A Bounty of Rosy, Crunchy Fruits

By Shirley Barker, Special to the Planet
Tuesday August 14, 2007

Recently I read a novel in which the heroine “rose” from a hammock to greet a visitor. The author must surely have lacked the hammock experience, that necessary adjunct to the life of the gardener, for one can roll out of a hammock, but I defy anyone to rise from it without putting a foot through the mesh. 

I hung my hammock ($14, from REI on San Pablo at Gilman, classic simple construction, easy to install) just north of the vegetable plot in order to take a breather while at the same time surveying what (if anything) is coming up. It gently swings its elegant parabola beneath a grape vine ordered by mail, a Thompson’s Seedless. 

To be put in as a bare-root rather than a potted plant, the vine arrived on my doorstep tiny and frail, a waif living in a cardboard box. Given my capacity for neglect, I wondered how well it would do. I dug it into ground near a north fence for maximum sun. A baby plum tree was growing a few feet away. 

This being California, both plants grew like gangbusters. After very few years the plum screened the sun from the vine. Apparently undaunted, the vine twined itself into the plum’s branches, hiding deep and high within the plum’s foliage. 

One day as I was lolling in the hammock, I looked up as I often do through the plum branches to the sky behind the leaves. As I gazed, I was astonished to see dangling inches from my nose a nicely formed bunch of grapes. It turned out that quite unobtrusively, the vine had gone berserk, producing so many bunches that I toyed with the idea of making wine. But there was no need for a change of career. The grapes may be smaller than those we find at Monterey Market, but oh, the flavor: solid globes of white wine that actually taste of grape.  

Fruits are a desirable addition to the garden since vegetable growers like to eat as well as reap what they sow (although I did meet one once who could not bear to harvest, let alone eat, what she grew). Fruits need not take up much space. An early and a late apple will supply the larder for six months or longer. I ordered mine from the same nursery as the vine’s. The red Gravenstein, productive in July, grew huge, but harvesting has never been a problem, because Gravensteins drop their fruit as soon as it is ripe. It is delicious raw, and as everyone knows, it makes the best applesauce. The Cox’s turned out to be a different variety and the tree remained tiny, barely waist-high. If I had read the nursery’s fine print right away, I would have noted that if they run out of stock, the nursery substitutes something comparable. So much the better, for every other year the tiny tree is laden with crisp green apples that keep until March. If it needs alternate years off, it has earned them. 

The nursery recommended a Seckel pear. Larger than the green apple tree, it has matured to a manageable size, free of pests and resistant to fire blight. It reliably produces a bounty of rosy, crunchy fruits that can be eaten right away. All these grow in an ordinary backyard space. 

Blackberries have taken over the perimeter fencing. Apart from cutting off streamers in mid-summer so that I can reach them, and in winter, cutting back branches that have fruited, I leave them alone. Of all the berries one can grow, these are my favorites. They are so reliable, so trouble-free and delicious, they make wonderful jams, syrups, pies and cobblers, they are loaded with vitamins and are especially rich in fiber. Even though there is no fruit quite so splendid as a ripe raspberry, if I had to choose one or the other, the blackberry would be it. Unlike raspberries, blackberries require no irrigation. If winter and spring rains are just right, the berries will be huge, like goloboshes, a word from a childhood book. Later in the summer they struggle to ripen. These half-red ones make the best jam. 

Once when I was car camping on the way to meet friends in Oregon, I drove up a washboard mountain road looking for a campsite. Halfway there the car overheated, a not unusual occurrence. The solution being to wait, I wandered along the road with my dogs (keen travelers both) and found such a profusion of berries that I’d soon filled my hat. Hurrying back to the car, I boiled them on my small camp stove with some sugar, and soon had enough jam to last the trip. By that time the car’s temperature had dropped and we could coast downhill to smoother, cooler pastures. 

There is no doubt that this hunter-gatherer aspect of the blackberry is partly responsible for its appeal. Blackberries are not the only free fruits, and some are close to home. In the hills near one of the entrances to Redwood Park grow apple trees, not wild of course, but cultivated survivors of some great estancia or old farmstead. Walnut trees grow just inside this entrance, originating from the same source perhaps. Walnuts have so many uses, from the sauces, candies, pickles and oils beloved by the Georgians of the Eastern Mediterranean and described in recipes by food writer Paula Wolfert, to the permanent dye their green husks yield. Wear gloves when handling these. 

Elderberries can be found in Tilden Park. The elderberry bears either red or blue-black fruits, one of which is poisonous, and since one can never remember which one it is, it’s best to err on the side of caution and leave both for the birds. 

None of these really compares to the grape, the cultivated European Vitis vinifera in my garden, and the wild American grapes, such as V. labrusca and V. rotundifolia. There is even a V. californica. It is a refreshing surprise to find this by accident during a long hot hike in the Sierra foothills. Its soft round slightly furry leaves are distinctive. 

The Vitaceae family has few members or genera, all twining vines bearing berries. It turns out that their tendrils are negatively phototropic, actively seeking crevices in which they expand and stick. V. vinifera has been in cultivation for at least 8,000 years. It is thought to be native to Western Asia. This grape has prospered all over Europe, in the Middle Ages even in England until a change in politics, the dissolution of the monasteries, and a change in climate, from warm to cool, caused its decline. Grapes need enough winter chill to go dormant, but not so much that the root is damaged. 

Catastrophe struck vineyards in the 1800s when Phylloxera vitifolia, a tiny insect that feeds on grape roots, emerged from eastern North America, and traveled to Europe and California, where it devastated Vitis vinifera. Its original habitat provided the cure, for native American vines have built up considerable resistance to these pests, and are now used as rootstock. 

Dessert grapes ripen faster than wine grapes, which require higher levels of sugar to make good wine, only reached after days of hot, dry weather. For this reason wine grapes also make the best dried fruits, the raisins, sultanas, and currants that are so useful in winter, and in baking, camping, and lunch boxes. 

Let us not forget the leaves, too. Blanched in lightly salted water and stuffed with cooked rice and nuts, they can be baked with spicy tomato sauce or served cold with dips, with none of the vinegary taste of the commercially bottled leaves. A touch of lemon, or verjus (made from unripe grapes), is pleasant. If I abstain until the grapes have been picked, even leaves close to turning color in late summer are edible. 

Still, nothing can beat lying in a hammock on a sunny afternoon, in the dappled shade of the vine and the plum, and gently tugging on a tendril, lowering a bunch of grapes close enough for a taste. Ah, sweet idleness.