the hill looking for them and saw there were two trees, right next to each other. I pulled a fruit down and popped it in my mouth. The flesh was slippery and musky sweet. It was a frigid day, but I picked about 20—as many as dinky me on that dinky stepladder** could without also freezing my fingers off.

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Baked Laurie Colwin’s cake as a worthy persimmon vehicle and mushed them up as a topping. Didn’t need to add a speck of sugar to them.

We move on to Thanksgiving Day, when most people are cooking, eating, convalescing comfortably as they watch football, or squalling comfortably in line per above. Most are not teetering on a stepladder in the countryside, cursing first one’s own lack of height and then the stepladder’s. I wanted to pick from the only Fuyu I knew of in all of New Jersey, the place was deserted just as I’d hoped, and I was too low to the ground to pick even one. Cheers!

No, wait! Just as I did my first futile reach, out of freaking nowhere, a guy ambled up the hill right toward me. I called out, ‘I’m five foot three.’ He answered, ‘I’m five foot ten.’ As good a greeting as any, especially when he insisted on getting a couple of fruits down for me afterward. The holiday of thanks was redeemed, and was made even more touching when he didn’t ask if I’d had any kind of tree-raiding permission. Keep your roaring fires and pashmina throws from Nordstrom—that was bloody cozy right there.

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Fuyus, almost a lost cause, deep in the heart of Navesink.

I forgot to tell you the wild persimmons at top were quite pit-ty, but unless I did something wrong, the Fuyus were totally pit-free. They are much bigger, too, and look like a red-orange tomato. I learned that you just pull off the top, dig in with a spoon, scoop all of the goo out, and eat straight up.***

I winged it this morning—made a parfait for breakfast. You can do it too if you raid a local tree, or more respectably a local supermarket:

-Take leftover homemade ricotta mixed with a little granulated sugar

-Add two layers of the inside of a persimmon

-Sprinkle a little ground cardamom on the whole shebang

The Fuyu persimmon tastes a little like its cousin the wild persimmon, but is much mellower–like a very, very, very ripe apricot. Again, no sugar at all was necessary to add to the fruit.

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And you can’t beat the price.

*Wait till next year.

**Santa, please give me a couple of extra inches in height or a small, collapsible ladder. While you’re at it, generously disregard how much of that Endangered Species 72% dark chocolate with blueberries I ate yesterday. Thanks a bunch.

***A handy note about me: I didn’t grow up eating persimmons. I don’t know anyone who did, actually. I tasted one from a store many years ago and remembered it was good, but not much else. I just knew them when I saw them in the rolling hills, and figured everything else out afterward. This is a big part of the appeal.

You can also eat the Fuyu variety crisp, like an apple, but that’s earlier in the season. I needed to wait until the location was cleared out, like, say, on Thanksgiving. You understand.

 

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