Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Marginal Produce

On some encouraging words from my friend Hank over at Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook, I'm back here at my 'Lands on the Margin' blog. I'd been putting this aside due to a number of constraints, not the least of which was my inability to actually get out to some properties that fit the description. But the past three weeks I've been able to visit a number of haunts, and so I can continue to attest to both my love of these priceless places on the edge.

About a month ago, my cousin offered to take us to his "no-fail" catfish hole on the Sacramento Delta, which turned out to be a little piece of publicly-accessible levee surrounded by mostly private lands. As it turned out, 'no-fail' that day meant three cats around 10", and a couple of shaker stripers, but we had a good time, anyway. I know that catfishing can be hit-or-miss at times, and just getting out there really piqued my interest to do it again. I'd spent many years chucking-and-ducking with long streamers and medium weight fly rods, and it was nice to just throw out a hunk of worms, sit, and talk about the barn owls.

A couple of weeks back, I also hit up a piece of property around Pollock Pines in the Sierra Nevada, bowhunting for deer. Though I saw nothing with antlers this day, I did find the nicest patch of blackberries I'd seen in a long while, and though I've got a great patch in Isleton, this one's berries were riper later in the season (being uphill), and the berries were particularly sweet, if a tad smaller. I went to work on them, and got to thinking about preserves, vinegar, and cordial. A few days later, on a trip out to Isleton, I picked a few pounds. I also noticed a patch of fig trees, and picked a few pounds of those, too.

So the last couple of weeks, I've been canning and making blackberry vinegar and a blackberry-plum cordial. I'm new to preserving these things, and I'm realizing that preserving them gives me the opportunity to see these foods and places in a new light.

Here in California, seasons mean something different. Being the largest ag. producing region on Earth and receiving over 2/3rds of all overseas imports, we have both an abundance of produce and a lively market year-round. But, rarely does one see figs or blackberries in the market, and if so, only during the Summer (or, of course, as a processed ingredient). People love them, and gorge themselves on them during their short season, probably just like we have done for millennia, and in a special way. When you bring in a bag of blackberries or figs, at least to my house, and you expect to cook with them, you had better be ready to fight. Hands quickly find themselves in bags, 'just for a couple more.'

I think it's because these fruits are just about the best tasting things you can eat, and they don't lend themselves at all to the mechanical picking operations. Few fruits do, which is why most of what you get at a grocery store is bland, but if you pick a blackberry while it is still truckable, you either have a low-calorie variety, or get ready to pucker. The best blackberries barely make it from the bush to your mouth, and many kids are caught in the bramble patch red-handed. The same is true for figs: one fig preserving recipe I found called for firm-ripe figs, which was new to me. In my humble experience, you either have firm, or you have ripe.

I was still able to make some good fig preserves, and the blackberry vinegar is great. I haven't tried the cordial yet, but what can go wrong with blackberries, plums, sugar, and brandy?

These foods, from the attempts at catfish and venison to the blackberry vinegar, are reasons enough to check out your local overlooked patch of public land. Just like we tend to forget about these places, we also tend to forget about the foods they offer when their season passes. These lands hold critters and fruits and berries, all marginal goods, and the best on Earth.