Raspberries I Have Loved

It’s probably something to do with the unusual heat, but all my berries are coming ready about two weeks earlier than usual this year.

Our fridge is already full of saskatoon berries (some of which are destined for a fate of pie later this morning) and over the last couple days I’ve spent nearly an hour in the thorny brambles of my raspberry bushes plucking the tasty red berries from their hiding spots.

Weeks, literally weeks, after we moved into our house over sixteen years ago, I dug a small hole into the newly graded soil of our backyard and planted a root-ball of a raspberry cultivar.

All those years later, after ups and downs, good seasons and bad, incidents with wafting herbicides, a sad pruning mistake by my wife many years ago, and many attempts to train and constrain the patch, I have a plot of land that’s roughly, consistently, five square meters in size and densely packed with raspberry plants.

We pick and eat them fresh. We pluck pail-fulls that become pies or other pastry deserts. We drop them into cereal or on ice cream. We share them with th neighbours. We live for a short month on the bounty of garden raspberries that for a brief moment seems endless and plentiful.

Until it’s suddenly gone.

Gone, and we are stuck buying expensive little plastic clamshells of never-quite-the-same farm berries usually imported from California or Mexico, achingly dulled by their long trek to the Canadian prairies.

That trip from the backyard is so much shorter, so much fresher. And always a summer treat, even if it is a couple weeks ahead of schedule this year.

Saskatoon Berries Bonanza

According to thecanadianencyclopedia.caSaskatoon takes its name from a Cree word for the sweet, fleshy fruits, which were of prime importance to Aboriginal people and early settlers. On the prairies, saskatoons were a major ingredient in pemmican.

In my small suburban yard, I have four saskatoon bushes, bushes that thrive as native shrubbery is wont to do, and bushes that each year fill our summers with weeks of fresh fruit literally off our doorstep.

We are in the heart of those few short weeks right now.

Out both my front and back door, these ten-foot tall berry trees are draped abundantly with blueberry-sized purple orbs of sweet, nutty, berry goodness.

We gather as many as we can, even as they slowly ripen through late July and early August, dropping them into our breakfasts, harvesting a handful as a snack, overflowing baking bowls for muffins and pies, and generally eating as much as we can for the too-short season.

If you ever find yourself visiting the prairies of Canada and looking to sample a food that many Canadians feel is a food that defines us locally, go ahead and try the poutine, enjoy fried handful of dough that we like to call “beaver tails” and don’t let anyone tell you that maple syrup is the one true Canuck cuisine.

Instead, set your heart on a slice of saskatoon berry pie, sample a bit of saskatoon preserve on your morning sourdough toast, or just go for a walk in the woods and pick a handful of these local sweet treats from the mid-forest foliage of trees that grow wild everywhere.

I’d save you some, but I don’t think they’ll last.

Heat Proofed

While the baker in me is disappointed by the negative impact the heat has had on my sourdough, the science nerd side of my brain has been giddy at watching how this blast of summer temperatures spun the dial on one of the variables in the delicate process.

My fellow Western-North-Americans know this all too well right now, but if you’re not from around here you may have not heard that we’re in the early half of what is turning into a week-long, record-breaking heat wave.

Many of us (and our winter-ready homes) are ill-equipped to handle such heat. My house is designed to contain heat, reduce air circulation, and stay warm through eight months of sub-zero temperatures.

I don’t own either an air conditioner or a personal swimming pool.

I personally prefer the weather to be about ten degrees Celsius and I am far more comfortable in a wool toque and ski gloves than a sun hat and sandals.

In other words: It’s hot. I’m uncomfortably warm. And it’s going to be scorching for at least a week more.

In the midst of this blast of irregular heat, I ran out of bread (a regular occurrence) and went about my regular routine of making dough and getting a couple of loaves of sourdough ready to bake.

Now let me back up one step: regular readers know that I have been making bread two or three times per week for the last sixteen months of this pandemic. I have a recipe and a process that I follow with rote precision, step-by-step, to produce a consistent loaf.

For comparison, a pair of loaves that I baked with a blend of local rye flour a few weeks ago turned out great, rising on the counter for about twelve hours pre-bake after an overnight proof in the fridge.

Great rise. Consistent crumb. Pleasant overall result:

Compare the successful loaves from the second photo to the less-than-stellar loaves from first photo in this post.

I cut into one of those squared-off loaves this morning and found a dense, poorly-risen, heavy bread that more resembled a dense bagel then a fluffy sandwich bread.

For comparison, those first two loaves proofed and rose on my counter for only about eight hours before I had to turn the oven on mid-day (in the hottest part of the afternoon to boot) because they were obviously starting to over-proof, losing cohesion and loosening up.

To be clear, both pictures are loaves from the exact same flour blend, from the exact same bags of flour, from the exact same process… save for that the average outside temperature is about twenty-five degrees warmer this week than two weeks ago.

This means also that my kitchen is currently at least five to ten degrees warmer than normal, despite my best efforts to keep it cool.

The heat has completely revved my yeast into high gear causing what seems to be an accelerated, runaway proofing that I have no great experience (yet) working with. If I bake anymore loaves this week I’m going to need to rely less on watching the clock and more on watching the pans.

And to sum up…

Baker me: sad.
Science-nerd me: neat!

Haskap

Four large lush bushes occupy various spots in my backyard. I planted these shrubs about eight to ten years ago as worked to fill my garden beds with as many fruit-bearing plants as could reasonably live adapted to this crazy northern climate zone.

Lonicera caerulea is also known in some parts of the world as honeysuckle or honeyberry, but in Canada we tend to refer to this bush and it’s fruit as a haskap.

My haskap bushes started to bear ripe fruit this past week and I’ve been eagerly plucking as many as I can before the robins eat more than their fair share. I don’t mind, but I do like to have a few of the tart-sweet berries before they all become bird food.

I don’t know much about the haskap itself. For a few years a nearby university known for their horticultural work breeding plants that were slightly more adapted to surviving the long winters seemed to be mentioned frequently around greenhouses as I and my fellow local gardeners bought and planted each a few of the adapted shrubs. The work of that same university is responsible for the breed of my backyard apple tree which is now at least fourteen seasons growing in it’s current spot and has easily produced tens of thousands of apples. This is not a climate where anything that hasn’t been winter hardened will grow much past September, and only the best adapted of trees and shrubs survive our minus forty winters. The haskap, on the other hand, seems to thrive in these parts.

The haskap is a little more subtle than my apple tree though.

My metre-wide bushes usually produce only a cup or two of the elongated blue-purple treats, right around this time of the year, and by the time we graze our fill there is rarely anything left behind but scraps for the most persistent of the local avian population.

I have a few varieties of berries in my backyard, yet these haskap are the ones that draw the most curiosity from visitors… but only those lucky enough to stop by during the short couple weeks when their colourful, oblong orbs dangle ready to be tasted.