the thicket

Last week, in the midst of a day filled with other things, my phone buzzed. I read:

“Blackberries galore and we are leaving for maine…please pick but be warned of jungle conditions. Boots a must. Berries delish.”

This is not the first time a day has been overthrown by a berry message from this particular friend. Every year, she seems to go away for a few days just when the berries are (as she has taught me to say) “as big as your thumb.” She has a thicket that spreads over the forgotten corners of the property around her farmhouse, and some of my favorite berry picking has been in those corners, in moments when it seems there are more berries than leaves or thorns or butterflies or any of the other things that take up the space. So I put on my boots, and off I went.

I spent the 10 minutes in the car ride over there planning the rest of my day around the berries. It was a little bit rainy, and a perfect day for canning. Jam of course, but maybe some blackberry syrup, too? I’d been wanting to make a shrub, and that would come third. And then of course, I’d put some in the freezer, maybe make a pie (still dreaming of this one from the blackberries of a few years ago). In my mind, the day stretched on with endless possibility, me–finally falling into bed late at night, happy, contented, fingers stained with purple.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. But there I was, stuck in the brambles–a perfect handful just…there. And even though there was only a tiny distance between my hand and those berries, every single branch and thorn had taken hold of me, of my clothes and my hair and my skin. And still, stuck and alone as I am? I’m still reaching for the berries.

Of course, I adjust. Because whether I have unreal expectations of myself, or the reality brings me back down to the ground, I am always working on my adjustment skills.  It goes like this: arriving, rain falling–I think: Okay! I’ll pick enough just for jam. I think about lemon balm and rose, and all sorts of lovely variations that will take to the blackberry. In my head I assess the jar supply–7 or 8 jars are ready, enough for one, perfect batch. I dream about the jars I’ll bring to my friend in return for her gracious berry sharing, the brilliant combinations! Then, there is the thorny tangle that once were paths, the thunder rumbling in the distance, and my goal becomes a few quarts–enough for the kind of pie that will improve my marriage (if you know Joey, you know what I mean). Then, the acrobatics. Over and under and through the bramble, burs from some plant amidst the berries sticking to every fiber on me. And then, there I am, stuck, barely holding on to my half-filled quart box. And I have to adjust, to admit that really, my goal is to get out of there with minimal injury, without any visible blood beyond the subtle and numerous scratches I’ve already acquired. My goal is to disentangle.

But instead, I reach for the berries. My one arm is the only one I can move, and the few inches I can extend it further, making space in my shoulder, are enough. I get one berry, and there are thorns even in the stem–little ones that work their way into my finger.

A year or two ago, we had friends over–a dad and his three girls, and at one point, the littlest, then maybe two years old, took off running across our little yard while all the bigger girls played. She crossed over the thorny bittersweet cushioned barrier between our yard and the big hay field that borders it, and Joey and the little girl’s dad, sitting with their beers on the porch, watched her go. They thought it was adorable, that she’d just keep running. But then she ran faster, and she got smaller, and all they could see were her little boots and her hair in the wind. There are no roads that way, nothing really to be afraid of, but they both put down their beers and started to run. By the time they got to her, she was halfway to New York State, and the only thing that had stopped her was a thick hedge of brambles. When Joey tells this story, he says that she was nearly suspended in those brambles, unhurt, but totally stuck. The two dads had to pull each sticky thorn away from her–slowly releasing her from the thicket.

I am not often stuck in a thicket so dramatically, but there, in the blackberries, I thought of little Tillie, and the two dads carefully unplucking her from the bush. I wished that someone we there to disentangle me, and to pull the burrs from my hair and to carry me home. There would be no jam, no pie, no berries for the freezer. There would just be me, wet and berry-scathed, with my little box, unfilled.

It is always the thought of the making that makes me want to pick more fruit. I pick apples with the dream of pie, strawberries with the taste of ice cream in my mouth. If I could have reached my hand to my lips there in the blackberry thicket, I would have tasted a berry to lift my spirits. But, stuck, a recipe came into my head–the page of a cookbook that I had looked at in the winter when blackberries only existed for 6 bucks a moldy pint in the grocery store. Heidi‘s blackberry macaroon tart, with its easy press-in crust and even easier filling. The contents of my box would, I thought, probably be just enough for that tart. And so, made strong by the goal of something real and delicious, I undid myself from those thorns, one by one. I am, after all, a grown up, and although I’m good at getting myself into some exquisite tangles, I’m pretty good at freeing myself from them too. (Especially if there is a dessert in it for me.)

This tart is a winner on so many counts. Easy, beautiful, and especially good for coconut lovers (which I am). It was great out of the oven, but even better when Joey and I stumbled into the kitchen the next morning and ate the last piece as we waited for the coffee water to boil. Keep it in a closed container, and save a piece to eat for breakfast. Heidi makes this in an 8×11-inch tart pan, but I used my long rectangular pan and two smaller mini-tart pans. She also adds pistachios after the tart bakes, which I left off because I didn’t have them in the pantry. I think that roasted sliced almonds would also be great here.

 


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21 Responses to the thicket

  1. JennC says:

    Uhm, yum? Blackberries in my area are just beginning to come into season. I’m not an enormous fan of cocount unless is comes across more mellow and then I love it! I think the toasty coconut on this, will be delicious!

    Reading your adorable story, all I kept thinking was: “oh Alana… the places you’ll go!”

    Keep taking us with you! We love it!

  2. CarlaS says:

    Oh, the how we torture ourselves for those beutiful berries! Sonoma County is covered with wild blackberries right now, and I am lucky enough to have “tamed” some in my backyard. I put myself through all manner of pain for jam and cobblers and pies, oh my! I just have to think back a couple of years when my son, then 4, dove into his blackberry pie with a fork in one hand and a spoon in the other, and I have th e strength to pick on. <3 this post!

  3. noreen says:

    Those tarts look delish! We have been foraging for blackberries on the back field of the local elementary school, and plan on going back for more tomorrow. (We already have blackberry lemon jam in the cupboard from our last trip.) Any idea if the recipe can be adapted to be egg-free? Sadly, both my boys are allergic.

    • alana says:

      Hi Noreen! I know I answered this on twitter too- but wanted to share here for others who might have the question…
      The top of this tart is really like a classic coconut macaroon, and so any recipe that makes an egg-free macaroon should work here. I haven’t tried it myself, but it seems that most recipes use some combination of coconut milk and flour (regular or gf) to create the texture. Here’s an example that I found:
      http://wholenewmom.com/recipes/egg-free-coconut-macaroons/

  4. Paula Abbott says:

    We are lucky. We have a thornless blackberry bush thanks to my wonderful sister-in-law Pat. The tart looks great. Next on my receipes for blackberries.

  5. Jess says:

    Love that story of the kiddo on the run. And your tart is absolutely gorgeous. Heidi is a genius.

  6. Hannah says:

    This looks perfect! And I love the rectangle with the two minis. My three year old flips for anything mini (I think in his mind it means it is automatically his!). I love this cookbook but haven’t made this recipe … now I will.

    You were brave to get stuck and unstuck all on your own!

  7. Sari says:

    Unfortunately the only berry that grows around us is on a mulberry tree, which season ended over a month ago. Like my mother says, the only way to pick them is to climb up the tree naked and eat them straight off the branches, spider webs and all. you’ll be covered in red before you know it, so no one will notice the bare skin… :)
    So while it lasted we made the best frozen yogurt (from homemade yogurt, of course…), and then some mulberry liquor. Yumm. They were so good every time I thought about baking with them I couldn’t help but eat them all straight out of the bowl or in fresh yogurt.
    Will save these recipes for next years’ mulberry season (or for our next trip to New England InLaws who have more berries than I’ve ever seen or dreamed of..)
    Thanks.. :)

    • alana says:

      The mulberry is a mystery to me! We don’t have them here, but it makes me want to do a little berry season traveling. Any berry that should requires naked tree climbing is good by me :)

  8. Anna says:

    Alana, you’ve bewitched us with your tales of preserving fruit. It is midnight, and I just finished putting up 9.5 pints of crabapple jelly from the 10lbs. of fruit we picked from our crabapple tree. It’s such a pretty shade of pinkish-red; tart and sweet, and spiced with star anise. It’s going to be delicious swirled into your Greek crockpot yogurt. Here is a link to the recipe: http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_07/crabapple_jelly.html, in case anyone is interested.

    I am going to hate myself in the morning at the 6 a.m. commute, but thank you for the inspiration.

    • alana says:

      Mmm, crab apple jelly! That one gives me a little thrill due to the fact that crab apples aren’t so edible otherwise- I feel like it’s something from nothing, right?
      Hope the commute wasn’t too painful :-)

  9. dono says:

    dangit. i’m really good at picking berries, LOVE to, and have such an easy schedule that i can go at the drop of a hat. instead i’m just going to print out this recipe and put on the fridge for the next time i go to our local berry farm.

  10. I have read my way through your entire site! I even found several new sites to follow, so I don’t have to worry about a lack of reading material. I made your granola, but used part nutmeg, so now it’s part my granola recipe. I added dried cherries and it’s wonderful to take to work and make with hot water from the coffee maker. I’ll be making that every couple weeks and look forward to trying new combinations of fruit and nuts.

    Now, I’m off to buy new rennet (mine is over a year old) so I can take another shot at mozzarella. I love the book and don’t need to break the binding because my mom gave me a book weight to hold it open. I’m looking forward to when the binding breaks because it’s been used so much.

  11. Crystal says:

    I had some raspberries and coconut to use up the other day and this recipe was perfect! Easy to put together with a tasty combination of buttery crust, sweet-tart berries, and crunchy coconut. I’m not usually a big fan of coconut but I will definitely need to buy some more so I can make this again.

  12. Dear Alana! My mom just sent me the link to your blog~ I love it! How yummy. Nice to see what deliciousness you’ve been up to. My yoga classes this week are all about blackberries… I’ve been reading this poem to my students:

    “August”
    by Mary Oliver

    When the blackberries hang
    swollen in the woods, in the brambles
    nobody owns, I spend

    all day among the high
    branches, reaching
    my ripped arms, thinking

    of nothing, cramming
    the black honey of summer
    into my mouth; all day my body

    accepts what it is. In the dark
    creeks that run by there is
    this thick paw of my life darting among

    the black bells, the leaves; there is
    this happy tongue.

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