“The running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven” according to the prose of Walt Whitman. A testament indeed to the wide reach of bramble berry vines, found in nearly every corner of our planet, and as Whitman believes, celestially as well.
Bramble berries, those small sweet clusters that adorn thorny vines are possibly the most abundant and highly recognized wild foods. What child has not pricked their fingers plucking raspberries from a spiny tangle at the edges of our cultivated parks and lawns? Who of us can resist a little summer “foraging” along the roadside, collecting enough blackberries from local thickets to be put to use in a pie, or jam, or simply tossed on our cereal the following morning?
A member of the roseacaea family, a grouping of fauna that includes roses, these fruit bearing thickets in the genus Rubus are responsible for our familiar friends, black berries, raspberries, and boysenberries (or Boys ‘n berries” as the Stevie the co-owner of Poppy would so endearingly label them.) Regionally, lesser known wild varietals prevail, like the salmon berries I grew up with as a child of the pacific northwest. It was always an excitement to find a pale pink salmon berry growing wild while on a hike. This excitement was short lived, equal to the great disappointment my sisters and I felt when we popped a few in our mouths and remembered these pale berries, named for their resemblance to the color of salmon flesh, were in fact bland and flavorless on our tongues. Michigan is home to the thimbleberry, too soft to carry from any further than thicket to jam jar. Sub arctic regions from the Canadian tundra to Scandinavia offer cloudberries which have been preserved as a way of life for many people braving such uninviting climates.
My own experiences with bramble berries extends back as far as I can remember. The edges of our backyard were dominated by himilayan blackberry vines. My mother collected their abundance each summer as my sisters and I stained our faces, mashing the berries in our hands in an attempt to transfer them directly from the vine to our eager mouths. Red raspberries were collected on trips to local farms and quickly appeared in square plastic containers, stirred with pectin and set into a batch of the freezer jam my grandmother made every summer.
Somehow, while I always understood blue raspberry was a flavor that only existed in my slurpe cup, I was 27 years old when I learned black raspberries indeed grew on vines . I was working at Eva, and our chef Amy was abuzz with talk of a pie. She had procured a small fortune of black raspberries, a berry that was completely unfamiliar to me as a child of the pacific northwest. Amy is from Ohio, a state where black raspberries grow thick and wild, and are also cultivated by farmers willing to take on the lower yielding vines. One taste of the resulting pie, seedy by nature of the fruit, and I was in full swoon. My first summer here in Chicago black raspberries reappeared in my life, this time in the kind of abundance that allowed me more than a few forkfuls off a slice of pie.
The tiny black raspberry, no bigger than the tip of my pointer finger, look as if they have been dipped in fog; a light haze lingering between the seams of each jet black cell. They are tasty eaten out of hand, but the true majesty of the black raspberry isn’t revealed until the berries are exposed to heat. Simmered, stewed, or baked, black raspberries take on a rich, musky flavor like nothing else.
Here in our kitchens, we bring flats and flats (and flats and flats) of black raspberries in while the getting is good. Before the short 3 week window of availability closes we have simmered, pureed, strained, bagged, sealed, and frozen a wealth of black raspberry puree, enough to last us well into next year.
Currently, Avec is serving a black raspberry gelato, light and eggless, finished with tangy buttermilk.
On blackbirds menu, black raspberries are tucked into a sherbet, and mixed into a jam flavored with a multitude of anise flavors. These textures sit in composition with a burnt vanilla meringue, both crispy and chewy and deep from a blackening that occurs when we roast vanilla pods in the oven. Ripe bananas are infused into milk before the flavored liquid is thickened into a stove top pudding, acting to anchor the components to the plate. Black licorice and molasses tint a whipped crème fraiche, and the black rasperries themselves are frozen until brittle, then shattered into individual cells. Scattered over the dessert, they create a striking black confetti of sorts. Bitty leaves of Sambuca tangle themselves over the dish, a visual bramble reminding us of the thickets our black raspberries were born of. This dessert, while not a pavlova, borrows from the successes of the Australian national dessert; a meringue with a split personality, luxurious custards and whipped creams, and the brightness of a sun ripened berry.photo by Christian Seel