Friday, September 4, 2009

When Your Hand Finds to Do Hard Things

It hasn't been a gardening year, but it certainly has been a foraging year. I'm learning that when something is available in abundance, lay some by, because next year may not be so extravagant. Last year, it was impossible to see the horizon for the poles of mullein obtruding themselves upon the vista. I dehydrated leaves and gathered the flowers, until I felt absolutely obsessive. This year, there has been only sporatic, lonely plants claiming the occasional attention in the occasional meadow. I'm not despairing, though, knowing I'm covered on that front because of last year's surplus.

One of this year's foraging finds was blackberries. What a blast from my past! As I was pouring the fruits of our collective labors into the baking dish, the aroma of hot blackberries dragged me back into my childhood and I started to the Hobbits about what blackberry pickings were like where I grew up.

I come from a make-it-do family. My grandparents survived the Depression on a farm in the South and, even afterwards, a farm isn't a place of affluence. My own childhood was hedged by strict economy and sweat equity. A foraging friend and I were discussing hunting (which my Dad did annually) and fishing and the potential for local game in these areas. It reminded me of summer Louisiana afternoons, when we would load up into our Buick Century, with buckets, nets, and, um, scrap chicken parts. How's that for an idyllic summer interlude? Ah, but wait. Not far down the road, the Intercoastal Canal brought tides inland and even the roadside ditches were home to countless blue crab. When I was Princess' age, I was adept at dangling a chicken neck on a string to entice a crab's attention, only to swoop it up with the net. Many a dish of crab etouffee over many a summer. Gourmet cuisine on a shoestring. Literally.

Blackberry foraging was another summer outing. My hometown was host to a then-defunct military base, that, at the time, had left miles of runway to crumble, surrounding by miles of waste fields. Fields quickly overrun with blackberry brambles. Being public property, the blackberries were finders-keepers to any intrepid individual who was willing to wade out and collect them. I have memories of enamel canning bath pots and every imaginable container from our kitchen collected into the back of that Century, while we piled in with long sleeves and pants, ready to bring home that black gold and not stopping until every monstrous container overflowed. We reckoned the stickers...and the week-long recovery from be a small price to pay for a year's supply of blackberries, canned or frozen.

This year, a dear friend, constitutionally unable to keep such an embarrassment of riches to herself, called me up to make a date to show me where she had found an incredible score of blackberries...which was also where she "thought" there were some elderberry bushes. She was right on both counts. We spent the next two months tag-teaming on tripping out to the field and collecting whatever was ripe of both types of berries.

This was a new experience for the Hobbits. They've become somewhat accustomed to my tendency to come to a screeching halt on the shoulder of the road, because I spotted some stand of plants that I've just developed an affinity for, the fact that I now always carry a backpack with two field guides, a pair of snips, gardening gloves, and a jeweler's loupe (for more exacting plant identification, doncha know?), and my total addiction to the smell of freshly harvested mugwort. But most of my passions don't require much in the way of physical discomfort for them. So when my friend and I waded into the briar patch to reach the more shy and recalcitrant of the berries, all three of them were rather disaffected with the process. The Hobbits are used to suffering of a sort, but it's more of mental endurance than a physical one. My friend encouraged them that it was good to do hard things. Dog had a harder time considering that the blackberries were worth the purchase price, but Bug threw himself into the task...if not into the brambles themselves.

Sourdough "Bisquick" Mom used to make...well, almost. (Thanks for the inspiration, Mom, and not just with the recipe, either!)

Berry Filling:

3/4 cup water
2 T tapioca starch
1 quart berries
3/8 cup (6 T) maple syrup
2 T vegetable glycerin (if you want to bump up the sweet without bumping up the sugar)

Dissolve tapioca in water. In large saucepan, bring to a boil and cook until thickened. Add berries and sweeteners, then heat through. Pour into 10x10 baking dish.


1 cup sourdough starter
1 cup dehydrated potato flakes
2 T tapioca starch
2 T potato starch
1/2 t salt
1 t guar gum
1 T maple syrup
1/2 t baking soda
1 T vinegar
1 egg
2 T oil
Enough coconut milk for all of the liquid ingredients to equal 1 cup

Measure out liquids into a bowl, add starter, then mix. Add remaining ingredients, except for the baking soda and vinegar and stir. Allow to sit while the oven is preheating to 425* to give the potato flakes time to rehydrate. When oven is heated, mix in baking soda and vinegar, and pour over the blackberry mixture. Place in oven and bake for 25-30 minutes or until crust is brown and crispy.

After their first firey baptism into foraging til it hurts, the Hobbits took to the task with equanimity. Some days were rainy and we got wet. Some days were sunny and we were hot and thirsty. (Hint: This year, the rainy, wet days were more numerous than the hot and thirsty days!) We always got scratched. Good thing that last year was a bumper year for plantain, because this year hasn't been, but we've got enough salve to see us through another season and still managed to sooth the welts left by the briars. We didn't get any chiggers. I'm going to give the credit for that to my rockin' bug spray that I cobbled together from essential oils. At least, that was one less hard thing that we had to do while we foraged with our might...


Alyss said...

Blackberries are my favorite!! I've been cultivating my blackberry foraging patches for years now. I think the pricks are worth it... it means you deserve the fruit while all those lazy, wimpy folks who wouldn't go get scraped up just don't deserve the fruit. I love blackberries more than any other kind of fruit. Mmmm :)

Loztnausten said...

Aren't they wonderful! I'm meditating on trying to cultivate some starts from these wild cultivars in my own back yard. It would be almost sybaritic to be able to stroll out and gather the berries while ye may!