Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Jam Session

 1. Find a bush

I try to convince myself that the explanation lies in a rural childhood, with all its harvesting and milking and hunting and fishing and fruit pie church socials, but in my heart I know it is deeper than that.  Only a buried atavism, the repressed memories of the chronic semi-starvation that characterized some ancient ancestral community of the later Stone Age, can account for my unbounded enthusiasm for Nature’s Bounty in the form of freebie food.

            I love to gather anything edible growing in the wild.  My healthy habit of eating lots of salad perhaps had its origins in my mother’s fondness for tender dandelion leaves.  In the old days, when we sometimes vacationed in Maine, I loved clamming, gathering mussels, and of course foraging for blueberries—with or without Sal. 

            In France these days you run across references to a generation of “Sixty-Eighters”—aging hippies and one-time political radicals, most of whom now seem to be retired civil servants—who broke a lot of plate glass and put up a lot of cool graffiti in 1968.  Pouvoir à l’imagination!  Well, in 1968 we were living with two young children in the country in the south of France, where I was ostensibly writing a book with the help of the resources of the Musée Calvet in Avignon.  The Revolution came, and everything stopped.  There was no gas, no bus to put the gas into, and no library for the bus to take me to anyway.  It was the grève of grèves, the Mother of All Strikes. Under these circumstances I became an expert in gathering and preparing gastronomic snails—with raw materials easily found around the trunks of the great plane trees that lined the now empty roads.  The process is complex, also slightly disgusting, but I went into it on an industrial scale, earning the local nickname of “Grandi, le Roi des Escargots”.  Edible snails are a phenomenon rather than a food, and with careful preparation (lots of butter, garlic, and breadcrumbs), they can really taste great—sort of like butter, garlic, and breadcrumbs.  A few years ago, with friends in Michigan, I gathered ramps (alium tricoccum) with gusto.  I’d describe a ramp as the vegetable version of a snail.  Cook up a mess with bacon and blue cheese, and it tastes like bacon and blue cheese, delicious.

 2.  Find the berries on the bush

            Leaving your garden to tend itself during a crucial month of early summer growth is hardly exemplary horticulture, and I am paying for my frolic in Paris.  The price—somewhat stringy tomato vines—is not excessive.  That the tomatoes were growing at all is testimony to what must have been quite a lot of rainfall, and there will be some Ramapos to contest with the groundhogs.  But the rain—if it indeed fell—did something different and more marvelous.  It seems to have created, for the first time in a decade, a really terrific crop of wild raspberries.

 3.  Put picked berries in a pot

            Once you get beyond the abundant road-kill, suburban New Jersey might not seem like the hottest bet for Found Food.  It regularly gets an eight out of ten for fungi, however, and this year I would have to rate the raspberries at least a nine.  They are almost everywhere in abandoned or poorly tended fields, including those of the Gray Farm, where I live, and on much of the abundant undeveloped land belonging to the University.  There is a non-pecuniary price to be paid, since they thrive in conditions hospitable as well to poison ivy.

   4.  Heat and mash the berries
           The sexual extravagance of the raspberry is alarming.  A small bush can easily produce a hundred berries, each berry some dozens of seeds.  The berries fall to the ground, get washed away through gullies, are carried off and ingested by birds or college professors.  It’s a wonder the raspberry has not taken over the world.

   5.  Stir in lots of sugar and boil like mad        

           During the past week I did some fairly serious berry-picking.  At first I stuck to patches an easy walk from my house—such as twenty yards--but then, in more ambitious mode, I got in the truck and drove a few blocks to the real jungle, where I did battle with serious brambles.  Joan made a scrumptious yoghurt-based raspberry fool, but that only whetted the appetite.  Over the past three days I made and bottled two sizable batches of raspberry jam.  The berries are so sweet this year that I risked using a recipe that calls for no additional pectin—simply mashed berries and obscene amounts of sugar.  The result is a jam that is slightly runnier than most, but absolutely sensational for the clarity of the fruity, raspberry taste.  The chompiness of the seeds gives you the illusion of serious protein--and a reminder to floss.  The season is approaching its end, but I’m hoping to be able to do one more batch with the girls, who will be arriving home from Europe within a few days.

  6.  Admire some of the results