Raspberries are in and I find myself wishing, just briefly, that I had a larger piece of land on which to garden. This happens three times a year: during asparagus season, the beginning of potato season, and now, when the berries are actually in.
What I really want is what my friend George had down in Connecticut: a berry house. Loosely constructed of rough-hewn timbers with a door on hinges, the walls and roof were cloaked with chicken wire stretched tight like a skin. Once you entered the berry house, there were varieties of raspberry canes, blue berries, currants, gooseberries, wind and air, sun and best of all no pests. No meandering bunnies to nip the tender blueberry bush shoots as they did in our (fenced in) yard in Middlebury, no wandering cocker spaniels to strip the berries off the lower shoots (yes, I have seen this) and most important, no birds.
The berry house also conveniently contained my active three-year-old, Charles, who came along to pick and eat, and visit with George’s parrot, aptly named “Bird,” while I picked berries for jam-making and freezing (“Bird” eventually got nabbed by a raptor while perched on a chair in the garden).
What is it about heading out on a summer’s day to pick fruit with young children? Is it the chance to help a child connect with where their food comes from? Or is it simply the opportunity for the children to wander and imagine, eating a bit here and there, while their parents meditatively gather something both beautiful and delicious?
Believe it or not, Charles and I dragged his new brother Angus at the tender age of three days to a raspberry patch, where we tucked him into the shade of a set of canes under mosquito netting (and I confess I felt a bit of primitive pride at my ability to hunt and gather, cubs in tow, so soon after delivering a child).
Several years later, weekly July excursions found the three of us with other mothers and children in the wild blueberry fields in Goshen above Blue Berry Hill, or gathering raspberries at Douglas Orchards, where, unlike in Connecticut, the fruit was paid for by the honor system. Up on Blueberry Hill, the kids romped and rolled, played hide and seek, (or Star Wars), picked and ate. Very few berries ended up in their baskets, even though every child had one. Meanwhile, those of us picking solved the problems of the world, enjoyed the mountain views and the air and the warmth, knowing the berries would reappear in jam, muffins or pancakes come winter.
Since we don’t grow our own, our family wanders far in search of berries: across meadows in Maine for blueberries and cranberries, sometimes even wild strawberries; through blackberry brambles along the banks of Otter Creek or Wright Park; into blueberry thickets in Montana, where we have competed with bears (actually we let them have the fruit — no contest); to friends’ private patches when they go out of town (with permission, of course); and then into the many berry farms in Addison and Chittenden counties, Champlain Orchard in particular this summer. This is all somewhat ironic since as a child I hated picking berries. Worse than weeding, berry picking was not only boring it was dangerous to someone with an overactive imagination. High on Canaan Mountain, where my mother dragged us, every rustle in the bushes, every flicker of bird winging by or movement in the grass meant either a bear or a rattlesnake.
In honor of what I consider to be the most fragrant, tangy and delicate berry of them all, the raspberry, I did a little research. It turns out that raspberries are not berries at all. Blueberries are true berries, while raspberries, and other fruits that grow on canes (caneberries) are known as composite fruits: multiple fruits set in one flower receptacle. This explains the number of seeds. Each little segment of a raspberry is actually a tiny fruit with a stone inside it, like a very tiny plum. Tiny surface hairs hold the fruitlets together (apparently the inspiration behind the concept for Velcro!).
Caneberries are in the genus Rubus, a member of the rose family (which makes sense if you look at their tiny blossoms), and were cultivated starting around the year 1500. Many hybrids have been created: boysenberries, loganberries and cloudberries. If you are interested in the science and history of food and cooking, I highly recommend the book “On Food and Cooking, The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee, my resource on the history and chemistry of berries. For the cultivation and care of raspberry canes, if you are lucky enough to have the space for a patch, I suggest Barbara Damrosch’s “The Garden Primer” as a resource, or ask my garden column colleague Judy Stevens.
This year, I have made two jam discoveries, the first by accident.
In an overzealous burst of early morning energy, I picked through six cups of raspberries, and then macerated them, mashing the fruit and mixing in sugar (1 cup of berries to 3/4 cups of sugar), when I realized I needed to get to work and did not have time to make jam. So I left the fruit and sugar mixture to sit for the day, and made the jam in the cool of the evening, which turned out to be the most fragrant batch of jam I’ve ever made.
For some reason, you need less sugar when the fruit macerates so slowly, and the flavors are far more intense. Then I read that Amanda Hesser makes her jam this way so it has now become my jam-making system. I prepare berries and macerate them either in the morning for jamming at night when it is cooler, or in the evening for jamming the following morning.
The second discovery is that it is worthwhile to remove raspberry seeds. This is a bit of a hassle, but what you are left with is sublime.
Wash and pick over berries removing twigs, and green or bruised fruit. Crush the berries. For every cup of prepared berries, stir in 3/4 cups of sugar and 1 teaspoon of lemon juice. Let sit in large pot overnight — or all day, if you prepared the berries in the morning.
Bring fruit and sugar slowly to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon, and simmer gently over medium heat. If there is foam, skim it off. I do not boil jams rapidly, because eventually it reaches the right consistency and I do not like it when it sticks to the bottom of the pan. The jam will reach the right consistency sometime between 20 and 40 minutes later. Ladle the hot jam into sterilized half pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch of headroom, and cap with two-piece screwband lids that are firmly tightened. Process in boiling water for 10 minutes.
If you wish to remove the seeds, add some water to the macerated fruit and bring to a boil. Then strain the heated fruit through a fine sieve. Continue to process as above.
Raspberry Blueberry Jam
I follow the above recipe for raspberry jam, but substitute blueberries for half of the raspberries and I do not remove the raspberry seeds. This jam can’t be made every year as naturally it depends on when the various berries are ripe. It is a beautiful rich purple color, and the taste is less sweet than raspberry jam. Since blueberries contain more natural pectin than raspberries, it cooks more quickly.
This delicious recipe marries the tartness of lemon and orange with the sweetness of raisins, and the perfume of fresh blueberries. It is best to make the conserve as soon after picking the berries as possible.
Remove the outer rind of one organic lemon and one organic orange in as thin a layer as possible and chop it up finely. Then remove the pulp, taking care to avoid any of the white rind, throwing away any seeds.
Add 5 cups of sugar to 3 cups of water, and bring to a boil, then add the orange and lemon rind, the orange and lemon pulp and 1/2-cup of seedless raisins. Then add 6 cups of blueberries (that you have stemmed and washed). Cook over moderate heat, stirring frequently to prevent scorching and sticking.
When thickened, ladle into sterilized half pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch of headroom and process in boiling water for 10 minutes.
Freezing of Blueberries
Blueberries freeze well. I pick them over carefully to remove twigs, leaves and stems, and then place them on a cookie sheet and flash freeze them. When completely frozen, I put them in Ziploc bags. These can be used in muffins, pancakes, a middle-of-the-winter blueberry pie, or crumble.
After years of my husband vowing he would only use a hand-crank ice cream machine — and therefore we never made ice cream — we forged ahead this summer and bought an ice cream maker whose barrel lives in the freezer. If you want to make ice cream, sorbet or frozen yogurt, you simply prepare the liquid, place it in the barrel, which rotates electronically, and 25 minutes later, you have a fresh, frozen dessert.
For raspberry sorbet, first prepare a syrup with 1 cup of sugar, 2/3-cup of water, and 2 tablespoons corn syrup, boiled briefly and set aside. Puree 2 pounds of fresh raspberries, and strain through a food mill to remove most of the seeds. Combine the syrup and the fruit in a blender. Pour into the barrel of the ice cream maker and rotate for 25-30 minutes. Serve with fresh mint.