Summer To-Do List:
Take A Berry Break
Forget heatwave red, campfire orange and sunshine yellow; summertime for me is colored purplish blue. Come late July, one look at me and it’s easy to see how I spend a lot of my time: I have purplish blue teeth, a purplish blue tongue and purplish blue fingertips — that beautiful bruise color that only comes from plucking ripe Rubus Rosaceae from the vine and plopping them in my mouth, savoring the juice dripping down to my elbows and an explosion of sun-warmed, sweet-tart juice as they pop in my mouth. Yes, I’m talking about blackberries.
Growing up, there were no wild berry thickets around my neighborhood. Hardy as blackberries are, the sandy soil of northwest Florida just doesn’t support the wild vines, and until the late ’90s, blackberries were hard to find even on grocery store shelves in the eastern U.S. Now that I live in Oregon, the leading blackberry producer in the world, I’m out picking every week during the short season. My mid-July-to-August table is dominated by cobblers, slumps, trifles, tarts, shortbread, pancakes, muffins and smoothies made with the glossy black beauties. I refuse to wear long sleeves and pants while berry picking in 90-degree heat; I just wade into the brambles wearing flip flops and a tank top and battle back the devilish thorns, despite looking as if I lost a fight with a rabid raccoon. Somehow, no matter how hot it is, how sweaty and sticky I get, how scratched and battered, when I find that blackberry that is too perfect to plop in the bucket, I pop it into my mouth — and forget about the heat completely.
The industry standard since its introduction in 1956 is the marionberry, which is a cross of ‘Chehalem’ and ‘Olallie.’ (‘Olallie’ is a cross between loganberry and youngberry, each of which is also a cross, between blackberry and raspberry and dewberry, respectively.) According to the USDA, Oregon raised close to 50 million pounds of blackberries and loganberries in 2009, and that’s not counting the big, plump wild varieties, which are most likely to be the introduced weed, ‘Himalaya’ blackberry.
Whether you buy or pick, they all taste great, and preserving this fresh flavor is as easy as freezing. But I always pick enough to make homemade blackberry brandy. This smooth, sippable, richly flavored quaff is easy to make: just place your berries in a large jar, add some spices and sugar, and fill it with brandy. Let it sit, and three months later, you’ve got summer in a jar. Add a nice ribbon, and it’s a ready-made holiday gift. Of course, it’s so good that if you kept it for yourself, no one would blame you. — Vanessa Salvia
Makes 1 1/2 quart; 1/5th of a gallon of brandy is 3.2 cups
4 cups blackberries
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. allspice berries
2 2-inch cinnamon sticks
10 whole cloves
2 cups brandy
Combine blackberries, sugar, allspice, cinnamon, cloves and brandy in a 2-quart jar. Mix well and cover tightly. Shake jar daily for five days, then put it in a cool, dark closet or cupboard for two months. Shake the jar occasionally, to stir up the spices. After two months, strain and filter the brandy. Pour it into clean bottles, cap tightly and forget about it for at least one more month before cracking into it.