In August or September, when you run across someone over-dressed for the weather in denim or canvas…with all exposed skin shredded as if it came in contact with a major piece of farm machinery…scratching at mosquito bites…with burs in the hair and a smile on the face…the appropriate question is, “Where are you finding the berries?”.
We are foragers here on Beaver Island. Like the weather, it’s a common topic of conversation. The activity often includes secrecy, hijinks and boasting. Good caches of mushrooms are as commonly posted on social network sites as beautiful babies! The best areas for finding them are not revealed, though there is much advise given about where one should look. From the earliest wild asparagus, ramps and morels to Autumn offerings of “Shaggy Manes” and apples, we take advantage of what nature provides. From tiny, heart-shaped strawberries in Spring to bright, cold cranberries in late Fall, we gather berries.
Blackberry season is my favorite, for many reasons. First, their size: it is satisfying to be able to fill a container, set it to the side and then fill another. Anyone who has gathered wild strawberries or the miniature pearls of wild blueberries knows that type of gratification is hard to come by. Second, their abundance. This varies from year to year based on weather and a host of other factors, but when the blackberries are good, this island offers them up from a thousand different locations. One year I froze more than forty quarts of blackberries for winter use! Third, they taste wonderful. Fourth, they are easy to clean. Blackberries are solid. They don’t have the hollow back that raspberries do, that sometimes gives a little worm or bug a hidey place, and necessitates going through each one very carefully.
That same distinction provides reason number five: blackberries make a great pie. Some berries collapse with the handling and the heat. Even when their flavor holds, their texture does not. Often, berry pies have a jam-like filling by the time they are baked. Not so, blackberries! They hold their flavor and their shape through cleaning, sugaring and baking. A blackberry pie comes out of the oven as plump as it went in.
Reason number six has to do with the camaraderie of blackberry picking. Because it’s a stand up activity, it is great to bring along a friend or two for company. I came upon two raccoons, once, standing on their hind legs, picking blackberries at the edge of Fox Lake Road. They both looked up as I drove by, then resumed their activity and – I imagined – their conversation. I have good memories of berry picking with my aunt, my daughters and with friends. One year, I ran into Dick DeRosia almost every time I went to pick berries, no matter what the location. Once I came upon Jon and Pat Bonadeo’s parents in the berry patch near my house. For many years after, whenever I saw them, we talked about how wonderful the berries had been that year.
Let me see, reason number seven has to do with the thrill of the hunt and the element of danger from the razor-sharp thorns on whip-like canes…but let’s get back to that pie. All fruit pies are wonderful. Blackberry pies are one of the best.
The perfect pie, though, is a rare treasure. It is based on a combination of fresh raspberries and blackberries, and is possible only in those years when the blackberries come on early enough…and the raspberries hold on late enough…that the two can be found at the same time, in sufficient quantity for a pie. Raspberries collapse in baking, forming nice little cushions of sweetness around the blackberries, which hold their shape. The raspberries deepen to maroon as they bake. Combined with the shiny dark blackberries, the filling becomes a beautiful symphony of purples. The bright effervescence of the raspberries provide the ideal contrast to the winey sweetness of the blackberries. In texture, color and flavor, this pie stands out!
First the picking: blackberries first. Visit your usual haunts, or look in areas that have been recently cleared of trees. Juniper and blackberries are both natural stepping stones in the reforestation of a cleared area, so they often grow together. I have several large juniper in my back field with lovely blackberry canes growing right in the center of them. Let your eyes relax, and you’ll start to see the ripe berries. Before you pluck that first one that shows itself, ripe and ready for the taking, look behind and under. Those berries ripen first, and if you pull the obvious one, it may cause a dozen others to drop to the ground before you can get them. I have an under-handed technique that allows the berries to fall into my palm, but each person will find their own rhythm. Look closely near the ground before you move on, for the ones you’ll otherwise crush with your next footfall. Once you take a step forward, turn around to see the ones you missed, because they were hidden in shadow.
It sounds fussy, I know, but it’s really not. There is no wrong way to pick berries. Even I – who managed to take the fun out of chores and even many games for my children by my insistance that there was one right way to do a thing – could not lessen the thrill of berry-picking. If you accidentally pick one that’s less than ripe, just eat it…or toss it for the birds…or add it to the bowl where a bit of extra sugar will make up for it later. If you pick a berry and it falls apart in your hand, over-ripe, pop it into your mouth! Lick the juices from your fingers! It will likely be the sweetest thing you taste all day. If you have doubt about the exact color or feel of a perfectly ripe berry, taste as you go, until you know for sure.
When you have enough blackberries, it’s time to get raspberries. There is a gravel pit off the Fox Lake Road that has raspberry bushes around the perimeter. The ones near the top ripen first. Later in the season, I look for berries near the bottom of the hollow. Likewise, the logging road that cuts through my property has raspberries leaning in from each side. The ones on the south side are long gone, dried up or fallen to the ground by the time the blackberries ripen. Sometimes, those on the north side are just in their prime. Thinking like that, get what you can, aiming for equal amounts, but happy with what you get.
Cleaning is next. Don’t run water over the berries but, instead, lift or gently pour them into a water bath. Leaves and debris will rise to the top where they can be skimmed off. Lift the berries out one handful at a time, so that you can pick out any discards. From there, put them in a collander to let the excess water drain away. When you’ve gone through all the berries, tip them gently into a bowl. A little moisture is good, as it will help the sugar cling to the berries. I add sugar with a large tablespoon, tasting as I go. You’ll know when they are sweet enough. At that point, you’ll want to assess how much of the mixture you’ll need for your pies, and set the rest aside to add to ice cream, pancakes or cereal, or just to enjoy with milk or cream. To the pie berries, add a heaping tablespoon of flour per pie, and toss well.
Crust. I have always made a decent pie crust, but I used to struggle with it much more than I do now. My recipe called for “five to seven tablespoons cold water.” That rarely seemed like enough. My crust wouldn’t hold together and rolling it out was a nightmare. Though they baked up nice and flaky, making piecrust was a hard job. The senior Darrell Butler, who was raised in a bakery, helped me out with some good advice.
“Get yourself a cup of cold water,” he said. “Add it a little bit at a time. Sometimes it will take a little; sometimes it will take all of it. As soon as your dough holds together, stop. If it’s a little wet, just roll it out on a good bed of flour.” Just like that, he took the mystery out of piecrust!
My recipe makes four rounds – two double-crust pies – in the eight inch size. I like it because it’s all whole increments, easy to remember, and I don’t have to try to measure vegetable shortening, now that Crisco comes in pre-measured one-cup sticks.
Pre-heat the oven to 425 degrees.
Put 3 cups of flour and 1 cup of Crisco in a bowl. Using a pastry blender or two table knives held parallel, cut the ingredients together until you have a bowl of flour-covered shortening balls, about the size of small peas. Get yourself a cup of cold water. Add it a little bit at a time. Stir it in with one of the table knives, so as not to over-work the dough. As soon as it holds together, stop. Cut the dough ball in half. Cut each half in two, with a slightly larger portion for the bottom crusts. Roll the two larger portions into nice rounds, and fit them into the pie tins. Let your crust hang over the edges; you can trim it later.
Give the berries a stir to make sure the flour and sugar are well distributed, and mound them into the crusts. Roll out the top crusts, cut a little pattern into them to let the steam escape and place them over the berries. Trim the edges if you have too much overhang, and roll the top and bottom edges together; pinch to seal. I make the exact same fluted edge on my pie crust that my mother always made. You’ll find your own way. Or crimp with a fork.
Place the pies in the pre-heated oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375. Starting them out in the hot oven ensures that you won’t have a soggy crust. There is nothing more disappointing in a pie than a doughy, soft bottom. Continue to bake the pies at the lower temperature for about another half-hour, until the juices are bubbling up through the vents and the crust looks golden.
Cool slightly, to let the sugars set up, before slicing. Serve warm…with a nice scoop of vanilla ice cream. This is perfection.
But, hey, if – in your quest for blackberries and raspberries – you happen upon wild blueberries ripe for the picking, and if you have a mind to, add them to your bucket, and add them to your pie. They will add another layer of flavor and color. When we’re talking about pie, “perfect” is not absolute. There is always room for improvement. Go ahead…make it even more perfect!
*This piece was first published just over a year ago in the Beaver Beacon, our lovely island news magazine. My friend, Bill, stopped me on the street to tell me they liked the story and would publish it. “It will cost you, though,” he grinned, “I expect one of those pies…delivered.” I laughed and said, “Sure,” and then got on with other things. Before I knew it, berry season had given way to the colder temperatures of Autumn.
This year, as the berries started ripening, I thought I’d fulfill that obligation. It looked like it was going to be a good season for blackberries. They ripened, though, one cupful at a time. Enough for topping cereal or decorating a dish of ice cream, plenty for sweet nibbles while walking, but not enough for a pie. Days of rain, then, caused ripe berries to drop to the ground and slowed the ripening process of the green ones. I never did get that pie made.
Bill died this Fall. The loss to his wife and son is tremendous, of course. He was a dear friend to many people here. At his memorial, I heard a dozen people say, “Bill was my best friend!” He contributed greatly to the island in a hundred different ways. He encouraged me and promoted my work whenever he had the chance.
I am not chastising myself for not getting the pie baked and given. Life goes on; things get in the way of even the best intentions. If there is a lesson here (and maybe there isn’t, even…) it is only to live each day to the fullest. That’s the best any of us can do.