From the Vault: It's Berry Season!
Blueberries, cranberries, cloudberries, oh my!
When I first arrived in the Yukon, it was berry picking that gave me an entry into the wild. I lived with my sister in a cabin off Policeman’s Point Road, about 400 metres from the Yukon River, just upstream from Lake Laberge. For the first few days, I couldn’t walk to the outhouse unaccompanied for fear of bears.
The vice grip of fear loosened slightly over that summer, but I continued to be mildly freaked and couldn’t walk in the woods by myself for years. I found the Yukon wilderness in general completely intimidating—ice-cold water, rapids, -40 winters, avalanches, kilometre after kilometre of dense bush—the stakes were so high!
But gradually, berry picking helped me get over it. When I joined my sister or a bunch of friends on an expedition for lowbush cranberries, fear subsided to a quiet hum in the background, making room for discovery and delight. The intense focus on the forest floor as my eye learned to distinguish between twinflower, kinnick-kinnick and cranberry leaves, the gradual recognition of the difference between the dull crimson of the kinnick-kinnick berry and the deep reds of the lowbush cranberry, the slow acclimatization to the terrain the cranberry liked, and the close attention required to see berries under the leaves against the slanting sun all contributed to a growing feeling of connection to the bush.
As knowledge grew, so did comfort, until one day a couple of summers ago I was deep in a tangle of brush near Fraser, B.C., picking blueberries with my husband, when I realized I hadn’t thought of a bear in two hours. That was a coup.
I thank the berries for teaching me presence of mind.
The great thing about the Yukon berry season is that each berry’s ripening rolls into another. Soapberries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cloudberries, moss berries, highbush cranberries, rosehips, lowbush cranberries—one by one they come into season, giving us a reason to visit the bush week after week from mid-July to October. Sometimes, their seasons overlap, so in the right week in July you'll find strawberries and raspberries on the same walk along the Yukon River, or ripe blueberries and cloudberries on a drive up the Dempster Highway
Part of berries’ charm is their unpredictability. Last year’s bonanza patch might yield nada this year. There are no guarantees. The uncertainty adds to the sense of discovery and reminds us how precious these little fruits are.
Sometimes, though, I worry. What if climate change means our berry habitat changes? Usually, kinnick-kinnick and lowbush cranberry coexist peacefully in a shared habitat. But one year my favourite berry patch was overrun with kinnick-kinnick. Not a cranberry to be seen. A lurch of fear: What if this change was permanent? what if, all over the Yukon, kinnick-kinnick was going to take over? It wasn't an outlandish thought. Habitats are changing all over the world. I remembered a meeting of boreal forest advocates where an Elder from Pine Creek Reserve in Manitoba spoke about the changes on the southwest shore of Lake Winnipegosis. He said they don’t hear the whip-or-will anymore, and the blueberries are disappearing.
I can't imagine such a scenario, and yet there it is. The blueberries are disappearing and with them a way of life, a tradition, teachings, and the joy of being in the bush with friends and family, staining the fingers blue, bringing berries home, making pies, making cobblers, making pemmican.
Berry lovers, we have to stop such things from happening, we have to translate our love of berries into action, donating to conservation societies, marching, writing letters, whatever way feels right and good.
K, I'm jumping off the soapbox and going back into the woods. Lowbush cranberries are in season now. So, before the snow comes, muster your containers, remember bears are out there but don’t be freaked, enjoy the fall berry-picking season to the fullest, and cook your hearts out.
Baked Brie and Cranberry-Onion Compote Pouches
4 medium cooking onions (about 6 cups sliced)
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp sherry, Marsala or Madeira
2 Tbsp pure birch syrup
1 Tbsp soya sauce
4 cups lowbush cranberries
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1. Slice onions in half lengthwise and peel. Slice in half horizontally and then slice lengthwise so you end up with thin, 1- to 1-1/2-inch-long pieces. (The instructions may seem finicky, but the resulting compote will hold together and sit nicely on a piece of cheese with no stringiness in the onions.)
2. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and cook for 10 minutes or until softened. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until uniformly brown—about 40 to 50 minutes. The browning starts to happen after about 30 minutes.
3. Add remaining ingredients and cook until thickened—about 30 minutes.
4. Taste and add salt if necessary. Can in sterilized jars and immerse in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, adding 2 minutes per 1,000 ft (304.8 m) above sea level.
Makes 3 to 4 250 ml jars.
Baked Brie and Cranberry-Onion Compote Pouches
1 400 g wheel of brie
1 1/4 cups Cranberry-Onion Compote
9 13 x 18-inch sheets phyllo pastry
1/2 cup butter
1 cup walnuts
1. Cut wheel of brie into 16 thin slices and each slice into1-inch pieces. Set brie pieces on a large baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover and refrigerate until ready to assemble.
2. Melt butter. Lay phyllo pastry sheets on a tea towel and cover with a second tea towel. Keep pastry covered while you work.
3. Brush one pastry sheet thoroughly with melted butter, lay the next sheet over top, butter, and repeat until you have a stack of three buttered sheets.
4. With a sharp knife, cut buttered phyllo into 3 x 3-inch squares. (You should get 18 squares.) Place one teaspoon of compote in the centre of each square, lay a piece of brie over top, and finish with one or two walnuts. Pinch the four corners of each square together and brush the exterior with melted butter. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment and refrigerate until all the pouches are assembled.
5. Repeat with remaining ingredients, three buttered sheets of phyllo at a time. You should end up with 54 appetizers.
6. Bake in a preheated 350°F oven for 20 minutes until phyllo is golden brown and brie is bubbling. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Makes 54 appetizers.
Coconut Pannacotta with Cloudberry Jam
An almost candy-like jam that is pure cloudberry. Some say the flavour of cloudberries is similar to baked apples, others find it almost meaty, and still others say it evokes a combination of apricots and honey. I sometimes discern a mango-like flavour, suggesting tropical pairings, such as coconut.
4 cups cloudberries (substitute chopped mangoes)
2 cups sugar
1. Pick through berries, wash them, and gently shake dry in a sieve. Transfer to a saucepan, gently stir in sugar, and leave to sit in a cool place for two to three hours.
2. Bring berries and sugar to a simmer over medium-low heat and cook until thick—about 20 minutes. The juice and sugar will develop into a clear, golden syrup and the berries will take on a translucent look.
3. Can in sterilized jars and immerse in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, adding 2 minutes per 1,000 ft (304.8 m) above sea level.
Makes three to four 250 ml jars.
2 cups thick coconut milk
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup 35% cream
2 Tbsp agar flakes
Grated zest of 2 limes
1. Whisk together coconut milk, sugar, and lime zest in a medium saucepan and bring to the boil over medium heat.
2. Whisk together cream and agar flakes, add to the coconut milk, bring to boil, reduce heat, and simmer for 2 minutes, stirring constantly.
3. Remove from heat, strain into a large measuring cup, and pour into six 1/2-cup (125-ml) ramekins. The pannacotta will set as it cools. Once cool, refrigerate for 2 hours to overnight.
4. Loosen pannacotta from ramekins by running a knife around the edge. Turn out onto dessert plates and top with a spoonful of cloudberry jam and large, toasted coconut flakes.
Blueberry Almond Cake
This is a thin, biscuit-like cake that travels well—a great choice for a berry-picking expedition.
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 cup organic cane sugar
1 tsp. pure almond extract
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wild blueberries
1. Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C). Grease and flour a 9-inch (23-cm) round baking pan.
2. Melt butter over medium heat in a small saucepan. Set aside to cool.
3. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, and almond extract until frothy. Sift in the flour, add cooled, melted butter and mix until the batter is smooth and creamy.
4. Pour batter into the baking pan. Scatter the blueberries evenly over top.
5. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until cake is golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes before removing cake. At home, serve with homemade birch-syrup ice cream. In the bush, accompany with strong, piping hot coffee or tea.
Makes one 9-inch (23-cm) cake.
From the Vault is a series of stories and recipes that originally appeared in Yukon, North of Ordinary Magazine, in my cooking column, Boreal Chef. They have been modified and updated.
Photos by Archbould Photography. Thank you Cathie!