By Murray Schulman
We are entering that time of the year when our region of the country produces the most delicious and sought-after berry crops. There is a mad rush to the farms, the markets and the local stands where we scramble in a frenzied search for the few available baskets of these sweet juicy jewels.
Remarkably, berries have been part of the land and a staple in the diets of people, birds and animals as far back as recorded time. Wild berries have been prolific throughout the United States in a vast array of varieties. Some are edible and delicious, some are
best for juices, preserves and condiments and others are either toxic or so distasteful
as to be best left to the beasts and birds. It
is a known fact that Native Americans pruned wild berries through burning and harvested these wild crops annually. The settlers that came here from Europe did
not only share corn and pumpkins with
the Native Americans. Berries were part
of the abundance that helped the new arrivals survive in those early years.
Today, there are thousands of acres of wild berries that are still pruned and harvested as a high-end delicacy in our country.
As one would expect, the development of domestic berry crops is big business today. There are literally dozens of domestic berry varieties grown throughout the United States. I was shocked to discover that only one percent of the berries grown are consumed fresh from the plants. The other 99% of berries are frozen, canned, jarred or juiced. Our region produces some of the largest and finest berry crops in the world. Our local berries are sought-after by the largest food companies in the country. Our local growers are part of large regional cooperatives producing specific berry crops for individual companies. Cranberry growers are a great example of this type of arrangement.
Producing great domestic berry crops is no easy task. The berries are delicate and highly perishable. Too much rain, too little rain, heat, cold, wind, insects, birds, animals and hundreds of other factors make producing these crops a daily battle. The window of time between the berries ripening through fresh consumption is unimaginably short.
Just think about recent New Jersey strawberry seasons. The first berries appear in the markets right around Memorial Day. Within two to three weeks, the season is over. The same scenario is true for our blueberry season. Suddenly, right around this time, blueberries grown in Hammonton, New Jersey, and the surrounding areas start to show up in our local streetside stands and farm markets. Within just a few weeks we look at the containers in those same stands and markets only to find Georgia-grown labels.
Let me tell you, friends, that I am a lover of our local fresh berries. Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are my all-time favorites. In season, I am right there with the rest of you. A minimum of twice weekly. I am at one of two farm markets that have my photo hanging by their counters. They see me coming from a distance and brace themselves for my onslaught of choosing the most perfect baskets of the berries that they have to offer.
Yes, I admit it. I am one of those people who will trade a single berry with the slightest imperfection for a better berry from another basket. Maybe there is something wrong with me. The seasons are so short and the berries are so precious that I buy all that I can of the best that I can find. In season, I eat berries every day and usually more than once a day. I love them straight from the basket. They are delicious with yogurt, on ice cream, in pancakes, in muffins and in salads. I eat berries with cheese, with hummus, in pies, tarts, and as toppings for just about anything imaginable. I make compotes, syrups and huge bowls of berries tenderly tossed with port or cordials.
Then the day comes when I arrive at the market and the berries are gone. The clerk watches as I stand there staring at the empty space. I suddenly feel a deep melancholy wash over me. A tear escapes the corner of my eye and rolls down my cheek. I turn and slowly walk to my car dejected and sad. Another berry season has gone by much to quickly. Suddenly, though, a small smile quirks my lips and a knowing glint shines from my eyes. I start the engine of my car and make a beeline to the nearest winery. After all, grapes are berries. Aren’t they? IAH
Sneaky shopping secrets of a self-confessed berry fanatic
By Murray Schulman