One of the sweetest bounties of summer is berries. Even sweeter is the deal if you can pick your own. There is nothing better than fresh pie or cobbler made with fresh-picked fruit, that is provided that the fruit makes it out of the patch to go into dessert.
I remember going raspberry picking as a kid and, when we found a good patch, we thought we had hit gold. Being down on the farm in Indiana has brought back these special memories. Ron has numerous black raspberry bushes that grow wild along his woods. This year I was privileged to pick in his private “stash.” This is the same woods that were barren of mushrooms but has blessed us with a bounty of berries.
Picking these sweet treats certainly does have its rewards, but not without a price. First of all, they grow along the outer edges of woods and fence rows. The first berries you come to are juicy and sweet, but not half as much as those that grow behind and down under. Anyone who has ever gone berrying knows how thorny the bushes are too. To get the fruit of the vine you have to pay the price in cuts and scrapes, not to mention that they ripen in late June or early July when it is hot and humid.
I made an executive decision to go for cool instead of protection this year and wore capris instead of jeans to pick in. Between my scrapes from the thorns and my sunburn from mowing I looked like I had fought a grizzly and lost. But the sacrifice was well worth it.
Black raspberries usually grow in clusters of seven with the center one ripening first. As with any crop, the size and how juicy they are depends on the weather. Too little rain makes them smaller and seedier. Too much sun and heat and they tend to be dry and shriveled up. Consequently, the larger, juicier ones are usually the berries growing on the bottom and protected vines. The more willing you are to penetrate the woods, the greater the rewards are.
There is an art to the method of picking also. You want to handle the tender berries so as not to squash the juice out. The best way is cupping your hand under the cluster and gently twisting the berries until they fall off. Sound simple? Just like milking a cow, there is a knack to it.
Berries do not come without a price. Besides the thorns, there are other hazards too. First, you are invading every spider, mosquito and all other insects’ territory. Big bites on top of scrapes are always a given. Growing wild, all vines are not created equal, so quality control is very important. Regular taste testing is required. I perform this task so well that I can always count on a stomach ache by the end of the day. Then there is the perpetual “dump.” It matters not whether I trip over vines or am just plain clumsy, I usually manage to spill my bucket at least once per picking.
Black raspberries are, by far, my favorite although summer does offer a variety of sweet treats in berry form. Many folks often confuse black raspberries with blackberries and think they are the same fruit. Not so even though they both produce aggregate fruits comprised of many small, single-seeded drupelets held together with microscopic hairs. The drupelets form around the outside of a core, or raspberry. When they are picked, the cluster of drupelets that we call the raspberry slips off the rasp, leaving it behind. In blackberries, the receptacle breaks off where it connects to the stem and remains in the fruit. The blackberry has a soft white core inside and is not hollow like its cousin, the black raspberry.
Blueberries are an all-time summer favorite too. Their sweet, appealing flavor not only makes them welcome additions to cobblers, pies, pancakes and muffins but they were also the most popular antioxidant-packed fruit until the acai berries were discovered. Blueberries are still an economical source of cancer-fighting nutrients.
When I was a little girl, I remember a little old lady showing up about this time of year to my grandmother’s house bearing a basket full of the sweetest, juiciest berries that I had ever tasted. Meet the huckleberry, a rare treat indeed. Although they are in the same family as blueberries and cranberries, they are definitely in a class by themselves.
Small and round, they are similar in appearance to blueberries although their color may range from deep crimson to eggplant purple. Although similar tasting to their cousins, they have a distinct flavor all their own. The plants take a number of years to reach maturity and produce fruit so they are not adapted too well to commercial farming. Consequently, they tend to be a little pricey and are found mostly in the wild or at farmer’s markets.
Some of the other lessor popular berry varieties are also well worth a try. Among these are:
1. Dewberries. Often called wild blackberries even though they tend to ripen earlier. They grow on thorny vines that run along the ground and blackberries have bigger and fewer thorns.
2. Gooseberries. These can be either round or oval and grow in the wild. Related to currants, their colors vary from green, white, purple and red and they can be sweet or tart.
3. Mulberries. Nearly every farmer has a mulberry tree or two. These succulent berries range from red to purple in color and are usually harvested by shaking them off the tree onto a sheet. They make excellent pies.
4. Elderberries. Members of the honeysuckle family, they are a uniquely American fruit, familiar to the nation’s first inhabitants. Indians crafted tools from the branches of the elderberry tree. The tiny black berries yield an abundance of juice for their size. Only the blue variety is good for eating and requires cooking because the raw berries contain a cyanide-like chemical.
5. Acai berries. Discovered only a few years ago, acai berries have more antioxidants, 33 different types to be exact, than any other food on the planet. They are loaded with vitamins, minerals and even omega-3 fatty acids to boost heart health.
Down here in east central Indiana black raspberries are fairly abundant along old fence rows and edges of woods. In my neck of the woods in Michigan, not so much. No wonder I feel lucky to be privy to Ron’s abundant crop. We refer to them as "black gold." The best part is that they are free for the taking, with only a little time and effort invested you can have a very sweet treat.