Press Releases

Putting Up the Produce of Summer’s Fruitfulness By SHIRLEY BARKER

Special to the Planet
Friday August 06, 2004

In this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness that we call our Berkeley summer, there may be little to do in the garden beyond watering. In contrast, the kitchen can be a hive of activity. 

In mid July and on into August the Gravenstein apples start to fall, just in time for the blackberries glistening through the hedges. Transformed into pies and crumbles, both make wonderful summer eating, combined or separately. The dark crimson nectarines are still hard, yet not too hard for nocturnal fruitarians. Each morning shows one or two de-fleshed pits hanging among the leaves. Never mind, there are enough and to spare this year for the opossum and her family. Still, one does not want the tree stripped before enjoying at least some of its lusciousness. When the nectarines barely yield to pressure, I twist them off the branches and bring them indoors to ripen in a few days. These three fruits ripening in unison are in the same family, Rosaceae. 

How can one prolong their perfumed bounty into the cooler months? Freezing would be the ideal choice where electricity is cheap, stable and environmentally correct. Drying is an option, not a thrilling one, if only our summer climate were one of hot dry days and warm dry nights. In order to hold on to fruit flavor, ca nning, or more accurately bottling, might do. This has its hazards, requiring time without distraction, sleight of hand, a consideration of acid balance, and the pros and cons of hot water baths. Over all this hangs the specter of botulism. 

My own soluti on is to make jams, jellies and chutneys, as these seem safe enough when properly sealed in sterilized jars after what seems hours of boiling and lots of sugar. 

An exception is made for apple sauce, which tastes best when fresh, and Gravensteins make the best. Cut up the apples into chunks, removing stalks and cores and leaving them unpeeled. Put them in a microwave-safe bowl, with some brown sugar (rapadura if you can find it), a little water, and cinnamon to taste. Microwave this, covered, for a few mi nutes, stopping to stir now and then. It is wonderful eaten straight away, for breakfast, or later on in the day, chilled, with something barbecued, such as sausages or chops. 

For the blackberries, I am willing to slave over a hot stove. Admittedly, no b erry can rival in taste a raspberry eaten straight from the cane, slightly warmed by the morning sun. Strawberries, including the tiny woodland or Alpine, play in the major berry league. Blackberries still remain my favorite. Reliable, pest-free, tolerant of neglect to the point of abuse, they just go on and on, year after year. I bow down to them in gratitude, eager to prune them down to the ground just when I’m in need of winter exercise, clipping their streamers in summer while filling pails with their fruit. Raspberries on the other hand require precision pruning twice a year and constant moisture. Even then, their output is casual, to say the least. As for strawberries—fusspots all. 

So for me, the thought of wintry days ahead is simply not to be borne without a row of pots of blackberry jam in full view on the kitchen shelf. A freshly made buckwheat crepe in January, with butter and blackberry jam, warms soul as well as body. If one does not mind their numerous seeds, it is a simple matter to rinse the berries, add an equal volume of granulated sugar, and boil it all up for twenty minutes or so. Then one pours the jam into hot sterilized jars, and seals the jars with sterilized lids. To sterilize, the jars are heated in a low oven, and the lids are covered with cold water and brought to a simmer. By the time the berries have turned into jam, jars and lids will be ready. 

If you would rather do without seeds, blend the raw fruit and press it through a strainer before measuring the sugar and boiling. Blackberry jelly is another way to achieve seedlessness. Here, one simmers the raw fruit until it is very soft and juicy. Then one hangs it up in cheesecloth (dampened and then wrung out) to drip into a basin beneath. Next day one measures and boils until it starts to jell. There is always some loss of flesh in these seedless methods, and jelly takes considerably more fruit than does jam. 

These activities are but preliminaries leading up to the nectarine. My nectarine tree grew from what I remember as the stone of a peach, casually discarded earthwards. I was amazed not only that it germinated spontaneously, and tolerated a shift of location at the wrong time of year, not only that it produced one fruit in its third year and a huge amount in its fourth, but that it is not a peach at all. What a lot one can learn from a garden. Unbelievably, it is indeed possible that a peach stone will grow into a nectarine, and vice versa. Nectarines are said to do better than peaches west of the Rockies. Could it be th at the peach I ate was an easterner, and decided to encourage its Berkeley offspring to be a nectarine? Is this nectarine like a traveler in foreign parts who doffs his natural garb in order to blend into and survive a new culture? No one seems to know ho w or why this shape-shifting occurs. Environmental pressure is always a possible factor in morphological or behavioral change. Botanically, peach and nectarine are identical, for the nectarine is a peach without a fur coat. Both, taxonomically, are Amygda lus persica (formerly Prunus persica). Their origins are as misty as our summers, for they have been so long in cultivation that they have never been found in the wild. Darwin concluded that their ancestor was the wild almond of Persia. It is for this rea son that they now have their own genus, shared with the almond.  

The opossum went on eating the nectarines until something had to be done. I tried jam, and the result was syrupy. Peaches and nectarines lack pectin. Blackberries and apples have plenty, an d apples are often used as a source. The addition of pectin alters flavor, so I thought about putting them up in a light syrup. John Seymour, in his book The Self-Sufficient Gardener, recommends baking the whole fruits in a covered bowl in a moderate oven for forty minutes. Then one crams them into hot sterilized jars and tops these up with boiling syrup before sealing with the usual lids and rings. After all that, my nectarines had become an unpleasant liverish maroon and looked distressed. To be on the safe side, I refrigerated them when they were cold. 

With nectarine jam a failure and bottling an incertitude, I was now at a loss for ideas. By that time the opossum and I and a few friends had eaten our way through the entire crop. It was astonishing ho w quickly it went. Perhaps that is the only way to enjoy these fleeting exotics, food of the gods. 

Still, even without nectarines, the colors of fruitfulness now gleam from my kitchen shelf, purple and amber, crimson and rose. I had not been looking forward to toiling in my kitchen in midsummer’s heat. On a misty Berkeley morn, it isn’t half bad. If only there was time to sit and gloat. I see from my window that the Seckel pears, a late and admirably trouble-free variety, are ripening fast. One pear has a little bite taken out of it.