“Free” Food

 

It’s late summer and my garden is in high gear with green beans and zucchinis multiplying at light speed. So too are the wild fruit-bearing plants on our 35-acre paradise. Last year I discovered that chokecherries, golden currants, and wax currants growing on our land here in northern Colorado. I’m the gatherer in my marriage, so I gathered loads of berries and made my first-ever jam (just not a jam person). It didn’t jell properly, but it was proclaimed delicious. Even I tried it on waffles and loved it.

SNOW!
Wax currant blossoms.
Golden currant blossoms.

This spring, I anxiously watched the buds swell on currant bushes and chokecherry trees. Then, in early May – disaster! A late, heavy snow crushed bushes, froze flowers, and kept bees in their hives, resulting in few flowers and fewer pollinated. However, nature is resilient and I discovered pockets of currants and chokecherries that survived the rigors of our spring and the drought of mid-summer to produce enough berries for a small batch of jam.

Chokecherry flowers.

I picked all the ripe and nearly-ripe berries I could find. Songbirds warbled around me protesting my thievery, but I ignored them. Don’t worry, I left them some, just seemed the right thing to do. I picked three different batches and refrigerated them until the weekend. When I’m picking berries, I imagine how it must have been to be a pioneer or a Native American gathering food and preserving it for the winter ahead. I wonder if children had contests to pick the most or the biggest berries. I sometimes wonder if Laura and Mary Ingalls raced to see who could fill their pails the fastest. Have to do something to occupy your time.

Wax currant berry.

I used the recipe I found last year and started the jam-making process.

http://highaltitudegardening.blogspot.com/2006/08/chokecherry-jam-recipe.html

Remember to stir, stir, stir. Cherries and sugar can get pretty sticky and may burn to the sides of your pot.

Golden currant fruit.
Chokecherries.

Add 1 cup of water to every four cups of cherries.

Simmer over low heat until fruit is very tender.

Use a large spoon to press the chokecherry pulp through a sieve. (Three cups of pulp make about 3 half pints of jam.)

Add an equal amount of sugar to match the amount of chokecherry pulp.

Put sugar/chokecherry mixture back on the stove and cook over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved.

Cook to a temperature of 9° (F) higher than the boiling point of water. *According to Aunt Lillian, this temperature check will deliver a rich flavor and thick consistency.

Pour into hot, sterile jam jars to approximately 3/4 full.

Seal and process in a boiling water bath for about 15 minutes.

Give the jam 24 hours to slowly cool.

Simmered fruit pulp to be mashed through a colander.
Jam with pectin simmering in pan.

I gathered about 6 cups of chokecherries and currants combined. To this recipe, I added about a ½ of frozen store-bought slice peaches, because they were getting freezer burn and needed to be used. I also used classic pectin to help jell the jam, following the package directions.

After an afternoon of washing, simmering, smashing through a sieve, cooking with the pectin added, sterilizing 4-ounce jam jars, lids, and rings, filling the jars, adding lids and rings, and boiling for 15 minutes in a water bath to seal the jars, I was exhausted. I produced 9, 4-ounce jars of jam and an 8-ounce plastic container for my husband. The classic pectin worked perfectly and the jam is wonderful. It was also a boatload of work for a small amount of jam.

Nearly finished!

Gathering wild berries might seem like free food, but there is a high cost in time and energy. I don’t regret the afternoon spent reviving ancient food preservation skills and inhaling the aromas of wildness and sugar bubbling on the stove. Last Christmas, I handed out nearly two dozen tiny jars as gifts. This year, my family and friends will have to be very, very good to wrest these tiny gems from my rosy-stained fingers!

Ask Dollie

My 15 year-old granddaughter called last night with a question. Her teacher mentioned that the groundhog wasn’t always the animal used to predict when spring would arrive, but my granddaughter couldn’t remember what animal came before the groundhog. This is a perfect question for Dollie!

Dollie’s answer: Long ago, people watched nature and animals for signs of spring coming. Animals that stay in their dens during extreme cold or winter storms such as bears, European badgers, or hedgehogs emerge from their dens to check to see it is warm enough to stay out. If they sense that it is still too cold and they can’t find food, they return to their burrows until it is warmer. People watched for these animals to be up and around and knew spring was coming earlier or later than normal.

The European badger was the animal my granddaughter’s teacher has mentioned!