Berries, Berries, Berries, Farmers Markets and Memories of my father´s preserves...
In the 16 years I have lived in Alabama, this spring is the absolute best yet...for many things, but especially for berries. Right now in my fridge I have strawberries, blueberries and blackberries, all grown within 50 miles of my home. I believe that some of this great variety is the product of a mild early spring, but more credit is due to the wonderful proliferation of farmers markets as outlets for the small farmers. The direct connection of the consumer to the farmers has created a communication, often beginning with local chefs, who would ask the farmers to grow something new, and the farmers would bring a few baskets of something new to the market, see the reaction of the customers; other farmers would see how quickly they sold out, and so each year we see more and more variety of fruits and vegetables. These same farmers have also worked to extend the availability of products through a variety of methods: different plant varieties, hoop houses, using different portions of their farms to grow new varieties of produce. And it all comes out at the farmers markets in the various communities around the farms. Of course, I have the privilege of spending my Saturdays at Pepper Place, one of the longest established markets in our area. I have watched the steady increase in the number of vendors as well as in the quantity and quality of produce. Check out the website at www.pepperplacemarket. com.
But back to the berries! We have a logo for this Year of Alabama Food that features a green tomato, but for me this year has been the year of the berry. The sweetest strawberries this spring have overlapped with incredible blackberries and blueberries, and even with the earliest of the peaches, which right now are exuding a wonderful perfume in my house as they gently ripen, next to some early heirloom tomatoes. My sister from Washington DC paid me a quick visit the other day, and drove north with a basket of strawberries, as they have only had hints of spring at this time; it was good that the strawberries were ripe and red, because that she was green with envy of what we had so early this year.
My current favorite way to eat all of those berries right now is to toss lightly with a little sugar, top with some thick Greek-style yogurt, drizzle with some Alabama honey. Any time of the day or night, this is my snack of choice-after dinner or on my morning oatmeal. I keep telling myself to start freezing some of these great berries, but it seems that however much I buy, I eat it all...and none make it into the freezer. I guess I must start to learn some self-control!
I have also told myself that this is the year that I learn to make preserves, to make the types of preserves, jams and jellies that my father perfected. He was a wizard canning strawberries, blackberries, and peaches, so much so that the county fair ribbons were stacked several deep on the wall where the were hung with pride. I may even have to break down to invite one of my sisters down to teach me, as I was too busy playing music, running rivers and chasing girls to learn these things when I was a teenager. Or maybe my friends at the East Lake Community Kitchen will teach me some canning basics, and I can use my food memories to create the same wizardry of my father! I am spending my weekdays this summer teaching professional cooking skills to four people from that community, incorporating more fresh ingredients into the food of the kitchen, as well as helping expand their food programs in the East Lake community, making fresh produce and food available to the neighborhood. One focus is the seniors in the community, who can get a hot lunch Monday through Friday in what they call the Daily Diner, and will soon have the option of delivery of a hot lunch one day a week. They have volunteers with PEER Inc. (www.peerinc. org) who pack food boxes that are delivered each Saturday afternoon. Plans are even in the works for a truck going throughout the neighborhood selling produce from local farmers. So as I am helping them incorporate some fresh produce into their cooked food and train some people, they are going to help me recover the memories of my father´s great preserves, jams and jellies.
But my farmers market heart and presence will still be at Pepper Place every Saturday morning, seeing all of my old and new friends. It is great to have these choices to make every Saturday! And all those BERRIES this year. Make sure you get out to the market and get some soon, before they are GONE!
Anonymous Berry Notes: The Weekly´s anonymous restaurant reviewer loves those berries too. Spinkle them on your cereal till they fall out of the bowl, or just pop them in your mouth. Gobble up a cobbler with bright scarlet lipstick-colored cherries. But, in the spirit of full disclosure, as I have sworn an oath to uphold the law, there are a few misconceptions I feel bound to clear up, even if you would rather not know. About my favorite blackberries, first, they are not all created equal. The hybrids that are cultivated are flowing into the market already, and they are nice, plump and juicy, but they are mainly bred to stand erect and grow in rows for easy picking, and can never match the bittersweet complexity of a wild Alabama blackberry growing on a redsoil sandy bluff in a bramble above the Cahaba River. Bake those in a pie and you will see they are orgasmic. You will have to wait a little while yet for those. And, yes, it is easier to pick them up at Pepper Place Market than to brave the mosquitoes, poison ivy and rattlesnakes in order to really get off. The crazy girl lasted five minutes, and the country girl griped about the ticks. Scarlet won’t even go. But don’t complain about the thorns, whatever you do. Thorns are herbaceous and woody. Sharp as kitten’s teeth though they may be, blackberries have prickles. And while we are in the business of correcting your language, I hate to tell you but, technically, blackberries aren’t even berries. And if you take a look you will see what I mean—a blackberry is what is called an aggregate fruit, if you really want to get scientific, composed of small drupelets. You never heard of that. You see the secrets of blackberries have been hidden through the ages, more closely protected than the DaVinci Code. And it the ones that magically appear by the roadside and in power line clearings that taste the best. Now the ones that grow in the hedgerows of Normandy, France, that rise twelve feet in the air, so you can pick them from horseback, with faux berries twice the size of any in Bama, are another one of Anonymous’ many stories. A.