8 September 2013

The Fruits of our Labour Day

The end of summer, that time when it feels more like a new year than New Year's does, puts us smack dab at the height of the best foraging of the year.  And if you don't believe me, ask any black bear. 

Clockwise from top left:  Feral apples,  wild blueberries, wild blackberries, feral red currants, wild beaked hazelnuts.  I swear, we only planned to pick blackberries.

We had a great dinner with some old friends recently, and like always with these friends, we had a fantastic time, a fantastic meal, and spent an extraordinary amount of that time talking about food.  I was surprised to find out that one of them carries some pretty big hesitancy around wild foods.  (You know those moments when you remember that not everyone has the same ideas and opinions that you do?  You're surprised but you shouldn't be.  Those moments that remove your philosophical bubble and give you some context of reality.  Yeah, that happened to me.)  She does make exceptions for familiar berries, so when we set out on our Labour Day trip to pick blackberries, we figured we should base a post on them so our friend doesn't think we only eat the dangerous sorts of foraged food.

Blackberries are one of the best trips we make every year, maybe because they aren't as abundant as other berries, it's that much more satisfying getting them.  It took us a couple of years after we moved here, but we did find a good blackberry spot, one you can actually drive up to: but it's never that simple, is it?  See, if you get on the trail a couple of kilometers east, there's a few other good pockets of blackberry along the way.  So we geared up for a slow afternoon of walking the decommissioned rail bed and picking en route.

Throughout Newfoundland, the bed of the decomissioned railway provides a trail network, both formally  and informally.  It's very walkable but if you are using it on foot, be aware that you are sharing it with ATVs, dirt bikes,  and the occassional pickup truck or even car.

So that single-minded mission of blackberry picking?  Well, since we were headed out and about anyway, we decided to start with a detour for a single-stop, quick trip down another section of the railway trail for a particularly special harvest.

Red Currants

We tried to be good citizens and share the feral currants with others, but when no one else harvested any, you betcha we went back for more.
Red currants don't actually grow wild here (skunk currants do, but I don't think we've stumbled on any as yet), but there's this fantastic red currant bush growing on the side of the trail on one of our regular dog-walking routes.  Undoubtedly, it's ended up there by an act of natural dispersal, or by being dumped in the ditch with a load of garden waste.  Every year we worry someone's going to dig it up and transplant it home, but so far that hasn't happened.  We picked a load of the early ripe berries a month ago, leaving a lot of berries behind because we wanted to share with other local walkers and with the birds and beasts, but time went on and no one else seemed to be using them.  And then they became fully ripe and the bush was filled with shiny translucent jewel-like berries, and we couldn't take walking past them anymore, thus, we started our Labour Day black berry trip with a pair of scissors and a colander to catch the berry clusters as they fell.


Right, well, it can't be helped.  As often as I promise Fefe Noir that I won't get sidetracked by blueberries on blackberry day, I just cannot.walk.past.them.  I mean really, could you?

Plump blueberries grow just about everywhere in Newfoundland.  There is nothing better than free berries.

Blueberries are everywhere in Newfoundland.  That might be a small exaggeration, but it's really nearly true.  Not only are they everywhere, but they're big for wild blueberries and they're so thick, the shrubs are weighed down by them.  

Where the trail runs parallel to a river, the river flats are filled
with giant blueberries, rosehips, juniper berries, raspberry
patches and, yes, even blackberries.
Both of us grew up in Ontario and spent summer trips up north ("up north" is a pretty vague place which, depending where you start from, could refer to anywhere in the northern two-thirds to three-quarters of the land surface).  We both have strong recollections of picking blueberries up north... dispatched with a margarine tub or a plastic toy bucket, accompanied by at least one parent and all the siblings, picking these blue treasures into containers that never seemed to fill.  Ku-plink, ku-plank, ku-plunk, just like Sal. The thing is, all hands on deck, sometimes an entire afternoon would produce only enough blueberries for a batch of muffins or pancakes for breakfast the next morning.  So, although Fefe Noir made a show of rolling her eyes at me she did, of course, humour me my compulsion.  In almost no time, we had about a quart of them picked.  Blueberries are Newfoundland's magic.


The wild blackberry is a precious fruit: patchy rather than abundant and soft so requiring careful picking.  But well worth it for that burst of rich acidic sweet flavour.
Despite the distractions, the blackberries were happily waiting exactly where we expected them, and it seems to be a good year.  We moved from patch to patch, scratched and pricked, fingers stained purple from the picking.  Occasionally I was seduced again by some particularly nice patch of blueberries (Fefe is much better at the steady blackberry pick than I am), but we amassed nearly 2 lbs of them, with enough unripe berries left behind to look forward to another harvest this fall.

As we were walking between the first and second blackberry patch, we were talking about Where'd You Go Bernadette, musing about blackberries, erosion, food and weeds, when suddenly Fefe stopped dead in her tracks and slowly lifted her arm to point ahead.

Feral Apples

We have a place we go to later in the fall, when the partridgeberries are ripe, for feral apples.  But a tree hosting these small but round and rosy, scab-free apples cannot be ignored.  Our foraging backpack always has a cloth bag in it for this sort of emergency, so we filled it up before continuing on.  Fefe bit fearlessly into one and pronounced them fit for eating raw.  I took a bite too, but thought maybe it needed some salt to counter the sour.  

(Which is a bit ironic, I suppose, since about half an hour previously we had walked past a grove of pin cherry, beautiful dark red berries.  I know they're edible, but not particularly palatable.  They're very ascerbic.  Anyway, when we were walking by, I'd said, "those are the ascerbic cherries" and promptly picked one and put it in my mouth.  I always think that initial profound taste of cherry will be worth the acid which immediately follows, but I'm wrong.  My mouth dried up immediately and my face stuck into a rigid pucker. I thought I got away with it, since Fefe was walking in front of me but she turned around and looked at me with disbelief.  "Really?" she asked, "did you eat one of those cherries AGAIN this year?")

Beaked Hazelnut

On the trip back to the car, we were a bit more casual about berry picking, mostly enjoying the view, when I suddenly nearly put my foot on one of the most unusual looking seed casings.  As I stopped, foot in mid-air, Fefe was already stood still, arm raised to point at it.  I shouted, "BEAKED HAZEL!" and put down my pack and the bag of apples, plucked the seed casing off the ground and opened it up to reveal a perfect hazelnut shell.  Funny enough, a couple days earlier, Hank Shaw had published a blog post on beaked hazel, which I'd read with deep jealousy since beaked hazel don't grow here.  So I thought.  So it turns out I was wrong.  In eleven years of stomping around the woods and bogs and barrens of Newfoundland, I'd never seen a beaked hazel.

In all of caribougrrl's excitement, she tore apart the first beaked hazel before Fefe Noir had a chance to photograph it, but this is another one found along the side of the trail, likely dropped by blue jay or red squirrel.
It had to have come from reasonably nearby, I figured.  I think I figured that, but perhaps Fefe Noir pointed it out but my mind was already in that single-mission state where I don't hear anything directly... so with complete disregard for anything or anyone else around me, I started to wander, fighting through thick shrubs, trying to remember where we'd seen that bunch of blue jays flitting around like they ruled the world.  Finally I looked up and there it was.  "BINGO!" I yelled.  Then I waited.

"Where are you?" 

"I need that empty bag from the pack!"  


Eventually I heard Fefe tell me to keep talking so she could find me... struggling along with all our stuff including 12 lbs of fruit.  Fortunately for you, she photodocumented her trip to find me.

From somewhere on the other side of this thick shrubby stuff, caribougrrl shouted that she found beaked hazel.

Fefe Noir had to ask caribougrrl to keep talking because seeing anything in this is nearly impossible.

Fefe Noir could hear she was getting close but could not spot either caribougrrl or any beaked hazel.

Aha!  There she is behind that beaked hazel tree.

Fefe Noir got distracted by blackberries.

Ironically, right there beside where Fefe left the pack: beaked hazel, trailside.

Funny how sometimes the most exciting part of a foraging trip is the part you never expected.  

The processing seemed to take hours, but our freezer is happier for it.  The hazelnuts are still drying/ripening, and apples are slowly making their way into desserts and mains and preserves.  


A couple of Feral Apple Desserts

The thing about feral apples is that no matter what variety they started out as, if they aren't pruned and kept, they tend toward a wild-type fruit.  Tart, high in pectin, and small.  Perfect for cooking.

Apple-Blackberry Crumble

Fefe adapted this recipe from a borrowed copy of Catherine Kirkpatrick's 500 Recipes for Budget Meals.

1 lb. apples
1/2 lb. blackberries
about 2 tbsp water
4 oz. brown sugar
3 oz. butter
6 oz. unbleached all purpose flour
3 oz. granulated sugar
1/4 tsp. lemon zest

Pre-heat oven to 350F.

Peel, core and slice apples into a saucepan; add the blackberries, water, brown sugar and lemon zest.  Cook over low heat, covered, until apples are softened but not mushy.  Transfer apple mixture to a greased pie dish.

In a large bowl, rub the butter into the flour to form large crumbs. Add the granulated sugar and mix until just combined; do not over mix.  Sprinkle the crumble mixture over the apples.

Bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Apple-Honey Custard Pie

Fefe made Mollie Katzen's recipe from the Moosewood Cookbook, substituting clover syrup for the honey, skipping the cinnamon and sprinkling pine nuts on top.  If you've never cooked from the Moosewood Cookbook, check it out of the library. 


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