By Jill Swenson
MY DESIRE FOR BLACK CAPS, the wild black raspberry, drives me into the wild, where I search through patches of poison ivy, reach into thorns, and compete with bears and birds for its precious succulence.
“Like the nipple on a wet nurse,” is the description of wild black raspberries given by Clarissa of Two Fat Ladies. The kiss of the summer solstice ripens the fruit to mark the end of spring. Black raspberries nourish the soul.
In the Finger Lakes, black caps are only in season for a week to ten days a year, near the end of June. Not every year yields a berry bounty. They require the right kind of May, and we just had one: warm with enough rain. When the mornings are cool and the afternoons are hot and sunny, they ripen perfectly.
It’s hard to find local wild black caps for sale. Most of those available from grocers and local farmers markets are from domesticated black raspberry varieties. Black caps are to farmed raspberries what wild strawberries are to cultivated varieties: pinky fingertip-sized morsels of intense flavor to knuckle-sized nuggets of water.
In past years I tried to harvest enough wild black caps to sell at local farmers markets to my regular customers who excelled in the jam and compote competitions in Mecklenburg, Trumansburg, Odessa, Alpine, Montour Falls, Watkins Glen, Ovid, Interlaken, and Covert. As these lovely church supper ladies continued to age, their ability to pick in the wild diminished. Since they shared with me their best recipes and culinary concoctions over the years and many now lived on fixed incomes, I kept my prices comparable to the farmed berries.
A couple years ago, I spent almost two days harvesting black caps for market and happily offered $3 pints for sale. Fifteen hours yielded 18 pints, millions of bug bites, scratches on arms and ankles and a small itchy patch on my shin. I wasn’t thinking about the fact that if I sold them all, I would make $3.50/hr. I was thinking of all those lucky children who would fall under the black caps’ magical spell when they got a taste of the wild as their grandmothers passed on local rural culture.
Old-school instructions for black cap jam require you pick your own wild berries. Making good jam is an art, and picking fruit to perfection is the secret to its success. The picking procedures are very time-sensitive. The berries must be black; not purple, not red. This week nears the end of the picking season already, and there is only one time to pick: mid-morning.
The dew must lift before you begin. Wet berries tend to melt and mold before you can get them home from your stroll in the woods. The sun should be up, but not beating down on the berry bushes. June mornings are still cool enough to make it bearable to wear the long pants and long-sleeved shirt needed for protection from the thorns, prickers, and stinging pests. When the sun hits the berry, it should glow. You can tell which berries are for today’s picking. Some look flat-black and dry; they’re done, so leave them for the birds. Take only the best ones. Like wet India ink, they should be shiny black. Their vitality makes them jump out at you. When you touch the berry, it should pop off as easily as a bottle cap. If you have to tug, the berry isn’t ready to be picked. Come back tomorrow.
When picking wild black caps, bring along a shallow pan to hold them. Don’t fill it more than an inch deep or they will crush under their own weight. It is tempting to try to pick more than one berry at a time. Try taking two and both are squished. They demand to be plucked one by one. You can catch a greedy berry picker red-handed; the stains of smushed fruit provide the evidence in the palm of the hand.
Black caps and wild morel mushrooms are ready to pick the same week. It’s no surprise that you will find them both on local seasonal menus in late June and early July. Morels also love the cool mornings, frequent gentle spring rains, and come June, stifling heat and humidity. Down back along the creek I walk through, a misty afternoon is perfect for hunting these rare delicacies you cannot buy.
A really good black cap picking patch lies down in a hollow behind my farm where no one else can see or hear me. I look for the flowering wild roses as my field marker to this secluded location for prime picking. I hold a big pan of raspberries and move toward them. Once, I stepped into a groundhog hole and turned my ankle; the berries flew up and all over, and I ended up on my back in the middle of a rosa rugosa.
The distinctive feature of this wild rose is the thorns point downward, not upward like domesticated roses. I fell backwards into Mother Nature’s barbed wire. When I tried to sit up, the thorns took hold of my ponytail and wouldn’t let go. The more I struggled, the worse I was caught up in the thorny trap.
“Use some common sense.” I saw the smile creep across Sam’s face as I heard my lover’s laughing voice in my head.
If the thorns were going in the opposite direction, I needed to stop pulling against them and push back. Stop struggling and release. I lay back and let go. Give up. Get up. Giggle. Good belly laugh.
All those black caps disappeared into thin air. I’d spent so many hours selecting each specimen in its prime. How much time in a lifespan can I spend in the woods, in silence, foraging fruit? If I lived to a hundred years, I would only have a month of days devoted to black caps. The memories make the fruit sweeter.
OLD-SCHOOL BLACK CAP JAM
Pick 4 cups of wild black raspberries.
Remove all stems and green matter. Rinse berries with water gently.
Put all the berries into a 4 quart saucepan, crushing the lower layer with the back of a spoon to provide a bit of moisture before more is drawn from the fruit by heat. Simmer the fruit uncovered, until soft.
Add 3 cups of white sugar. Do not use substitutes. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Bring the fruit mixture to a boil and continue to stir, making sure no sticking occurs. Reduce the heat and cook uncovered until it begins to thicken. Sometimes it takes as long as half an hour for jam to thicken. Allow for additional thickening as it cools, but it should not be runny. Cook until a small amount dropped on a plate will stay in place.
Pack the fruit while hot into hot sterilized jars. Seal and wait 24 hours before serving.
This recipe works for gooseberries, loganberries, and elderberries when making jam. Don’t try to double the recipe if you are lucky enough to have 8 cups of black caps. Make them in separate batches.
Makes two pints of jam.
Note: Jams are made from the whole fruit. Jelly is made from the fruit’s juice only. This recipe is not for those who have dentures where seeds can be lodged and cause pain. I suggest taking your teeth out and enjoying it on hot buttered white toast or in a bowl of oatmeal. I do not recommend removing the seeds or using the juice only. The seedy and pulpy fruit has natural pectin which helps “set” the jam and gives it a distinctive flavor and texture.
Jill Swenson lives in Mecklenburg on a self-sustaining, third-generation family farm, where she sells local, hand-harvested, untreated seeds and rents eco-cabins in the summer. On Warren Pond Farm and Seed Company can be found on the web at onwarrenpondfarm.com.