Wednesday, September 15, 2010

From the Diary of a Berry Hound (or Jam Junkie if you prefer)

It's foggy this morning. It's also really quiet in Bamfield now - the summer season has ended, the sports fishermen have all gone, the wandering tourists have all found their way back home & it's now time for the locals to re-emerge & re-engage with one another.

I emerged from the berry bushes a little early this year. I had to - there was no more room in my berry freezer & with the meat freezer packed to the top with tuna & salmon & the fridge freezer on the fritz, I had no where to store what I consider to be a rather great year for berries. Right now, the bears are agreeing with me, so it's actually rather a smart idea to have stopped so soon - walking through a bramble patch with a bucket full of berries strapped to your butt is a sure-fire way to get a bear's attention. Been there - done that - ain't happening again!

Anyway - the maniac berry-picker that I am, decided the first week of September would be a great time to start emptying the berry freezer & make my 'yearly' supply of jams & jellies. What an event...

Mind you, I sell most of my product to the community & tourists, but this year, we didn't have an art gallery in town, so my stock has piled up & is now waiting for the Christmas Craft Fair in November.

What did I make this year?

Some of the first berries available are thimbleberries - a local, wild shrub that grows along the roadsides.

The jam is almost like raspberry jam, but with a sweeter flavour & a bit of tang. There are lots of little seeds, but they are much smaller than those found in raspberries & are hardly noticeable.

The 'red berries' are the first to ripen up around here: salmon berry (not worth picking because of the watery flavour & I let the birds eat those ones in the hopes they'll ignore the others...yeah, right...), thimbleberries, red currants, & red elderberries (which the birds ate before they ripened this year because there are so many birds that have returned to the area - nice to see & I'm glad I picked so many last year that were buried in the bottom of the berry freezer). The red huckleberries, raspberries & loganberries take a while longer to ripen up & are considered a mid-summer fruit (late summer & into fall if the weather is nice).

I made rose hip jelly last year - at the request of a few people for sentimental reasons, but the stuff never set, so I was left with a few boxes of rose hip syrup. I'm not picking them this year - well, maybe a bag or two as I like to dry the hips for tea... Anyway, the syrup is amazing on pancakes - tangy & sweet & loaded with vitamin C. It's also great in sauces for pork dishes. Wish more people would experiment with this item as I do like it so.

The red elderberry jelly has finally set after a couple of weeks - I almost freaked out the day after I made it all - almost 3 dozen jars - because it hadn't set. I have run into the problem of some of my jellies being rock-hard - an issue when you try to spread it on toast. So I've been playing around with the amount of water I use to cook the fruit in at the juicing stage (I don't use juicers - cooking the elderberries is a necessary step in order to make them edible) & then again at the jelly making stage. I was concerned when they didn't set up right away that I had added too much water, but am glad to see that it can now be labelled 'jelly' - this flavour is also one I quite enjoy.

The loganberry patch - I finally got cuttings planted last year so I didn't have to mooch off the neighbours - provided enough for a couple of batches & the raspberries - thankfully everbearing ones that allow me to pick into the late days of October - survived the grazing of the deer to provide me with a few batches. There is a difference in flavour between the 2 - subtle, mind you with the loganberry having a bit more of (what I call) a floral flavour. It really depends on what variety of loganberry you have growing. Some taste more like blackberries (& turn an almost black colour when fully ripe), others are more like raspberries & the ones I have are nothing like that. I tend to pick them a day or 2 before they are fully ripe - more for convenience than anything & if it's not too hot in the house, will let then sit on the counter overnight to fully ripen. Just a few more for me than for the birds.

Next come the 'black berries' - or darker coloured berries - my favourite. Black currants, salal berries, blackberries (all types out here: thornless, thorny, very thorny & the wild trailing blackberry), blueberries (wild & domestic varieties) & evergreen huckleberries.

Salal berries are such an interesting wild shrub-like plant - many consider it to be invasive & battle with it's creeping growth on a constant basis. The leaves are tough, leathery & stay green year-round. You will actually see the leaves in floral arrangements & there is a large salal leaf harvest all along the coast specficially for the floral industry. The berries take their time ripening up - the harvest takes place over the last half of August & into September - again, depending on the weather & how hungry the birds & bears are. I snap the berry stalk off the plant & freeze them in grocery bags. When I'm ready to juice them up (I recommend jelly instead of jam because they are quite mealy with large seeds & the jelly is like silk - as long as the recipe doesn't result in rock-hard jelly. Again - been there, done that.) - so to juice them up, I take the bag out of the freezer & hit it with a rolling pin to snap the berries off the stalks. This way, the stalks can be picked out of the bag by the handful & then the berries are thrown into a large pot, just barely covered with water & cooked til they change colour. I have a great jelly bag system that I then throw the mush into & let it sit on the counter while I gather the supplies for a session of jelly making.

Here I've made 'some' salal jelly (and I have more juice waiting in the freezer for a free day to finish it all off...) & I've also made up some strawberry-rhubarb-red elderberry jam. Now this stuff is tangy & tart & a special treat as the rhubarb harvest some years is low & I refuse to grow my own strawberries (due to them taking over my garden & not giving me any fruit...)

Next on my list came the blackberries - finally a year in which they were prolific & not hard little bullets. With so many varieties to choose from, it's not difficult finding enough for jam & then reserving some for syrups or to add to red wine vinegar for a winter berry vinegar to use in salad dressings. Earlier this summer, I made the decision NOT to make any berry wines this year - take a year off & clean out the pantry of all the wine making supplies. Feels a bit like spring cleaning!

I also made a 'black & blue' jam - didn't actually have enough blueberries to make a separate batch & with the addition of a smidge of Mexican vanilla, it's quite devine!

This has been the year of self-discovery as well. One of those revelations came during that week of turning into a Mad Jammer - I actually do not eat very much of my own jam & jellies. Why then do I feel compelled to pick so much?? I have a twisted opinion that it's wasting food when I see people's berry bushes loaded down with ripe fruit that isn't being picked. Sure, the birds are eating a fair amount & sooner or later, the bear will come along & sit on the bush to eat the rest (& thus destroy a productive plant), but if you plant something, you should be responsible to tending to it & harvesting it. Out here, there are so many wild fruits available, that's it not really necessary to cultivate too much in your own gardens & I almost hyper-ventilate when I see people missing out on such bounty growing right on their doorsteps.

Obsessive-compulsive - I think so. The other thing is that I prefer tart-tangy-savory fruit spreads, which I rarely make in large quantity. Yes, I'm a marmalade girl... One of the best jams (actually called sauce because it didn't set fully) was a cherry-sage blend I made last fall. I think I've managed to hide one or 2 jars away somewhere which will be converted into the most amazing pork tenderloin sauce during the gray days of winter.


Michelle said...

Hi Michelle,
This is my first comment here. I am a garden/homesteading blog fan & so have found my way to your blog.
Also a fan of berries & just learning jams since the raspberries here have had their first good production year. That is an impressive amount & assortment of jams you've made!
Besides jam, we use berries a lot for fruit sauce to have on pancakes.
I have to ask about the red elderberries, I use the black for syrup, but was told by several herbalists to stay away from the red. Might you have a different sort of red elderberry up your way?

Michelle's Green Thumb said...

Hi Michelle
The red elderberry we have along the Pacific Coast is: Sambucus racemosa sub species pubens varient/variety arborescens. They were historically a very important food source for the First Nations along the coast. They are practically inedible when raw - causes nausea & stomach cramps. The stems, bark, leaves & roots (especially in fresh plants) are slightly toxic due to cyanide-producing glycosides. (all this information comes from my wild plant 'Bible': Plants of Coastal British Columbia by Pojar & Mackinnon)

But I love them made into a jelly (or sauce if it doesn't set). I pluck the whole cluster of berries off the bush - usually gathering a grocery bag or so at a time. I then very methodically remove just the fruit - no little stem bits left on the berries - which are not very much larger than the size of a large pin head. A royal pain, but if the harvest is sufficient, I don't have to pick them every year.

I cook the berries with enough water to cover them in a large pot & cook them til the berries change colour - maybe longer if I forget about them (so anywhere from 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours) & then pour it all into a moist jelly bag hung over my 2nd large pot. I do notice that there is natural oils - they float to the top at the end of the straining procedure. It smells kinda funny & is yellow. I try to remove as much of that as possible before processing the juice further (either making the jelly right away or freezing it for later). A few pieces of paper towel do the trick quite nicely for removing the oil.

I've not had any issues with eating the jelly - used mainly in pork tenderloin sauces or mixed into yogurt. Nor have I heard any comments from my community 'jam junkies' about eating too much of it. It's actually too tart to eat a full jar at one time!! ;)

I prefer black elderberries (& black currants) but have yet to invest in them. The red elderberries grow wild & are free for the harvesting - as long as I beat the pigeons & doves to them!

Hope this helps - what sort of wild fruit shrubs grow your way that you harvest?

Michelle said...

Also interesting in your berry posts is how many berries you can locate!

We have blackberry's, raspberries & blueberries here on the acre.

We do go to Blueberry Hill to pick blueberries in bulk for freezing.

In the wild, I am just learning, having found elderberries & wild woods blue berries this summer.
I identified an elderberry bush in my neighbors yard this summer, til then, neither of us knew it was there. He was quite interested & later reported to me that he'd found more berries in a nearby woods. I hiked down to the place where he sent me & found poke. We were all hoping it was an abundance of elderberries as we are looking forward to enough syrup to last all winter for 8 people!

very interesting on the red elderberry, thanks for telling about it!