A berry good time: Jams, jellies a great way to savor summer's bounty all winter long

Posted: Friday, September 03, 2010

While some Alaskans might scorn the golden leaves and crisp air that signifies the imminent snowfall, others anticipate this time of year to uncover berried treasure.

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Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon

Several types of berries are ripe for the picking now and with little effort can be found and preserved for a taste of summer even on the longest winter nights.

Michelle Ostrowski, education specialist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said it's that time of year people are out picking the wild raspberries, high- and low-bush cranberries, crowberries, rosehips, and blueberries that can be found on several trails throughout the refuge.

"Right now is good raspberry picking," she said.

She suggested finding the sweet red fruit on the Vista Trail at Upper Skilak Campground or taking a hike on the Fuller Lakes Trail, where they have been spotted between the upper and lower lakes.

For blueberries, the Interior is best, she said, but they can also be found in Hope, along the Palmer Creek Road.

High-bush cranberries can be sniffed out by pickers because of their "stinky, wet" smell this time of year, which means they're fermenting, Ostrowski said.

"It represents, to me, the smell of fall," she said.

These berries are high in natural pectin, which is used in jelly and jam making to congeal the fruit, so jam makers do not need to add pectin when preserving them. They can also be mixed in with other berries as pectin for jam, she said.

Low-bush cranberries, also known as lingonberries, are usually better after the first frost when they taste sweeter, she said.

"Crowberries and low-bush cranberries grow where it is boggier and there is a little more rain." Ostrowski said.

Also, the low-bush cranberries can be found in areas burned out by fires, she said.

She recommends pickers use a field guide to help distinguish the edible berries from the poisonous ones, which are in the Alaskan forests too.

Berry good tips

Pickers should be warned that they are not the only ones after this season's juicy fruits.

"Be aware that if you're out berry picking and you're off trail you still need to be conscientious of your surroundings," Ostrowski said.

She said bear scat primarily consists of berries right now so being careful and making lots of noise is advised to avoid running into wildlife.

And there's also some berry picking ethics, according to Ostrowski.

"By picking every single berry on a raspberry bush you're making it so there's not berries for other people and animals," she said.

Patty Hert, a North Kenai berry picker and jam maker who sells her products at the Soldotna Farmers Market, offered some other advice for picking.

"Stay away from powerlines and main roads," she said.

She said plants near highways can pick up chemicals from the road system so backcountry picking is healthier, and that's what she's all about.

Hert makes all of her preserved products natural and organic. She said the quality of ingredients is key.

"I have been able to feel a lot better by staying away from chemicals," she said.

And jamming and jellying is a healthy way to save the fruits natural benefits

"Jam is just a way to be able to preserve the vitamins and minerals you get," she said.

Berry versatile

Hert also stressed the versatility of preserves. From sauces to sweetners, they're not just for breakfast any longer.

For instance, jelly can be mixed with a little extra virgin olive oil for a tasty salad dressing or spruce tips, which she preserves, can be used as a marinade for fish.

"If you have a jar of jam or jelly you can use it for anything more than just toast or bagels," she said.

Trying new things with the old way of preserving was something that another local jammer stressed as well, but in a different way.

Nicki Baier of Nikiski, who also sells her jams and jellies at the Soldotna Farmers Markets on Saturdays, said jam makers should experiment with different berry combinations.

"It doesn't get boring that way. Everybody knows what strawberry rhubarb tastes like," she said. "Experiment with them -- you'd be surprised."

Some of her mixed preserves include blueberry/raspberry, fireweed/rosehip and apricot/jalapeno -- a "best seller," she said.

Baier said she grows most plants and fruit bushes she uses in her yard but also finds other berries out the North Road.

She offered some more advice to first time jam makers: follow directions.

"For a newcomer if you haven't done it before get a pectin Sure-Jell and go exactly by use of that recipe," she said.

But prospective jammers take heart. It really does not take all that many steps -- or berries -- to get jamming.

Another preserves expert, Juanita Hillhouse, who owns Hillhouse Gardens in Soldotna, said a batch of jam could be made with just a few cups of berries.

She said it usually takes her four cups of berries and two cups of sugar to make six, 8-ounce jars of jam.

And besides the delicious health benefits of preserving summer's bounty, berry picking gives people a reason to get out in the wild.

Ostrowski said she likes berry picking because it's "kind of a neat experience" of subsistence, living off the land and not having to go to the store for food.

"It's getting out into nature," she said. "And because berries are so good and there's so much you can do with them."

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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