Last summer we spent several weeks in the Seattle area with Shauna, Danny and Lucy; we were there shooting several video pieces as well as sharing stories, birthdays and some of the glorious foods of summer. It’s just a normal day when the Aherns gather friends around their table and open their home to an impromptu get-together; August 6th is Shauna’s birthday (that’s today – happy birthday Shauna!), the weather was spectacular with azure-blue skies and temperatures in the mid-80s. The entire island had been waiting for the blackberries to ripen for picking; jams, pies, buckles or eaten straight out of hand – it didn’t matter what the berries would be used for, what mattered was the gathering of friends.
Children squealed at the sight of friends piling out of cars and tumbling onto the lawn; adults squealed at having other adults in the same room to talk with and check in. The antique wooden table groaned under the weight of each dish that found space on top of the bright yellow oil-cloth, speckled with pink flowers.
I remember standing at the back door, camera in hand, surveying the children in varying stages of undress; bare bellies stained with streaks of watermelon juice, racing around that backyard barefoot, smiles as wide as the Cheshire Cat himself. Shauna’s berry cobbler was ceremoniously presented by Danny and Lu, candles lit, a wish made and then blown out; cobbler was scooped onto plates and eaten greedily. Another check of faces and bellies and I see crumbs of topping and berry stains have been added to the watermelon streaks. But no one cared – it was summer.
And finally . . . about an hour before sundown . . . it was time for picking. On Vashon, blackberries grow high and wild along the dirt roads; 10-12 foot hedges of them where literally thousands of berries lure you into the tangled and thorny vines. Glistening from the warm sun, there’s always one or two berries tucked away deep in the brambles that taunt – ‘See me? Come a wee bit closer – I’m the best-tasting berry in this entire patch!’ they seem to say.
Danny procured a couple of ladders and the picking began – plastic pails, bowls, tin cups and whatever else could be found were used to gather the sun-warmed fruit; and I remember thinking that the children looked like fairies – flitting from one patch to the next in search for the perfect, single berry that would be popped into a mouth, tongue crushing the sweet juice and a wide smile would appear.
I’m sorry to be missing the scene I’m sure will be playing out today in that Ahern backyard; I’ve been watching my Instagram feed for pictures as to the progress of this year’s berry harvest. I’m betting there will be fairy-children flitting from one patch to another looking for that one, perfect berry.
NOTE: I have been on a pickling kick this summer and the blackberries have been spectacular this year; these little gems are not only terrific in this Gin and Tonic but they’re fabulous on a charcuterie board alongside fatty, salty meats – quintessential summer food!
SPICED AND PICKLED BLACKBERRIES
Food & Wine, August 2013
Makes 4-1/2 Cups
- 8 black peppercorns
- 3 allspice berries
- 2 juniper berries
- One ½-inch piece of fresh ginger, thinly sliced
- 1 small bay leaf
- 2 cups red wine vinegar
- 2 cups water
- 6 Tablespoons sugar
- 3 Tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 shallot, quartered lengthwise
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- 18-ounces fresh blackberries
- Lightly crush the peppercorns, allspice, juniper berries, ginger and bay leaf on a cutting board with the back of a cast iron pan (you can also use a mortar & pestle or place in a plastic zip-topped bag and give it a couple of good whacks with a rolling pin)
- Transfer to a medium saucepan and add the vinegar, water, sugar, salt, shallot and fresh thyme
- Bring to a boil, whisking to dissolve the sugar and salt; let the brine cool completely (you’ll cook the fruit if you don’t – not what you’re looking for here)
- Strain the brine into a large, clean measuring cup
- Divide the fresh berries evenly among clean jars and top with cooled brine
- Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 week before serving, 2 is even better
NOTE: Pickled berries will keep up to 3 months refrigerated
FOR THE PICKLED-BERRY GIN & TONIC
Makes 1 drink
- 3 cubes of ice
- 1-ounce gin (we love Watershed Distillery’s Four Peel Gin)
- Top with tonic
- Add pickled blackberries (more or less to your liking)
- 1-2 Tablespoons spiced liquid (to taste)