Food from the Hedgerow

Wineberries ripening

It rained all through last night and today – something we haven’t had in a long time. The creek which had become so low I could not hear it from the house (but unlike last year, it has not dried out completely – at least not yet) is singing again. So of course, I did not weed the upper vegetable garden which already was a jungle (I know that when I am able to get to it, I will need a machete). Instead of weeding, I did paperwork and admin stuff and data entry and writing and all those other things that kept me indoor.

Still… I was keeping out an appreciative ear for the rain on the metal roof. Such a nice rain too, slow with an occasional shower and no wind. Oh how is the garden liking this! (me too, at least right then, no need to water). All of that to say that by mid-afternoon I was getting pretty restless. Yeah, I know all that other stuff needs to be done, especially when one is running a small business and trying to keep things under control. Nonetheless, I was getting restless. So when the weather let up for a while, I went wild berry picking. Since I was going to freeze them and cook them right away, it did not matter that they were wet from the rain.

Wild berry picking is a little expedition.

First, you get the berry baskets: they are not too big (about a quart) because you don’t want the bottom berries to get all squashed and 4 of them fit within a much bigger basket with a large comfortable handle.

Then you get the picking basket, which has no “proper” handle but two ear-like small handles that you use to loop the basket on your belt, leaving both your hands free. Even better, if you put your belt on loose enough, the basket nestles against your tummy giving you extra protection from thorny branches in front as you push – or attempt to push – your way through the brambles, and does not spill out even as you bend down. Trust me, it’s pretty bad to spill your basket of berries after you spent a sweaty and thorny hour picking it.

And you want to dress appropriately. Long sturdy pants to protect from thorns? Check!

Boots against mud, poison ivy and snakes? On!

A dab of citronella insect repellent balm behind the ears, on the wrists and at the hair line.

Walking stick? Got it! (it comes very handy to pull, push or lift thorny branches out of the way or closer without having to touch them. Also to beat the long grass to warn off the aforementioned snakes … and the bear).

Gloves? Check (probably won’t need them, but let’s take them anyway).

Scissors, bandana for the hair… I think that’s it.

Oh, no! Once more thing: need the whistle to make some noise should you encounter a bear.

Now, we can go.

The results of a few hours of wild berry pickingBerry picking – especially wild berries which grow in thorny thickets and not in cultivated rows and over a nice sturdy trellis – is WORK. Today, I came back with two scant quarts for an hour of work. Last week I come back sweaty, scratched and with 1 gallon or so of berries (4 quarts) after more than two hours. Today I picked wine berries – season is almost over – and blackberries – several weeks to go.

So… if you wonder why berries seem so expensive, you should try to go and pick them yourselves and will get a much better appreciation of their price!

That’s not to say there were not a number of deep simple pleasures at the same time. The moist warm air was exaggerating the powers of the wild scents: the sweetly clean fragrance of pink bouncing bets, the sharp minty smell of trampled horse mint, the aroma of over ripe berries, the muskiness of rotting vegetation, the heady pervasive scent of the odd basswood flower. .. It was also satisfying to see the vegetation so much lusher than last year, when, at that same time, trees were already shutting down and shedding leaves to survive. This year, I could see that the unripe pawpaws were already larger than they were last September and that persimmons should crop heavily. I’ll be back in August for the pawpaws and in November for the persimmons. And for more blackberries of course over the course of the next few weeks. Free local food … yours for the taking. Need to work at it but no cash needed.

Both wineberries and blackberries freeze easily for winter cobbler, sauce, smoothies. I froze several bags of them, after a quick wash to rid them of debris and insects. I toss some with a little sugar for a sweet/tart simple dessert: that’s how we ended our meal tonight, with a little cream on top. Basically, you can use wineberries in any recipe that calls for raspberries – delicious in tartelettes for example. And wild blackberry make a wonderful sorbet, sharply tasting … wild, much more distinctive than cultivated blackberries.

Recipe another day, though.

(Updated: August 2, 2008. Find the Recipe for Wild Blackberry Sorbet here.)

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