The Shoulder-High grass crawled with ticks and chiggers.Poison ivy loomed on every side. And the moist, heated air steamed under the June sun.
It was a scene that only a masochist -- or a wild raspberry freak -- could love.
While the first-time picker wondered at being there, the more experienced companion anointed long sleeves, blue jeans, heavy stocks and sturdy shoes with strong bug repellent. She urged the novice with, "Just keep thinking about raspberries on your cereal tomorrow morning, raspberry slump and a freezer full of raspberry jam."
As the motivation caught, both waded into the sea of grass and wildflowers along the country lane, heading toward the thorny canes of raspberry bushes.
"I feel like ticks are already crawling up and down my legs," the novice protested.
"you're covered with chemicals. Put you faith in modern science."
Worry about bugs was replaced by concentration on finding raspberry bushes, at least until it became apparent that the canes were trampled and broken.
"Somebody's already been here!"
"But they didn't do a very thorough job," expertise pointed out. "Look down here at the lower branches; they missed this whole bunch -- and this one. And here are some on top that look just ripened." Picking began.
"Are all the dark ones ripe?" A beginner's question.
"You can't always go by color. I once pased up a beautiful stand of ripe red raspberries because I thought they were unripe black ones. Now I always try the 'pull test.' If they're not ripe, even the dark ones will stick to the stem. But if they're ripe, they practically fall into your hand."
Picking and education continued, along with considerable sampling. "How do we know these are really raspberries and not something poisonous?" the novice hesitated before the next berry.
"There's nothing toxic that looks like a raspberry or a blackberry and has a lot of little seeded parts as they do," expertise again reassured. "I checked with the county extension agent. He told me the little sections are called drupelets, in case you're interested."
The bushes were loaded with berries, and picking proceeded steadily.
At least until the snake. Again expertise calmed the moment, suggesting that they pick in a slightly different location.
"There aren't very many poisonous snakes in this part of Maryland anyway," the more experienced picker reassured. "Now if we were down in a swamp where there are lots of cotton-mouth moccasins, I might worry. But not around here."
When an extra bucket dropped in a patch of poison ivy, expertise cautioned not to abandon it. "We might need that bucket later. Just find a long stick and fish it out. You can do it without touching any of the leaves."
In the end, it took less than an hour and a half to fill several buckets with juicy, ripe berries.
"I never thought we'd get so many," the newly expert admitted. "How did you know where to look?"
"I do my prospecting in May when the canes are flowering," experience explained. "I look for fields sprinkled with the little white berry blossoms. eThey grow wild all over the place in this area. I can show you what they look like in a plant book, so you'll know for next year."
"Do you think it was worth it?" The question needed no answer, it being asked over a dish of raspberry slump.
(Note: Area raspberries begin to ripen about June 15. The season runs through about July 15. Blackberry season begins in mid July and runs through about Aug. 1.) DIRECTIONS FOR FREEZING FRESH BERRIES
Spread unwasshed raspberries or blackberries one layer thick on cookie sheets. Freeze until firm. Then loosely pack in air-tight freezer containers or plastic bags, and return to freezer.
To use, remove quantity needed. Rinse quickly but, for best results, do not thaw. Use in baked goods, fruit salads, etc., just as you would fresh berries. Frozen berries will retain good quality at least a year, if stored well. BERRY SLUMP (4 or 5 servings) 1 1/4 cups sugar 1/4 cup shortening 1/2 cup milk 1 1/2 cups sifted flour 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon 1 tablespoon cornstarch 1 cup boiling water 1 cup raspberries or blackberries
Cream 1/4 cup of the sugar and the shortening. Add milk and blend well. Stir flour, salt and baking powder together. Combine with shortening mixture. Set aside.
In a saucepan, combine remaining sugar, cinnamon and cornstarch.When blended, gradually add water, stirring. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly. When mixture has thickened, gently add berries, folding them into the syrup. Drop dollops of batter on top of berry mixture. Cover saucepan and cook over gentle heat for 10 minutes, or until dumplings are steam-cooked through. Serve slump hot, with cream or vanilla ice cream. BERRY CASSIS FREEZER JAM (Makes about 6 to 7 cups) About 5 to 6 cups fully ripened raspberries or blackberries 4 1/2 cups sugar (don't use less) 1/4 cup creme de cassis liqueur (or to taste) Pinch cinnamon 1 3/4-ounce package powdered pectin 3/4 to 1 cup water (according to package directions)
To prepare berries, crush them into a large bowl or chop them in a food processor fitted with steel blade. If you like pieces of fruit in your jam, do not puree berries. If you prefer seedless jam, put berries through a food mill with a fine mesh grate. Measure out 2 1/2 cups of crushed fruit or seedless pulp. Add sugar, creme de cassis and cinnamon, and stir well until sugar is incorporated. Continue stirring slowly about 10 minutes, or simply set aside for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Put the pectin and water in a small saucepan, and mix well. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then cook at a full rolling boil for 1 minute. Immediately stir pectin into berry mixture. Stir vigorously for an additional 3 minutes. (A few sugar crystals may remain; they will not affect quality.) Quickly ladle jam into half-pint jam jars, recycled glass jars, plastic containers with tight-fitting lids or small freezer containers. Leave about 1/2-inch headroom. Cover tightly.
Let jam stand at room temperature until set (up to 24 hours). Then store in freezer or refrigerator. Jam will retain good quality about 1 to 2 months in the refrigerator or a year or longer in the freezer. It can be refrozen after thawing, if necessary.
(Note: If jam fails to set or is too soft, bring it to a full boil, and it will thicken on cooling. Conversely, if jam seems too firm, simply stir to soften. If fruit seems to separate slightly from syrup during storage, just mix it all back together again before serving.) MIXED FRUIT SHERBET (About 8 servings) 1 1/2 cups raspberries or blackberries 2 medium bananas, peeled and cut into chunks 1 cup pineapple in its own juice 6-ounce can frozen orange juice concentrate 2 1/2 cups buttermilk or yogurt About 1/4 cup honey (or to taste)
Combine all ingredients in food processor or blender, and process until smooth. Poor into undivided ice cube trays or cake pans, and freeze until firm but not solid. Break into small pieces in mixing bowl. Process or beat with mixer until smooth and creamy. (Note: Mixture makes a delicious "slush" or "shake" at this point.) Ladle mixture into individual serving dishes and freeze until firm, about 4 or 5 hours or longer. Allow to soften sightly, in refrigerator or at room temperature, before serving. This sherbet goes very well with shortbread or plain pirouette cookies.) VERY BERRY CLAFOUTI (6 to 8 servings)
This is a cross between a fruit-filled pancake and a baked custard. The batter is thin and very similar to crepe batter. The dish originated in provincial France and makes a nice breakfast or dessert. 3 cup raspberries or blackberries 4 large eggs 1 1/4 cups milk 1 cup flour 1/3 cup sugar (or mild honey) 2tablespoons butter, melted 2 teaspoons vanilla extract 1 teaspoon lemon juice Confectioners' sugar
Spread berries evenly in the bottom of a well-buttered 10-inch quiche pan (or equivalent pie or cake pan). Place all remaining ingredients (except confectioners' sugar) in a blender or food processor in the order listed. Blend for a few seconds, then scrape down sides of container. Blend for a few more seconds to make sure batter is thoroughly mixed. Pour batter over berries.
Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for about 35 minutes, or until clafouti is puffed and browned and a knife inserted in the center (but not in a berry) comes out clean. Lightly sprinkle top with confectioners' sugar. (This is best right out of the oven, but it is also very good when lukewarm or chilled.)