Thursday, August 4, 2011

Foraging for Wild Berries

A day spent foraging in the woods for food can be a real nightmare. I've had those days, where you start out thinking what a beautiful day to collect nature's bounty! You head out, basket in hand, and within minutes you are soaked through either with sweat or with rain from a freak midsummer monsoon. You're covered in bug bites, your head aches from dehydration. Ick, right?

My most recent exhibition into the surrounding fields proved to be just the opposite. It seems like I had grown so used to the miserable foraging experience that I truly didn't know such a wonderful and pleasant day could exist!

I left for the horse farm, which backs up to more than 80 acres of deciduous and coniferous woods, wetland and open meadow, shortly after seven in the morning. I'd never foraged at the farm before, simply because it's where I work, and as I'm always working when I'm there I tend to associate it with a certain level of responsibility and routine. Still, once I headed out into the woods with my baskets I found myself free of all of those feelings of obligation. These are places that have may have been cattle fields many years ago but have been reclaimed by mother nature in more recent times. Apart from the places that we ride the horses there are no trails except those of the deer and cottontail. There are no indications of direction apart from the sun and the direction of the wind.

I took Connor and Basil with me and they had a great time romping with each other, snapping at flies and chasing red squirrels up trees. The trail was dotted with an incredibly diverse array of ripe berries. There were the rich and juicy wild blackberries nestled beside the small unhappy end of the black raspberry crop. There were draping tendrils of dewberries that tickled some intangible memory of my grandfather in the back of my mind. There were even a few bizarre blackberry-like plants that made me think maybe they were a sort of wild Loganberry, a raspberry/blackberry cross.

Most prized to me were of course the hardest to spot and the most vicious to defend themselves. Wild Gooseberries! They may be silly looking, with viciously sharp thorns not only on the branches of the shrub but on the berries themselves. These tart little berries pack a major pectin punch, and I was able to forage a few (responsible) handfuls to use as a natural source of pectin in the wild berry jam I was planning. I admit I also took a couple careful cuttings to try to root so that I can try to grow them out back in the old orchard at my home.

The following day, I carefully and lovingly combined my berries with local honey and a bit of organic cane sugar to create a simple and wild-tasting blackberry jam. I haven't actually tasted this since it set, but I admit I slipped many a quick teaspoon of it into my mouth as I waited patiently for it to set. It has a flavor that speaks of the four hours I spent picking. It has depth and musk and a sort of expansive taste, rather than tasting specifically identifiable as blackberry. It tastes like a cool, misty summer morning of foraging.

When I get around to tasting the final product I promise I will post the recipe. The jars are just so small and so few that I'm hesitant to crack them this early in the season! I hope you understand.

Have you ever foraged for berries? Which varieties? Does it feel like something foraged is more or less dear to you?


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