Bounty of berries
For several weeks during summer, I take a break from my daily constitutional to loiter around the blackberry patch that borders the route of my hiking trail. Each day during these heady times, my companion and I painstakingly pick a container full of our treasured blackberries. Let me emphasize the word “pain” here, as we are picking wild blackberries, the kind that are the bane of local backyards in my area.
This invasive Himilayan variety has prickers on its branches and even on the underside of its leaves. For even the carefully dressed picker, the effect is that of being stabbed with a hypodermic needle … repeatedly. Further, we are constantly getting trapped in the thicket like insects in a spider web, detained by so many of these sharp projections that we nearly give up.
When our containers are full, we stumble out of the forest with our clothes shredded and stained with the burgundy juice of our hard-fought quarry. We look and feel like extras in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
Why do we subject ourselves to such torture? Well, the short answer is that these berries are sublime. For the weeks that they ripen, we enjoy them in pies, fruit salads and filling for dessert crêpes. And then we make several batches of jam to make sure that we savor the berries long after their short growing season.
The blackberry collection efforts, through fraught with danger and physical discomfort, reflect a heritage of enthusiastic devotion to these tiny little fruits. Back in New England, berries were a staple in my family’s garden, and I spend hours with the radio humming crouched in the strawberry patch or in front of the blueberry and raspberry bushes in a relaxed state of bliss.
Little did I know back then that the pursuit of these petite piquant packages goes back millennia and even had a hand in the settling of our country. Wild berries were a significant part of primitive man’s diet, before the hunter gatherers learned to cultivate crops. When the pilgrims came to America, they found and harvested blackberries, blueberries, barberries, raspberries, elderberries, mulberries, cranberries and strawberries. Later, berries supplemented the food that emigrants brought to the western frontier.
Berries in general provide succulent, highly flavorful mouthfuls of nutritious goodness. An excellent fat-free, cholesterol-free, sodium-free source of vitamin C, berries supply a significant source of dietary fiber as well as smaller quantities of protein, calcium, potassium, iron and folate.
Note to women of childbearing age: The national health organization the March of Dimes, whose mission is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects and infant mortality, recommends that all women who are capable of becoming pregnant consume 400 micrograms of the B vitamin folic acid (also called folate or folacin) per day to reduce their risk of having a pregnancy affected by neural tube defects.
Remember also that the darker the color, the higher a food is in disease-fighting compounds, referred to as phytochemicals or phytonutrients. An accumulating body of scientific evidence indicates that berries contain compounds that defend against harmful carcinogens, control inflammation and stave off heart disease.
Because of their delicacy, berries must be hand-picked. The good news is that procuring berries doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. The local farmers’ market has several varieties that are in season now including raspberries, olallieberries and blueberries.
Next week, I’ll discuss tips for selecting, storing and cooking berries.
Christina Abuelo is market manager for the Foothill Farmers’ Market Association.