The Working Waterfront

It’s been a blackberry year


Sandy Oliver
Posted 2020-09-30
Last Modified 2020-10-04

Normally, right about the first week of September, it’s that old chanteuse Peaches Galore around here. My trees yield up enough for peach fans to pick, for me to sell at roadside, and plenty more fill the kitchen here for canned peaches, peach jam, peach chutney, peach pie, peaches chopped up and eaten with granola, turned into smoothies, peach shortcake or just plain peaches and cream. How luscious.

The smell is intoxicating. It makes me frantic, racing to collect them while fending off hornets, before they fall to the ground, to stuff them into jars or stomachs, midst clouds of fruit flies.

Alas, not this year. One of my three trees was defoliated by gypsy moth caterpillars even though we torched them as fast as we could. The tree set all new leaves but essentially said, “Forget the fruit, kiddo, I’m exhausted making new leaves.” I didn’t blame her for one minute.

A young tree set handsome fruit, though small, but they succumbed to brown rot which rendered each fruit a fuzzy beige knob. The oldest tree, a Reliant, ended up the same way. Any fruit that didn’t turn brown got teeth marks from fierce red squirrels. I rescued a handful but nothing like the bushels I was accustomed to.

The drought meant all fruit was small this year, and I think stressed the trees terribly. Then heat and great humidity, well, it was just too much for all of us.

Groan. I grieved my peaches. Not everyone had this problem, but I sure did.

But behold: blackberries. Huge quantities of them. My niece Sarah picked for an hour or more after work for a couple weeks. She hasn’t calculated the total yield yet but it looks to be close to 30 pounds or more.

Unlike peaches, which virtually drop into your hands full, juicy, fragrant, and sweet, blackberries are hard fought for—gnarly, prickly, wretched thorny stems that catch at your clothing and shred your arms if you aren’t careful. Picking blackberries means Carharts, boots, and bug repellent.

The berries were pretty juicy, but no matter how you look at it, they are seedy if tasty little buggers. So they get a trip through the Foley food mill which removes the largest part of the seeds.

If I am trying for jam, that once-through is sufficient. If for a puree for winter sorbet, an additional push through a sieve is called for. That same puree, sweetened and folded into stiffly whipped cream, makes a divine mousse-like dessert.

Some berries get soaked in vodka for cordial. Some are covered with hot vinegar to make shrub, sweetened by plenty of sugar to make a syrup, spectacularly delicious over ice cubes with sparkling water or club soda added. Certainly some berries find their way into the breakfast granola with yogurt.

The chickens ate all the extracted seeds. We spotted red squirrels who don’t miss a thing, perched atop a few blackberry canes, plucking ripe berries and eating them on the spot. Cute. Bulging little cheeks.

Of course, the scene in the kitchen still involves clouds of fruit flies, and sticky drippy spots on anything horizontal, and as an added treat, purple spatters from the food mill on adjacent surfaces.

I like blackberries, I really do. Despite drought, ours were awfully good. Such intense flavor. Bless Sarah for her patience in picking which she says, and I believe her, she really enjoyed, wading into the patch spotting the next thick cluster of berries, and adding to the gallon milk carton she cut a big hole in so she could grasp the handle in one hand and pluck berries with the other.

Family tales from the Bunkers, previous owners of our house, relate that Capt. Emery Bunker went picking blackberries here with a pail on a string around his neck; he was a serious two-fisted picker. He fell on his pail, the family story says, which caused a stomach cancer that took his life. Sarah, thank God, stayed upright, not easily done when all the blackberry canes thickly conceal rocky spots and ledges.

So what’s it all about? The longer I exist, the more I see that all of nature and the lives we live toss up before us metaphors that none of us are smart enough to invent.

“It’s true,” someone says. “You couldn’t make this stuff up.”

See, I didn’t know how good peachy peach-years were until I didn’t have one. So instead here we are, snagged by prickly blackberries, seeds stuck in our teeth, and exercising more patience than we thought we had to collect them. At least there were blackberries.

How like 2020.

Sandy Oliver is a food historian who writes, gardens, and cooks on Islesboro.