Summer berry picking

I’m dreaming of blueberry muffins, homemade berry pies, tarts, and warm compote. There are about 24 cups’ worth of fresh berries in my refrigerator, taking up space that I cleared recently by throwing out brown and moldy things. I’m terrified that my berries will meet the same fate in a week or two unless I take action. I don’t know much about baking, but hey, I can look up recipes online and follow instructions. I think I need to do it. I love these berries and the possibility of spending carefree hours rinsing, mashing, simmering, sugaring, and cooking them. My hopes are probably too high. Homemade desserts, and even homemade meals, have been part of my fantasies but typically beyond the reach of my laziness.

There is something romantic about the berries. I picked them yesterday with a friend at Sauvie Island, a farm-covered slab of land in the Columbia River outside of Portland city limits. TriMet buses go out there and appear to drop off passengers at the end of Sauvie Island Bridge, but from that point, you’re on your own among country roads and fields. You know that the city is a few miles away, and its industrial yards even closer, but none of that is evident except for an occasional airplane crossing the sky overhead. My friend and I wondered aloud about the difficulty of arriving by bus or bike as we drove a rented car onto the island. First stop was a “U-pick” blueberry farm, where family cars were lined up on either side of a one-lane road.

Acres of blueberry shrubs, taller than I, were planted next to dahlia bushes (also available for plucking) at the foot of a low hill supporting the proprietor’s farmhouse. The property was secluded by forests on every side, except for an opening to the main road. It had the appearance of a family operation, one that’s probably been in business for decades. We lined up to have our containers weighed and then ventured into the neatly planted rows. It was a busy day, but people were spread out evenly and I was left with an entire row for my personal harvest.

It was a surprisingly relaxing activity. I scanned every branch for clusters of ripe-looking berries, and plucked off one or two at a time. Once they fell into my tub I could glance down and make sure there weren’t any spots of green or light purple. I learned to pick the ones that were bright blue all around. Sampling was the only way to find out. I don’t know much about blueberries and I’d certainly never picked them myself before. Eating and picking them in the privacy of my own row, under a cool and cloudy sky, was a joy. I overheard conversations and berry-throwing fights among friends and family. A middle-aged man told his grown daughter that blueberry picking was a long family tradition, and her grandmother had especially loved coming out here. He told her this in a quiet, fond voice a few minutes before the woman’s sister and young daughter re-joined them. Elsewhere, younger parents gently advised their children not to pick the green ones and not to waste the good ones by projecting them at their siblings. I felt sure that I was witnessing some special family moments out there. What a simple, wholesome activity to share with the people you love.

After paying for our bounty and leaving the blueberry fields, my friend and I circled the island in search of any other fruits that were in season. We followed a sign advertising raspberries and marionberries at the island’s eastern edge. To the front office we brought up a new set of empty containers for weighing, and received a hand-drawn map showing the location of scattered fields offering  a variety of crops. We crossed the street toward rows of Meeker raspberries. I ducked between the shrubs and tried not to get pricked as I reached in and plucked the pink fruits. The ripe ones slipped easily off their receptacles—swollen remnants of the flowers from which they’d grown. I thought they were astoundingly beautiful and couldn’t help looking down to admire them as they piled up in my tub. They were small, soft, and delicious. I started to devise plans for them involving brownies and vanilla ice cream. After my tub was full I kept plucking and eating as I headed toward the end of the row.

Marionberries—our final prize of the day—were developed in Oregon and are grown almost exclusively here. I’d eaten them before, in jams and pies, but didn’t know just what they were. We learned from the girl at the front office that they’re a distinct variety of blackberry, which must be certified by the state before they can be truthfully marketed as marionberries. On the vine they seemed much larger, and more deeply colored, than typical blackberries. Many of the ones we saw were an inch long.  After a few sour samples I deduced that their ripeness had to be measured by touch as well as sight. They had to be fully black, but unless they were also soft and yielding, they weren’t ready to be taken. I confirmed this by tasting a few that were soft to the touch; they provided a familiar, rich, deeply sweet flavor. I’m sure they’d be a wonderful complement to the lighter flavor of raspberries, but they are amazing on their own. Because of their size, it didn’t take us long to fill up our containers. We were both in a great mood as we paid far less than any grocery store would charge for them.

Now I have a fridge full of possibilities. I shouldn’t be too worried about my berry collection in case I can’t dredge up the effort needed to bake or preserve them. It would be a shame, actually, if I covered them all with sugar and didn’t leave a few good handfuls to each fresh. Assuming our July weather starts behaving soon like actual July weather, it’s hard to imagine a better kind of snack on a hot afternoon than cool, sweet berries from a farm in Portland’s backyard.

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