Blackberry canes are prolific in Vancouver; they grow along train tracks and walking trails, in parks, on boulevards, and even meander down to the beaches.
In July, the young berries, firm and bright red, are everywhere. They taunt everyone who passes with how not-quite-ripe they are. Weeks pass. The berries are still red, still too sour, still clinging too tightly to the brambles. Then, just when you start to dismiss them, blending them back into the background of life, they are ALL RIPE.
And, of course, you don’t have a container with you to collect them.
It’s like keeping those reusable cloth grocery bags in the trunk of my car. I’m so well-intentioned, I bring them everywhere, tucked in the back of my car. Of course, 9 times out of 10, I forget they are there until I am at the checkout, in the store, with a dozen frustrated people behind me in line. Am I going to be that person? Will I run out and get them?
Of course not. I might be kind of a jerk sometimes, but there are certain lines you just don’t cross (holding up a bunch of tired, hangry people on their way home from work is one of them).
So, years passed and I didn’t pick any blackberries.
As a kid my family was wonderfully organized* and would head to the boondocks outside of Victoria, armed with empty ice cream pails and sticks with nails hammered through the ends (to pull down those hard to reach branches). Between the four of us, we would stock the freezer full- and the deep freeze in the garage. Our fingers would remain stained for days, our arms and legs looking like we lost a fight with a stray cat, but no one complained. It was, surprisingly, an activity that the whole family enjoyed (an impressive feat, to say the least).
* More likely, they needed an activity to occupy my sister and I for a full day during summer vacation, but you get the idea.
This year, I was determined. I would be on top of it. I would put some containers in my trunk. And I would remember to take them out. Containers for blackberries.
Ha! Except, I totally didn’t. Namely because I realize I don’t eat those 5 liter tubs of ice cream anymore and my puny yogurt containers are, frankly, way too small.
But here’s the twist…
You see, I have a dog- Hannah. Every weekend I walk her at the off-leash trail close to my house, down by the river. There are lots of blackberry bushes there, which I had been eyeing up.
It just so happened that this particular weekend, coming off a hectic week at work, I had failed to re-stock the household poop bags for dear Miss Hannah.
Oh yeah, you see where this is going…
Being a responsible dog owner, I stuffed a plastic grocery bag into my pocket before the walk, thinking it would do the trick (see?!? Sometimes forgetting your eco-friendly cloth bags at the grocery store is a good thing!).
Once I got to the dog park, however, I saw that- finally- the blackberries were ready. I had a bag. It wasn’t perfect, I couldn’t collect pounds and pounds… but I could collect some.
I looked at Hannah. “You don’t have to go, do you?”
Hannah looked back at me. Are you kidding me, we’re at the dog park, of course I have to go.
“I’m going to take that as a no. Good girl.” And I proceeded to collect as many blackberries as I could.
(I won’t go into elaborate detail about how I eventually managed the situation when Hannah did decide to go, but suffice to say she was a very, very good girl and did it on the beach where I was able to creatively maneuver some driftwood and fwwwiiiing it into the river. The things we do for the dogs we love…)
Yikes, did I really just tell a poop story in a food blog post? What is the matter with me?
Aaaaanyway… I went back the following day armed with extra bags. And then again the day after that. Evening walks became a thing, too, much to Hannah’s delight. She gets a walk, I get to forage. Everybody’s happy.
All the happier, too, when I realized that I could set some of the uglier berries aside to make one of my favourite drink ingredients- the shrub.
The first time I tried ‘drinking vinegar,’ it took me by surprise. Surely I don’t want to drink vinegar? (and I love vinegar, but really? Really?)
Don’t be put off thinking this is going to be wildly pungent. I mean, it does pack a punch, but aging the shrub for 4-6 weeks mellows the flavours considerably. Much like balsamic vinegar brings out the sweetness and flavour strawberries, so a shrub brings out the natural flavours of any fruit. When first made, a shrub will be sharp- big sugar, big fruit, big acid. In a few short weeks however, the flavours marry and become something new entirely- big, bright fruit flavour.
A lot of shrub recipes cook the fruit down with the sugar, which creates a baked or jammy flavour. Personally, I like to preserve the fruit as it tasted fresh, right off the branch, so I prefer cold-processing my shrubs. It doesn’t take more effort, just a little more waiting, but the results are entirely worthwhile in my opinion.
Now, what to do with the shrub once you’ve patiently waited so? Well! For a non-alcoholic cocktail, I like mixing mine with straight sparkling water. Since a shrub, by nature, is on the acidic side, I would advise against mixing it with other citrus juices, save for a squeeze of lemon or lime but it pairs an absolute treat with all manner of alcohols. My personal favourites combinations are rum and brandy (both sweeter) and vodka (which is largely flavourless). Who knows, maybe toss some bitters in there, some ginger syrup… it’s hard to go wrong when you’re starting with a bottle of liquid summer!
|Cold-Process Blackberry Shrub|| |
- 5 cups blackberries, rinsed
- 4 cups granulated sugar
- 4 cups red wine vinegar
- In a large mixing bowl, combine blackberries and sugar. You don't have to intentionally smush any of the berries, but the act of mixing will produce some juice which will help the sugar to coat the berries. Cover and place in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
- After a day, the berries and sugar will have created a jammy looking slurry. Strain the berries out of the syrup, gently pressing any excess liquid from them. Add the vinegar to the berry syrup and whisk until most of the sugar has dissolved. Pour into a clean glass bottle and place in a cool dark place (or refrigerate) for 4 weeks. After 4 weeks, the sharpness of the vinegar will have mellowed considerably and married with the flavour of the fresh fruit. Serve mixed with soda water for a refreshing sipper- also pairs excellently with rum, vodka, sherry or vermouth! Have fun!