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August 23-29, 2006

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Berry Berry Good

Stained fingers and sharp thorns mean it must be August

By Sara Bir

I'll stain your fingers and your face,
And then I'll laugh at your disgrace
But when the bramble-jelly's made,
You'll find your trouble well repaid
--"The Song of the Blackberry Queen" by Cicely Mary Barker

When the words "Sonoma" or "Napa" and "blackberries" appear together, they almost undoubtedly refer to the taste of a fruit-forward red wine. That's all well and good, but there are berries growing in our fine area--and particularly brambling Marin--that have nothing whatsoever to do with Pinot Noir, Cabernet or Zinfandel. Whether they grow cultivated on a small farm or thrive ruthlessly along the banks of a creek, there are hundreds of wild blackberry havens waiting for opportunistic berry fanatics. While the invasive Himalayan brambles overrun hillsides and choke out native species, that does not mean the tasty fruit of those suckers cannot be harvested and eaten with aplomb.

Late summer is the time for blackberries. Farmed crops start coming into season in the middle of June, but the best wild berries don't start appearing until July, with holdouts ripening into September. An old English folktale warns against picking blackberries after the fall, when the devil makes a mark on their leaves and claims them as his own, although in reality it's more likely mold or hungry birds would have claimed the berries themselves by then.

Both blackberries and raspberries belong to the genus Rubus, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two, especially since there are also black raspberries and red blackberries. When picked, raspberries leave a hard white core, called a receptacle, on the plant; when a blackberry is picked, the receptacle stays with the fruit. Thus, raspberries have a hollow structure, while blackberries have more crunch.

Native to Asia, Europe and the Americas, blackberries can be found growing on all continents except Antarctica. In Europe and in North America, blackberries have been used for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years; various preparations of blackberry juice, leaves and bark were said to soothe eye and mouth ailments, aid digestion, relieve toothaches and remedy dysentery. Today, the focus is more on the blackberry's nutritional value; it is rich in antioxidants and dietary fiber.

Those blackberries encased in clear plastic clamshells that appear in supermarkets year-round are bred for their heartiness, not their flavor, and they are sometimes subject to irradiation and ridiculously high prices. When local blackberries are not in season, it is best to stick with frozen berries, which perform remarkably well in baked goods.

Though it is tempting to pounce upon those octopus-like thorny tentacles and immediately zero in on gemlike berries glinting in the sun, approach wild blackberry vines with caution. First of all, blackberries have an affinity for poison oak; the two grow together as happily as tomatoes and basil. Likewise, be wary of blackberry hedges that grow along busy roadsides, where they can be exposed to toxins from passing traffic and pesticides from county sprayings.

Ripe blackberries are deep, dark purple-black--not purple, and certainly not red or green. Blackberries ripen only on the branch and will not become sweeter during storage. When picked, a ripe blackberry should come free of the plant with nothing more than a gentle nudge.

Bring appropriate containers with you when you plan to harvest. To keep from bruising the berries, don't pile them any more than four to five inches deep. Broad, shallow containers are best for this task--plastic colanders or metal pie plates, for instance. Once picked, blackberries don't hold up very long. Blackberries kept at room temperature may mold quickly, so store them in the refrigerator for three to four days, tops; as the blackberries age, they lose their sheen and plumpness, taking on a slightly withered, matte look. As with most other berries, wash them directly prior to eating and no earlier.

A premature rinse will lead to mushy berries.

Blackberries are more versatile in the kitchen than most people suspect; a little creativity and research yields many possibilities besides granola garnish or cobbler filling. Stir blackberries into pancake batter, roll them in dessert crêpes with crème fraîche, or fold them into sour cream, turn into a shallow dish, top with brown sugar and broil for a few minutes until the sugar is melted and bubbling.

Blackberries can even turn up in savory ketchups or chutneys, where their robust flavor stands up well to strong spices like clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. For fresher, more summery flavors, add blackberries to a spicy fruit salsa or a salad of baby greens and goat cheese.

Gathering fresh blackberries is not without its perils--insects, blazing sun, scratchy weeds, voracious family members--but the rewards are many. Few activities tap so directly into the spirit of summer.

Easy Berry Meringue Dessert
Those who embrace berries but shun baking can still make tasty fruit desserts. This is a cross between a pavlova and a trifle, and it requires only four ingredients. To best impress your guests, serve it in an attractive clear glass bowl so they can enjoy the colorful layering. You could fancy it up by adding the finely grated zest of one lime or orange to the berries, if you like.

4 c. mixed berries
several tablespoons granulated sugar
1 6-ounce tub plain (vanilla) meringue kisses
1 c. heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks
Rinse the berries and toss with sugar. Set aside until the berries release some liquid, about half an hour.
Pick out 9 to 12 of the prettiest meringues and set them aside. Break half of the remaining meringues into large pieces and place in the bottom of a large glass bowl. Top with half of the berries and half of the whipped cream. Repeat crumbled meringue-berry-whipped cream layering one more time and top with reserved meringue kisses.
Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled. Serve within several hours. Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Blackberry Pie
I like to top this pie with a lattice crust, but a full top crust has its merits, too, because it gives the pie more structure and is not as fussy to assemble. An open pie with no top crust is equally nice; the garnet depths of the filling are visually striking, and it eliminates a big chunk of calories--although eating pie is rarely about eliminating calories.

Your favorite pie crust recipe, either for a single or double crust
2/3 c. granulated sugar (more or less, depending on the tartness of the berries)
1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. freshly ground nutmeg
pinch salt
5 c. blackberries, thawed if using frozen
zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
Heat oven to 425 degree. Grease a 9-inch pie plate and line with the bottom crust. Set aside. In a large bowl, stir together sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Stir in the blackberries and lemon zest. Pour into prepared crust; cover with lattice or top crust, if using. Place on a foil-lined baking sheet and bake 50 to 70 minutes, until the filling bubbles and juice oozes out of the pie. Tent the pie with foil midway through baking if the top crust becomes too brown. Cool on a rack for several hours before serving.

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