Kerplink! Kerplank! Kerplunk! As the blueberries hit my bucket, it brings back memories of one of my favorite childrens’ books, Blueberries for Sal. Berry picking goes back many years with our family. It’s invariably been one of the most special days of the year, and picking enough for winter freezing a requirement.
Last week, my husband and I visited the Lazy Valley Ranch in Penn Valley. Jeannie and James Gleason inherited this 500 acres from his parents. After retiring from their careers, they moved onto the property and are still working hard. They planted blueberries in 2002. Jeannie focuses on the berry business. They do not use any pesticides and only organically approved sprays and fertilizers. James grows hay and sells whole live Angus calves, raised on mother’s milk and grass without antibiotics or hormones.
We drive through the ranch in dappled sunlight from oaks overhanging the lane. Along the road mugwort swishes in the breeze next to yellow dock flowers turning amber and brown in the warmth of the sun. The air smells of new mown hay waiting for the baler. Grass is still damp amidst the rows of berries, and bees hum in the woods.
“I love farming because it gets us closer to God and nature. The exercise keeps me young,” Jeanie told me.
Berry picking becomes a kind of community event. I see old friends and love listening to the excited chatter of the “little pickers” and moms that aren’t stressed — enjoying the family outing. I always leave happier than when I came.
Blueberries are literally the best kind of “fast food.” There’s no peeling or pitting; just rinse and they’re ready to go. All berries are low in calories and fat; high in fiber. Nutrient dense blueberries offer a bounty of antioxidants. That deep dark color comes primarily from proanthocyanins, which gives blueberries one of the highest antioxidant levels of any fruit or vegetable.
All berries are easy to freeze. Just rinse and trim off the stem end for strawberries. I allow them to drain for a while because water left on the berry develops into frost, which alters the flavor somewhat. Sometimes removing moisture with a blow drier helps. Blueberries, if grown organically, are best frozen without even rinsing to avoid that frost problem, but if small children are helping themselves it’s probably not a great idea. Berries in the freezer are a welcome sight in winter when fresh local fruit is skimpy.
U-pick makes a good way to stretch the budget, and the berries last longer in the refrigerator. The flavor of fresh picked is much more intense.
“The best picking time is from now until early July,” Jeanie told me. No reservation is necessary to pick. They’re open Sunday through Thursday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 530-432-2234 for a voice message and/or to leave information or email email@example.com. Thornless blackberries will be ready in July also but call to check times and availability.
Riverhill Farm at the end of Cement Hill Road also has u-pick berries and cherry tomatoes in the coming days and weeks. The usually quite generous strawberry patch was impacted by the heavy spring rains, but it’s firing up again. Blackberries will be abundant in July. Their farm stand is open every Wednesday, 2-6 p.m. Cal 916 832-7463 for more information or go to http://www.riverhillfarm.com.
Showing off your berries
Crisps are humble desserts. Nothing sophisticated about them. They are simple to prepare, not too sweet and full of flavor. This recipe is gluten free. Whole wheat pastry flour could replace the almonds if you’re not concerned about that. I used one cut up apple to stretch my berries as crisps are best when the fruit is abundant.
Blue and Black Crisp
One cup ground almonds
Three quarters cup rolled oats
Four tablespoons (one quarter cup) butter at room temperature
One quarter cup brown sugar
One teaspoon cinnamon
Two cups fresh or frozen blueberries
One cup blackberries
One quarter cup apple juice
One whole apple cut into bite-size pieces
In a blender grind enough almonds to make one cup of almond flour. Alternatively, if you prefer, use one cup whole wheat pastry flour. Add the flour, rolled oats, sugar, cinnamon, and butter to a medium bowl. Work the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or two knives. Work just until the mixture comes together and has a crumbly, but not sandy, texture. Chill until ready to use. (Crisp topping can be made ahead and refrigerated for a week or frozen for up to two months.)
Add the berries, apple, and juice to a deep dish pie pan. Sprinkle on the crisp and bake at 325 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes or until fruit is bubbling and crisp topping is golden brown. Best to use a ceramic or glass pie pan. Metal pans will react with the acid fruit.
Crisps are delicious on their own especially warm, but are even better with a dollop of cream or ice cream.
Patti Bess is a freelance writer and cookbook author from Grass Valley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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