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Friday, July 2, 2010

Blackberry Winter…

Blackberry Winter, the time when the hoarfrost lies on the blackberry blossoms; without this frost the berries will not set. It is the forerunner of a rich harvest. (prefatory epigram in Margaret Mead’s Blackberry Winter)

Bloomin' Blackberries


The winter of 2008 was devastating to the Valley blackberries. For nearly two weeks single digit temperatures at night and successive days of lows in the teens stunned next season’s fruiting canes. While the cold snap didn’t kill the berry rootstock, it annihilated last summer’s berry crop. This season the fruiting canes are in full bloom presaging a good crop when the berries ripen later in August. 

Here in the Valley we have the “feral” blackberries, too. Nothing short of a North Slope winter could kill them. There are two native varieties: Himalaya and Trailing Evergreen. Dense patches of both throng the roadsides and fence lines like thorny kudzu, the vines sprouting from seeds spread by birds. Turn your back on a sunny patch of bare ground and the next you know, there’s a prickly thicket covering the ground when you turn around.

The commercial blackberries are thornless and were first planted by Tony Broer, the Valley’s berry patriarch as sort of reprisal against his earlier marionberry experience. “I hate those bastards,” Tony told me, not the least bit remorseful that Winter ‘08 pretty much did them in. Their reign concluded this spring when the dead canes were pulled out, the trellis posts yanked, and the field mowed flat. “Good riddance!” was Tony’s terse eulogy. Tony Broer, farmerI don’t blame him. Wrapping those marionberry canes was like wrestling a snarl of barbed wire. Nothing short of leather welding gloves could do battle with that onslaught of thorns. The size and flavor of marionberries, like boysenberries, make them desirable, but contending with the vines and armament lessens their appeal. They do not fare well as a “Up-Pick” venue. After a berry picking session it’s hard to distinguish the stains on your fingers and palms from berry juice or your own dried blood.

The thornless berries are Tony’s bBest mower everabies. The rows line up as if laid out by a surveyor’s transit. Canes are wrapped with the precision of a loom. The middles of the rows are mowed; each cane cluster freed from weeds. Yes, there’s more going on here than the strivings of a master berryman. These are the labors of an enamored Dutchman.

It is a cloudy day in the Valley but not unpleasant. A pallet of bees has been brought in fPollinatorsor pollination. I step into the rows to see if they are in business among the blackberries. There’s certainly pasture enough for them. And sure enough I see several sashaying through the blossoms, tripping the light fantastic among the anthers’ pollen dust, slurping up that sweet blackberry nectar. 

Pollen headstand


Thanks to the bees’ dance, come August these delicate blooms will be thumb-sized fruits, black as onyx,  shiny as a child’s patent leather shoes. They seem to cry out for the confines of a pie crust. But their dusky beauty is deceptive. A few years back Ed decided the last picking was too slim to bother with; I could pick what I wanted for a pie, he said. And I did just that.

The pie was a disappointing failure. No, it wasn’t the crust, either. To contain the filling, I use a ready made crust, foolproof and simple. A Man Crust. It comes neatly packaged from the grocery. You find it right next to those tubes of ready-made biscuits. No, the filling was the disappointment. As far as those succulent black berries were concerned, I discovered beauty was only skin deep. Each was just a thinly veiled sweetness covering a core thicker than a cotton swab. Enough fiber in a single berry to satisfy the maximum daily requirement. After eating a portion of pie, you felt as if you’d chewed through a flannel sheet.

Thornless blackberries! Humph! There’s a reason for those thorns. They’re there to guard the REAL goods. If you want to go thornless, better stick to the juice. Jelly or syrup would be my recommendation. Unless, that is, you want to do a Brando impression of Don Corleone.

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  1. I think it was the crust... ;)

  2. You think the crust should have been thrown on the compost heap, then?