Wednesday, October 14, 2009
A few weeks ago, on a warm September morning, I took a pleasant amble around the land out at Bide-A-Wee. The meadows were full of glorious color, goldenrod and asters, and nearly every tree and shrub I saw held some tasty, brilliant bit of fruit for me to taste. Before noon I had sampled wild black cherries, blackberries, chokecherries, apples, crabapples, wild plums, hazelnuts, grapes, nannyberries, haws (the fruit of the hawthorn tree). The last three weren't ripe yet. The grapes were especially, tremendously, mouth-puckering (so maybe the fox was right!).
After lunch I felt I still had a little rambling in me, so I drove to a nearby woods, a small piece of state land where we hunt grouse and woodcock in the fall. Just a five-minute drive from our cabin, the terrain could hardly be more different. Where Bide-A-Wee's acreage is nothing but up and down, and the soil is heavy clay, and there's no water on the property, this pleasant woods is flat, sandy, wet and low, with boggy forest and a couple of small streams running through. A nice change of scenery. I found some mushrooms under a stand of jack pines, and to my fruit tally I added highbush cranberries, elderberries, and rose hips.
It has been, needless to say, quite a fruitful year in west central Wisconsin. We've been somewhat frantic trying to figure out what to do with all of it. Apples have gone to cider, crabapples and plums to jelly, blackberries to jam. We have sacks of black cherries in the freezer, waiting for the calm of November to be processed.
Many of these fruits I had never tasted before--notably nannyberries, which ripen to dark, shriveled, sugary nuggets that remind me mostly of dates; and haws, which taste absolutely awful before they ripen, but once ripe take on a fascinating, complex flavor, mildly sweet, slightly astringent, with a perfume which--I swear--reminds me of roses, to which they are related. More about those two fruits later.
And highbush cranberries: Well, I'd heard of them but had never seen or tasted one. Then over lunch that day between rambles, I was scanning my main resources for wild fruit identification, our friend Teresa Marrone's books, and Sam Thayer's Forager's Harvest , paying particular attention to highbush cranberries (which are not actually related to cranberries, but are a type of viburnum). And dang if I didn't go out that afternoon and find some, in a wet area in the woods, bright red berries on a leggy shrub. Their flavor was tart and vibrant--easy to see why they're compared to cranberries.
I didn't get a lot of them, just enough to cook into a bit of syrup, adding some sugar, which I then stirred into iced vodka, thereby creating the first ever Bide-A-Wee Highbush Cran-Tini (or, perhaps, a "Bide-A-Wee-Breeze"?). Just the thing to refresh a weary forager after a long day in the woods.
Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw