Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Maryjane’s Kitchen: The Thing about Berries

When I am not writing, wildcrafting or gardening, I am out of control in the kitchen. I mean, it is necessary to preserve, create and celebrate the abundance of the harvest. In addition to caring for and being a part of nature’s wild process; craziness in the kitchen is the point.

A beloved aspect of my fresh fruit and vegetable creations emerge in the berry picking season, resulting in a limitless array of jams, syrups, desserts and wine. Leaves and roots are harvested for teas – a major element of my wildcraft.

However, the vital, culinary expression of my work is an explosion of creativity and it’s all about my time in the kitchen. Mmmm…sweet.

So far this year, my primary jam focus has been on variations of blueberries and black raspberries (last year was the year of the peaches as well). I delight in the process of infusing mint into the preserves during the last step; before putting on the lids and covers. Not all of them.

How? Into the cooked jam, I insert a small sprig of mint with two or three leaves intact, and the oils are infused with the fruit from the high heat. Then I submerge the jars into the canning bath for processing. With the exception of elderberry, I have done this with rosehips and each type of berry that I use for jam making; it has proven to be worthy of desire.

I don’t cook and prepare everything that I harvest into a major work of art; I also freeze fresh berries to enjoy throughout the winter for various baking projects and mostly to add to cereal, oatmeal, yogurt and pancakes. The latter a heavenly breakfast served with last season’s pure, sweet maple syrup, compliments of the stately maples in residence. Blueberries are my favorite berry for freezing, not only for the flavor but for the abundant health benefits laced with vitamins and antioxidants.

In addition to both the high and low bush blueberries that grace hillsides, over grown fields and pastures and mountains; I enjoy a profusion of blueberries that grow wild on small, uninhabited islands in some of my favorite ‘non-touristy’ lakes. When my kids were growing up, we used to pick blueberries on a peninsula at “camp” every summer and then return home to indulge in unlimited deliciousness.

One spot in particular is quite magical; it’s a secret place that I named Otter Island (for obvious reasons). I used to canoe out to the island in the morning and pick sweet blueberries without having to disembark from the canoe. Of course this was the summer of living in the wild, lakeside, on a pristine wildlife sanctuary. The only modern convenience was a radio. This daily expedition to Otter Island was one of my favorite pastimes, which makes me a little gloomy because my canoe was stolen last summer and I have not yet replaced it.

Wild strawberries also have a way of weaving ancient traditions – hunter / gatherer – into the present. Their season is early summer. I spend a great deal of time amongst swarms of black flies, mosquitoes and wood ticks while harvesting leaves for tea. It is worth the unpleasantness of being in their midst; one learns to adapt. And the berries were mostly an onsite, refreshing treat; not something that I was able to gather in vast quantities for batches of anything other-worldly in my kitchen. Some years are better than others for this. I did have enough now and then for embellishment and a few scrumptious desserts. They are smaller and by far sweeter than domestic or commercially grown strawberries. They are real in every sense.

I am not certain why the black raspberries were so abundant here this season. I spoke with the berry man down the road and he complained that his black raspberry crop was scarce. He and I are not similar. The berries here are completely wild and organic. While his berries look beautiful and grow like crazy, he uses commercial fertilizers and I couldn’t get him to come clean about pesticides. I did mention it as we were engaged in the art of intelligent, polite conversation. I judge not. However, I am vigilant about my commitment to organics and support that way of being.

Something else that goes with berries and not to be overlooked is fresh rhubarb. I make my grandmother’s (the other MaryJane’s) strawberry rhubarb jam and pies. This mélange of sweet and tart was one of my father’s favorites. By frequently cutting rhubarb, staying in line with its growth; the plant will continue to flourish. If you let it go to seed; you’re done for the season.

In the past, I have had great success with elderberries, again using different parts of the plant for various medicinal purposes in both tea and tinctures. The berries are most famous for wine, which I have not made yet and am not leaning in that direction (I am hopelessly in love with dandelion wine). I have made elderberry jam, which was unique and flavorful but I am uncertain if I will do that again right away. I am more interested in the medicinal properties at this time.

There are many elderberry trees on the property that have yielded a good crop until this season. I am still learning about the effects of the weather, which has been a bit severe and less consistent than usual. There is also the probability that there have been more animals and birds consuming the berries. Each season is filled with lessons as well as potential.

Tomorrow is a blackberry day. I will check to see if they are perfect for plucking and if it is time, will fill my baskets.

In the meantime I continue to preserve everything from the vegetable garden, staying aligned with the harvest and the souls of all who came before me. I celebrate a plethora of vegetables through creations that will delight all and in the depths of winter, summon the taste, brilliance and greenness of past seasons.

The thing about berries is that their sweetness is never ending. From stalk to leaf, flower to fruit, plucking to basket and then into the ultimate palatable creation or simply in solitary; it remains a miracle in itself. Paradise reclaimed.
Journal: Bittersweet

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