Get your berry buckets out. Like many other California crops, blackberries are ahead of schedule.
That is, if you can find the fruit. Weird winter weather again put a damper on another popular summer favorite.
“Everything is early this year,” said berry farmer Robert Ramming of Pacific Star Gardens in Woodland. “Our olallieberries are just about finished. Everything is running early two or three weeks. It’s not just blackberries; our strawberries are already done and they usually last until the end of June.”
Whether cultivated on farms or growing wild along waterways, blackberries traditionally hit their peak season in late June. Modern cultivars extend that season by several weeks both ways.
But dry and warm winter days affected several Northern California berry growers. The recent triple-digit heat wave did them no favors either.
“This is the first year we got nothing off our marionberries,” said Katie Kelly of Impossible Acres in Davis. “We’ve been growing berries for 19 years, but it’s been the kind of year that you never know what will happen.
“It’s been a difficult year for the berries,” she said. “A lot of varieties of blackberries need chill hours (to set fruit), but some didn’t get enough hours under 40 degrees. We tend to grow higher chill varieties, such as marionberries, in the Valley than the coastal areas where most of the commercial berries are produced. Marionberries won’t grow in Watsonville, but they didn’t do so well here either this year.”
Chill hours are time spent just above or below freezing, an important cue to plants to produce flowers and fruit. Blackberries need 200 to 800 chill hours, depending on variety.
“And it was dry in December, too,” Kelly added. “In the spring, that’s when it got all wet. This year, everything seemed in reverse. That stressed the plants; they needed the rain in the winter, not when setting bloom. Between the lack of chill and lack of (winter) rain, their little plant hormones got very confused inside their buds.”
The result was that many bushes set smatterings of berries instead of big, solid clusters.
“It’s a phenomenon called ‘scattered bloom,’ ” Kelly said. “Certain parts of the bud will set (fruit), but others will not.”
Although stressed by lack of winter rain, blackberries tend to cope better in drought than other crops. Once established, their roots go down 3 feet or more in search of consistent moisture.
That coping mechanism helps wild berries, which are just now turning ripe. According to the University of California, 11 types of blackberries grow wild in our region. The most prevalent in the Sacramento area is a non-native invasive weed: the Himalayan blackberry. Actually native to Armenia and imported by Oregon farmers in the 1800s, this variety has larger fruit than the native California blackberry. But soon after its introduction, the Himalayan escaped cultivation and now runs rampant over California riverbanks and winds its way into backyard gardens.
“It’s terribly invasive,” Kelly said. “It will out-compete any domesticated variety.”
In the foothills, the native California blackberry forms brambles along streams and ditches. The easiest way to tell the Himalayan from the native Californian is to look at the leaves: The Himalayan has five leaflets per stem, the Californian has three. The former also has bigger, showier flowers and tends to stick its clusters of berries out of the bush for easy reach. The native bush tends to hide its berry clusters under foliage.
Blackberries come in hundreds of species. Lumped into the blackberry category are many berry cousins that are crosses of two or more berry varieties.
“The olallieberry was developed by the USDA and introduced around 1940,” Ramming said. “The marionberry is larger than the olallie, which is actually one of its parents. Both have raspberry in their pedigree. Both (olallie and marion) look similar but have different flavors. They’re both really good.”
While early berries were challenged by weather, the later varieties seem to be enjoying June heat.
“The late blackberries should be ready in about two weeks,” Kelly said. “They should be good. We grow thornless and that’s really nice. They’re a lot easier to pick.”
This summer, Impossible Acres is leaving all its picking up to customers. “We don’t have enough to harvest to send out a picking crew,” Kelly said. “But we grow lots of different berries – olallie, early marion, boysenberry, two raspberries, late marion, tayberry, loganberries and thornless blackberries.
“We grow a lot of different varieties because we know something like this (year) will happen; some fail, some will be fine,” Kelly said. “When the winter is really cold, the loganberries don’t do so well. There’s always a trade-off. But at least we know we’ll have something.”
Berries may be frozen for up to 6 to 8 months without sugar; up to a year with sugar. Before freezing, sort berries, discarding any that look immature, discolored or moldy. Remove any stems. Gently wash berries by placing in a colander and submerging in a sink filled with cold water two or three times. Drain well.
To freeze unsweetened, gently place berries in freezer containers or zip-locked bags; allow a 1/2-inch head space in containers to allow for expansion.
Or freeze the fruit as individual berries. Gently pat berries dry with a terrycloth towel (it will get stained), spread them in a single layer on a cookie sheet, then freeze the berries until solid (usually one to two days). Once frozen, transfer the berries to covered containers or zip-locked bags. Avoid leaving the berries uncovered for more than a few days; they may dry out and develop freezer burn.
To sugar pack, gently mix 1/2 to 3/4 cup sugar with 4 cups berries; be careful not to crush the berries. Transfer to freezer containers or bags, allowing 1/2-inch head space for expansion.
The biggest difference between blackberries and raspberries rests in the center of the berry. When picked, the blackberry core comes off the bush with the fruit. Raspberries leave their core attached to the plant and are hollow when picked.
Several berries with different names are considered blackberries, too. That includes cultivars that crossed true blackberries with raspberries or other cane berries. Among these crosses are:
Pacific Star Gardens, 20872 County Road 99 in Woodland, has a limited supply of blackberries as well as other produce. Hours are 9 a.m.-7 p.m. daily. Call (530) 666-7308.
Chocolate brownie waffles with blackberry sauce
Serves 6 to 8
These fragrant waffles come together quickly. They’re not overly sweet. Tangy blackberry sauce and a dollop of whipped cream or mascarpone cheese add the perfect finishing touch. You’ll need a small Belgian waffle iron. Recipe from the Washington Post.
Make ahead: The sauce can be refrigerated a day in advance. Reheat in a saucepan over low heat.
For the sauce:
2 cups (10 ounces) fresh or frozen blackberries, plus extra berries for optional garnish
2 tablespoons sugar
Juice from 1 lemon
2 tablespoons water, or more as needed
For the waffles:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate (60 to 77 percent cacao), coarsely chopped
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup whole milk
1 cup flour
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Whipped cream or mascarpone cheese, for garnish
Once the mixture begins to bubble gently, cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the sugar has dissolved and the berries begin to break down, making sure the mixture does not come to a full boil. Transfer to a food processor or blender; if using the latter, remove the center of the blender lid and cover the opening with a towel to prevent any splash-ups. Purée until smooth. Wipe out the saucepan.
Strain the sauce through a fine-mesh sieve back into the same saucepan, using a flexible spatula to push/scrape it through and discarding the solids. Keep warm.
(At this point, the sauce also can be cooled, covered and refrigerated for a day.)
Combine the butter and chocolate in a saucepan or in a double boiler over low heat. Once the mixture is melted and smooth, remove it from the heat and stir in the sugar until well incorporated. Beat in the eggs and vanilla extract, then the milk. Stir in the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt, mixing just until incorporated.
Pour about 1/2 cup of batter onto the iron for each waffle (the amount will depend on the size of your iron) and cook for about 3 minutes, until firm.
Serve warm, drizzled with the room-temperature or warmed blackberry sauce. Garnish with blackberries, if desired, and whipped cream or mascarpone.
Per serving (based on 8): 350 calories; 18g fat (11g sat.); 85 mg chol.; 290 mg sodium; 46 g carb.; 4 g fiber; 29 g sugar; 5 g protein.
Gorgonzola tart with blackberry-Port sauce
Prep time: 2 hours 50 minutes, including chill time
Cook time: 1 hour 10 minutes
Serves 12-14 as an appetizer
Recipe from the Oregon Raspberry and Blackberry Commission.
Tart shell crust:
11/4 cups all-purpose flour
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 to 4 tablespoons ice water
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
1 cup heavy cream
1 large egg
2 egg yolks
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
5 ounces chilled Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
1 cup fresh or frozen blackberries
Blackberry Port sauce:
One 16-ounce bag frozen blackberries, thawed, or 2 cups fresh berries
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup ruby Port
1 teaspoon salt
Squeeze a small handful: If it doesn’t hold together, add more ice water, 1/2 tablespoon at a time, stirring (or pulsing) until just incorporated, then test again. (If you overwork mixture, pastry will be tough.)
Turn out mixture onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 4 portions. With heel of your hand, smear each portion once or twice in a forward motion. Gather dough together with scraper and press into a ball. Flatten into a 5-inch disk. Chill dough, wrapped in plastic wrap, until firm, at least 1 hour. Dough can be chilled up to 1 day.
Let stand at room temperature until slightly softened, about 20 minutes, before rolling out.
Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface with a floured rolling pin into a 17-by-8-inch rectangle and fit into tart pan. Trim excess dough. Lightly prick bottom and sides all over with fork. Sprinkle walnuts across crust; press to set into crust. Chill until firm about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line pastry shell with foil and fill with pie weights or dry beans. Bake in middle of oven for 20 minutes, then carefully remove foil and weights and bake until golden 10-15 minutes more. Cool shell in pan 20 minutes.
Warm blackberry pie sundaes
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 8 minutes
Adapted by Cathy Thomas of the Orange County Register from Bon Appétit magazine.
5 1/2 cups fresh blackberries, divided
1 cup orange juice
3/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons grated orange zest, colored part only
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
One 7.25-ounce package shortbread cookies, such as Pepperidge Farm Chessmen, coarsely crumbled (about 2 cups)
1 quart vanilla ice cream
8 sprigs fresh mint, for garnish
Combine 4 cups blackberries, orange juice, sugar, orange peel and cinnamon in medium saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to low; simmer 8 minutes until berries are soft and begin to release juices.
Transfer 2 cups berry mixture to food processor fitted with metal blade; process until puréed and smooth. Return mixture to same saucepan. Stir in remaining blackberries. (Can be made 2 hours in advance. Let stand at room temperature. Warm berry mixture on medium heat until just warm before continuing.)
Divide cookie crumbs among 8 bowls or wine glasses. Add 1 scoop ice cream and spoon warm blackberry sauce over each and serve. If desired, garnish with fresh mint.
Per serving: 402 calories, 33 percent calories from fat, 15 grams total fat, 7 grams saturated fat, 39 milligrams cholesterol, 64 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams total fiber, 46 grams total sugars, 57 grams net carbs, 6 grams protein, 158 milligrams sodium.
Old-fashioned blackberry pie
Total time: 2 hours, plus chilling time for the crust
Makes one 9-inch pie
Adapted by the Los Angeles Times from Ashley Putz of Buffalo Chips Emporium in Amador City.
2 1/2 cups (10.6 ounces) flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into large cubes
Filling and assembly:
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup sugar, plus extra for dusting the top of the pie
5 tablespoons flour, plus extra for rolling out the dough
1 pound blackberries, washed and picked over
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Crust as prepared
Water for brushing the dough to seal the crust
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Cut in the shortening using a pastry cutter, two knives or a fork, just until the shortening is reduced to the size of large peas.
Stir in ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the ingredients come together to just form a dough, about 4 tablespoons ice water.
Press the contents together into a disk and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate the dough at least 1 hour to give it time to relax and chill.
Remove the crust from the refrigerator and roughly divide in half (make one half slightly larger for the bottom crust). Wrap and refrigerate the smaller half of dough while you roll out and fill the bottom crust.
On a well-floured board, roll the dough to a diameter of about 13 inches; the dough will be very thin and fragile. (It might help to roll the dough on a large sheet of floured parchment or wax paper. The dough then can be more easily lifted and inverted over the pie dish.)
Gently lift and center the dough over a 9-inch pie dish; if the dough cracks, simply press the crack together to seal, or patch with a little leftover dough. Press the dough into the pie dish, making sure to remove any air bubbles from underneath the dough.
Fill the pie shell with the fruit filling. Brush the edge of the dough lightly with water (this will help the top crust adhere to the shell).
Remove the remaining dough from the refrigerator and roll in the same manner as the bottom crust to a diameter of 10 to 11 inches; this will be the top crust. Gently center the dough over the filling. Tuck the edges of the top crust around the bottom crust to seal the pie, pressing the two dough halves together, using your fingers to crimp the edge.
Sprinkle a generous coating of sugar over the top of the pie, then slit the top crust to create vents. Bake the pie in the center of the oven until the crust is lightly golden and set, and the filling is bubbly, about 1 hour. Cool the pie before serving.
Per serving, based on 8: 504 calories; 5 g protein; 63 g carb.; 4 g fiber; 26 g fat (6 g sat.); 0 chol.; 28 g sugar; 108 mg sodium.
Salmon with blackberry ginger glaze
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
Recipe from Sunny Anderson, Food Network.
1 cup water
11/2 cups (12 ounces) blackberries
One 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced into coins
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon olive oil
Four 8-ounce skinless salmon fillets; thaw if frozen
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a saucepan, combine water, blackberries, ginger and lemon juice. Over medium heat, bring to a boil. Reduce to simmer and cook until berries are tender, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat and strain into a bowl, using spoon to press blackberries through or use food mill to lightly grind. Return mixture to pan, add sugar and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, until reduced to half, stirring often to avoid burning. Remove from heat and cool.
Use nonstick foil or brush a baking sheet lightly with olive oil. Place salmon fillets on pan, brush with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Brush cooled blackberry mixture over salmon and bake 4 to 5 minutes. Brush again with blackberry mixture. Turn oven to broil and continue cooking for 3 to 4 minutes.