From Poolesville, Md., to Amissville, Va., from low bush to high bramble, the challenge is the same. The early-summer berry crop is at its peak. Buckets are overflowing. Freezers are filling up. Families want to know: What are we going to do with all these beautiful berries?
It's not the best year for local raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. Two warmer than usual winters have increased the possibility of soil-borne diseases. The prolonged drought has been detrimental to the long-term future of the berry plants. Yields are down at many local farms. Prices are up by 5 percent to 10 percent. Still, there are plenty of berries out there. And the time to strike is now.
"Everybody has gone gung-ho picking, but now they need a plan," says Anne Geyer, farm manager of Westmoreland Berry Farm in Oak Grove, Va.
Geyer tells families who pick pailsful to freeze excess berries as soon as possible. Rinse whole berries in cold water and gently dry. Then toss each quart of berries with three-quarters cup of sugar, which acts as both a preservative and color stabilizer. Freeze the berries on a tray overnight. Next day, transfer them to plastic containers or resealable plastic bags.
She suggests setting a date--a berry day of reflection--exactly one month from the day the berries were picked. "By then they must decide how they are going to use these [frozen] berries and who they can share them with," she says. (Too often, it seems, bags of berries are thrown into the freezer, only to be thrown out years later.)
For quick berry smoothies or shakes have cubes of berry puree ready to go. Take the fresh berries and process in a food mill to remove the seeds and puree the pulp. Freeze the pulp in ice cube trays. Store the cubes of fruit puree in resealable bags. Then when you want a drink just throw a cube in the blender and add some yogurt, juice, milk or ice cream.
If making jam is on the agenda, this is a time to determine your frozen berries' future. Decide on a recipe and whether small jars or large jars are best. Young berry pickers can design their own computer-generated labels for jars with a super-cool name for the jam and where the berries came from.
Or maybe you live in the here and now and don't want to talk about saving, freezing or preserving berries. Maybe you want to eat them--tonight. What can't you make with a berry? Shortcakes, muffins, sauces, berries with cream. It's a cook's paradise.