Part I: July 23, 2014
Ripe wild raspberries are dark red.
The raspberries are nearly two weeks late this year. I suppose it’s not surprising, considering the long, cold spring we had on the East End, but the lateness has thrown off my summer culinary schedule. Every year, my neighborhood in Sag Harbor is overgrown with wild raspberries (sometimes called wineberries). Rather ugly, long-branched bushes with thorny stems and wide, sparse leafage sprout hundreds of beautiful, jewel-like fruit around July 10. From that moment on, it’s a mad rush to pick as many as you can before your neighbors do, for jams, pies, and anything else you’d normally make with cultivated raspberries.
Over the 14 years I’ve lived in this area of Sag Harbor, wild raspberries have proliferated. When I first noticed them I thought, “That’s funny, those things on those hideous weed-like tendrils look like raspberries,” but was too afraid to try one, lest they be one of those wild fruits birds love but poison humans and dogs.
Wild raspberries at the start of ripening.
Rubus phoenicolasius (wild or wine raspberry) is native to China, Japan and Korea, and was introduced to North America for breeding with other types of farmed raspberries. After escaping from cultivation, the plant naturalized in eastern North America, where it can grow quite invasively in some places, though it is easy to control with pruning. Generally, I’m against cultivating non-native invasive species, but I have to admit these plants seem to serve a good purpose, as long as they are kept in check. They grow mainly between scrub oaks and weedy brush along shaded thicket, feed several kinds of songbirds and provide highly nutritious and tasty fruit for humans.
Picking the fruit is a bit of a challenge (which is, I suspect, why the deer don’t eat them all). Over the years, I’ve learned to pick only the darkest fruit, leaving the not-as-ripe berries for later. The picking time-frame is about 7-10 days, with fruit ripening at different rates on the same bush. I look for clusters of plump, dark berries, reach in carefully (long sleeves are a good idea) and pull them off from the base with my bare fingers, dropping each into my palm until I have a small handful to hand over to someone holding a basket lined with a sheet of paper towel. These helpful someones are usually my two kids, who love our raspberry-picking adventures. When picking, I’ve learned the hard way that you have to watch out for your legs, too; the lower branches will snare you when picking the ripe berries clustered in the center of the bushes (there always seem to be a lot of these dangerously-placed berries).
This week, we can see most of the berries going from fuzzy, prickly, alien-looking things to smooth, bright objects of deliciousness. A few look very ripe, but after tasting them, my kids and I have deemed them not quite ready. In a matter of days, however, we will head out early in the morning before the sun gets too hot, basket-in-hand, and return to the kitchen with a great foraged crop. Recipes we plan to make this year are: jam, gelato, marinade and tarts. (Part Two will post next week).