Not only are these little gems downright delicious right off the vine . . . but delicious when they're simmered into jelly and spread over a hefty slab of homebaked bread.
PHOTO: MARY ANN PICCARD
Here are some tips for picking and preserving the Wineberry, a little-known but wonderfully flavorful fruit.
Picking and Preserving the Wineberry
What? You say you've never heard of (much less eaten) a wineberry? Well, I can tell you that you're in for a real wild-food treat. Not only are these little gems downright delicious right off the vine . . . but when they're simmered into jelly and spread over a hefty slab of homebaked bread, why, wineberries become the kind of food that makes a person give thanks for being born with tastebuds! In fact, my family and I spend months savoring our anticipation of each year's wineberry season (which, in our part of eastern Pennsylvania, is about mid-July), when we can wander through the woods and collect these goodies courtesy of Mother Nature.
A WINEBERRY HISTORY LESSON
A member of the Rubus genus (as are raspberries and blackberries, as well as a dozen or so other species), the wineberry is native to China and Japan. It was brought to this country by way of Europe and sold as an ornamental plant during the later part of the nineteenth century.
Since wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) are relatively new to the U.S., they've established themselves in the wild only throughout most of the eastern states so far. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Western folks can grow their own, though. In case you don't happen to live in an area where wineberries flourish, you'll be glad to know that it's possible to purchase plants by mail from seed companies. One firm that offers the wineberry is Burpee (Dept. TMEN, Warminster, Pennsylvania). The folks there will sell you one plant for $5.25, five for $8.95, and ten for $14.75 . . . plus a $1.00 handling charge per order. Burpee advises that the bushes grow best in Zones 5 through 8.]
Like their raspberry cousins, wineberries produce new canes each year, which then bear fruit the following summer. The brambles usually flower sometime between April and June (depending upon climate), and their berries ripen approximately two months later.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN WINEBERRIES
Fortunately, unlike many of their kin (which often seem to grow best where they're hardest to find), R. phoenicolasius appear to possess an affinity for being devoured by hungry berry-hunters .. . be cause their telltale eight- to ten-foot-long canes, which are covered (all year long) with bright red bristles, are remarkably easy to spot. In fact, the colorful little hairs make it possible for a forager to scout out wineberry patches well in advance of harvest time . . . even in the dead of winter, and especially when there's snow on the ground.
The foliage of the wineberry plant is distinctive, too. Its silky green leaves (with silvery white undersides) grow in clusters of three, one of which is always noticeably larger than the other two. White (or sometimes pink) blossoms appear in the spring, but they seem pale in comparison with the splendid array of color that develops as the berries themselves ripen.
Once the calyx (which houses the tiny immature morsels) opens to expose the fruit to the sun, the berries turn from green to yellow to orange, and finally to deep wine red when they're ready for sampling. (Besides having that characteristic coloration, mature berries will be slightly sticky to the touch.) At the height of the picking season, the richlooking berries glistening amidst the lush green foliage and scarlet-furred branches make a wineberry thicket both a dramatic and an unmistakable sight.
YOUR PICK OF WINEBERRIES
When you're ready to visit the briar patch, arm yourself with plenty of containers . . . because wineberries tend to grow in abundance. And be sure to wear good thick socks and high boots for protection against snakes and poison ivy . . . since the tangled clusters of canes are often home to both.
Then, after you've picked your fill (always leaving some to feed your wild neigh bors), tote the treasure on home and put what you don't plan to eat right away (perhaps with honey and cream) into the freezer. Or you might want to whip up a batch of wineberry jelly!
A SCRUMPTIOUS SPREAD: WINEBERRY PRESERVES RECIPE
To make the basic preserve, you'll first need to cook 10 cups of fruit in 1 cup of water until the berries fall apart. Then strain the juice through a jelly bag, making sure to extract as much of the liquid as possible without forcing the pulp through the cloth.
This process should yield about 5 cups of berry juice, to which you need to add 1 box of Sure-Jell. Bring the combination to a boil, and add 5 cups of sugar to the brew. (EDITOR'S NOTE: For information about preparing low sugar-or sugarless-preserves, see "Magic Pectin" in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 59, page 23.]
Now, let the mixture come to a hard boil (one that no amount of stirring will settle down) for about three minutes. Then remove it from the heat and skim off as much of the foam, which will have formed on top, as you can. (Save these skimmings to serve on bread or biscuits for a snack later in the day.)
Next, reheat the remaining liquid to a gentle boil before you pour it into sterilized jars . . . seal the containers with canning lids . . . and submerge the jelly-filled jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
AN APPLE A DAY
Of course, some folks don't like to use factory-prepared pectin. If you're one of them, you can take advantage of the natural jelling power of apples to produce an apple-wineberry spread. To do so, cook 10 cups of chopped apples and 10 cups of berries in 1-1/2 cups of water. Boil the fruit for at least 30 minutes (making sure to stir the mixture occasionally to keep it from sticking to or burning on the bottom of the pan), and-after the half-hour is up-strain it through a jelly bag.
With this done, add 1 cup of sugar for each cup of fruit juice. Bring the mix to a hard boil and let it cook for 5 to 10 minutes. Then skim off the sweet froth (for treats later), pour the rest of the juice into canning jars, and seal them by the method described above.
These few tips should serve to get you started as a wineberry forager and fancier. However, as you and your family become more familiar with the delectable fruit, you'll most likely develop many more recipes of your own . . . provided, of course, that you are able to employ enough will power to avoid eating your whole harvest as you pick it!