9 August 2015

Berries to Crow About

In which Fefe Noir and caribougrrl confront the terrible summer weather by walking right into it.

The cold wet summer we've been experiencing in Newfoundland seems to have been good for black crowberry (Empetrum nigrum); they are unusually abundant this year.
This summer in Newfoundland has been record-breakingingly-non-existentIn previous years we have experienced Jun-uary and Fog-ust, but neither of these events could prepare us for the horror of Jul-ember.   

The garden is almost a bust.  I have replanted three times.  It has just been too bloody cold for anything to grow.  I don’t blame those bean plants for not wanting to poke their heads out of the soil and into the freezing wind.  Who living in Newfoundland for the month of July did not want to stay lying in bed until this hell ends?

The last few days of July (it had to be warm by then right?), caribougrrl took some time off so we could get some work done on the house.  It was too wet to paint and too windy to be up a ladder.  The weather did not improve.  As the cool temperatures were perfect for a good walk we bravely packed a picnic, grabbed our sweaters and headed out.  “I’ll take the camera just in case,” I said.  I wished later I had also brought mittens.

Moose are a fairly regular road hazard in Newfoundland, but having a camera
handy is a much less common occurrence.
On the drive to New Melbourne we came upon two very lovely moose.  (And NO we did not turn them into sausages.)  Miracle of miracles I actually had the camera in the back of the car and with some impressive gymnastic moves grabbed it from the back seat and got the shot. 

For a landmass largely made up of ponds, bogs, and fens, frogs are a strangely
uncommon occurrence in Newfoundland. 
We headed to one of our favourite trails and stopped to check out the frog pond.  (And NO we did not gather frog legs either.)  I have never seen so many frogs.  They must like the cool weather.  Maybe all their predators were so affected by SAD they couldn’t face placing their paws and beaks and snouts into the freezing water. 

As we continued down the trail admiring the truly awesome view of sea and sky and pointing out the occasional whale flip- flop out in the water, caribougrrl bent down and offered me what I presumed was a juniper berry.  “No thanks,” I said.  And then she put one in her mouth and made her this-is-bitter-face and I thought, what did you expect?

Then she asked if I had any bags in my camera case.  What am I going to do with a pound of juniper? How much gravlax does she think we can eat? Why does she keep eating the berries?  I distracted her by pointing out a whale, okay maybe it was a rock, but we didn’t have to spend the next two hours collecting berries.  

Or so I thought.

It wasn’t until we were selecting where to sit on for our picnic and I pointed out some blue poop on a rock and asked, “What do you think that was eating?” that I realized it was not juniper that I had been offered earlier but one of the zillions of black crowberry that were growing all over the place.  I’d been too busy looking for whales to notice these shining jewels literally at our feet. 

Someone else has clearly been eating the black crowberry.
“Are you sure they are edible?”  I asked as caribougrrl proffered me another one.
And it turns out they are.

Someone, somewhere described black crowberry as having an “uninteresting” flavour.  And this caught on: just about any internet site about black crowberry will repeat this description.  The poor maligned crowberry, growing where and when no other berry will go, is consistently called uninteresting.  And yet it is one of the precious garnishes people are willing to pay big bucks for at NOMA.   This berry needs some rethinking and a new reputation.

The black crowberry is interesting, but if you were expecting sweet think again.  This berry is juicy and complex and once cooked it is tasty.  (Not to mention free, local and growing in abundance… food security, my friends!)  So let us praise the black crowberry; it is not uninteresting it is just misunderstood.

How to Find and Identify Black Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum)

Black crowberry is a northern berry, which means if you live in the south you are out of luck unless you are vacationing in the north or you happen across them at high elevations.  It is primarily found in open habitats like coastlines, bogs, heaths, barrens and rocky outcrops.

Black crowberry is a low-growing shrub, characteristically a creeping groundcover.  Crowberry tends to form mats and thus, under foot, it feels springy (for information purposes, that springy-ness is a bit deceptive as it's prickly on any exposed skin if you sit on it for very long).  Stems are densely covered in short, pointy needles that are arranged alternately and whorled on the stalk.  (If that means nothing to you, don't worry... it's the one that hugs the ground but isn't juniper.  Rely on the pictures.)

The berries (technically drupes) are small, black and are semi-glossy but not shiny, each with a prominent dimple on the opposite end from the stem.  Although they can appear clustered, berries are individually attached  to the stem.  Since the berries are dark not wildly charismatic, they can easily go unnoticed if you aren't actually looking for them.

Ripe black crowberry can be picked any time from when they turn black through the next spring.  It seems that quite a lot of people prefer them after a frost because they get sweeter, and some won't even pick them until late winter or early spring.  Frost and the freeze-thaw of winter, however, can make them soft and texturally unappealing, so the summer berries have the advantage of firmness.

The black crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) fruits are very distinctive: small and polished-black with prominent dimples.  The foliage resembles heather but creeps much tighter to the ground.

If you poke around the miracle of internet looking for information on the black crowberry taste, you will find most sites say they are uninteresting raw but improve with cooking... this really needs to be corrected.  The raw berries are extremely interesting to taste (in the summer, at least): startlingly tart and grippy from tannin.  It might be a bit of an acquired taste, but it is certainly not boring.  After cooking, the flavour is less punchy; the taste loses the acidic edge to become sweeter and the tannin mellows but retains a depth.  These berries do not taste like anything else we've eaten anywhere.  Do not put one in your mouth anticipating a blueberry-like flavour, you will end up feeling confused.

The tannin makes them particularly suitable for wine-making.  Extra special bonus points to you if you make the effort to collect enough of these for wine making.  We will applaud while we sit on our front porch sipping the black crowberry wine produced by Auk Island Winery and wonder how the wine can be sold for such a low price considering the labour that goes into collecting the tiny berries...

A Recipe For Black Crowberry Clafoutis

(heavily borrowed from Julia Child's cherry clafoutis recipe)

There is nothing that tastes quite the same as black crowberry.  Cooking sweetens the berries and mellows bitterness, but the tannins retain a depth and complexity of flavour; the clafoutis custard provides a perfect silky support.

Clafoutis a seriously fantastic way to use black crowberry.  Sophisticated enough for dinner party dessert, but with enough eggs, milk and fruit to justify eating it for breakfast.  Full of win.

1-1/4 c. milk (2% or fattier)
2/3 c. raw cane sugar
3 eggs
1/2 tsp orange blossom water*
pinch of sea salt
1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
3 c. black crowberries, cleaned**
icing sugar for dusting

* orange blossom water is very pleasantly perfumey, a nice foil for the tannin... but if you don't have any, feel free to use the 1 tbsp of vanilla extract which Julia Child puts in her cherry clafoutis

** rid of any insect stowaways from your berry bucket, picked free of debris, rinsed, and dried by very gently rolling up in a tea towel

Clockwise from top left: Use a food processor or blender to ensure
a perfectly smooth clafoutis batter.  Bake a thin layer of custard until a skin
forms and sprinkle the berries gently on top to keep them from sinking.
The clafoutis baking dish can be filled the brim.  When cooked, the clafoutis
will be puffed up, browned and firm to the touch in the center.
Pre-heat oven to 350F.  Grease a deep pie dish or tart/flan dish (or any baking dish that can hold about 7 cups) with butter.

Put all ingredients except for the berries and icing sugar into a a food processor*** or blender. Mix until fully blended and smooth.

***did I say food processor? Why yes, I did.  We finally bought one.

Pour a thin layer of batter (about 1/3 cup of the mixture, more or less depending on the shape of your pan) into the bottom of the baking dish and bake for about 8 minutes or until a skin forms.  Remove from oven and distribute the berries lightly on top of the batter layer.

Pour the remaining batter over the berries.  Return to oven and bake an additional 50-60 minutes. It's done when it's puffed up, well browned, and the batter has set through (like custard or quiche).

Let rest to cool slightly (it will fall, that's what happens).  Dust with icing sugar before serving.


  1. Thanks for the great recipe! These berries are quite common in Newfoundland but it's rare to find recipes using them. I featured your recipe in today's round-up on Colorful Canary :) http://www.colorfulcanary.com/2017/11/6-rare-crowberry-recipes-empetrum.html

    1. Hey, that's great. It is difficult to find recipes for black crowberry. I think it's a highly underrated berry.


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