Free, Ever Bearing, Forever Growing


Last week I wrote about a happy meal, partly happy because it was free. But although I did not pay for that meal someone did. This week I’m thinking about a different kind of free meal, one free for the picking.
A few years ago a relative from out east asked about planting a blackberry bush, the best type, in what type of soil, and where it should be planted in his yard. We laughed. In the Pacific Northwest, blackberries seem to crop up anywhere where there’s a piece of earth. Abandon some land and blackberries will arrive and proliferate. They will grow like, well, weeds. If you turn your back you might find one coming at you from the cracks of your sidewalk. If you haven’t cleaned the basement for a few weeks, one may find its way through your basement floor or wait in your washing machine.
These abundant briars also produce an abundance of berries. But these “common” berries are not native to Washington. The native blackberry is an evergreen trailer called Rubus Ursinus. I remember my grandfather donning a long-sleeved shirt and straw hat, and picking them near our farm and in the hills. Chefs and those whose taste buds are more sophisticated than mine say they taste better than the variety growing around us–the kind most of us pick. Those sophisticated in blackberries know where they grow, guard their treasure, and don’t reveal it to the rest of us.
I am glad just to pick the non-native one. Like loosestrife and non-native phragmites, the blackberry foreigner has invaded the region–and the whole land. It has found our soil and did fine, thank you. We live in a global plant kingdom. We can buy blackberry bushes to plant. This invader unlike many weeds is edible and delicious. That’s why I am glad to come across them each summer.
The bush I picked last summer or, perhaps, I should say, the knotted tangle, was in a small area walking distance from where I’m living. The bushes were loaded with berries. I am not revealing my source either because as many blackberries as there are in the area, I cannot just go and pick from any bush. Here’s why.

1.Some of the berries are on someone’s property. There are no-trespassing signs.

2.Some of the berries grow very high on the bushes. Unless you have a ladder you may not want to climb it to reach into the sharp brambles and risk falling. Who would find you? The thorns could be lethal. They are no bed of roses though from the same family and just as prickly.

3. Many berry bushes grow along the highways–where fumes and exhaust and who knows what toxics gather on the berries though even away from the highways, I suppose, we don’t know if an owner has tried to kill them with a poisonous spray. Pickers assume the best. 4. You don’t want to pick berries on the low branches no matter how delicious they look–ahem, dogs.

Back to the bush I picked last summer. They were nearly falling off the bush. I picked a pail full and placed them in small bags in the freezer. When I returned a week later, the bush was full again. I picked another few quarts. I returned several times, adding them to freezer bags and then to cobblers with other kinds of berries. I even made a blackberry vinegar–delicious. I will include recipes another time. This happened several more times until about October, and then, although the berries looked just as good and were clinging to the bush and black, they did not seem to ripen. They were not the sun-filled tasty indolent berries hanging in the laziness of August–the kind that squished so easily, heavy with juice. I knew then it was time to leave the bush to the yellow jackets, flies, and other bugs for their free meal.

Blackberry vinegar

11/2 cups blackberries–I used fresh but frozen may work. I like to heat them on the stove just until they simmer, bringing out their flavor.

2 Tblsp balsamic vinegar

For a good salad dressing:

Add 2 garlic cloves, minced, 1 Tbls. honey to the blackberries and vinegar, then slowly add 1/2 cup olive oil until emulsified. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. This is good on romaine or butter lettuce with some crumbled blue cheese and some chopped toasted walnuts.

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