Monday, August 25, 2008

dancing in abundance

Or, in another word, blackberries! Finally walked up to the other side of Bernal Hill, empty yogurt containers in hand, and picked, picked, picked. Many berries were still at the red/sour stage, but I did come home, over 2 days, with a little less than 2 quarts, about enough to make 3 half-pints of jam. This is some high-octane, high-berry-content stuff. And easy--easier!--as pie.

OK, I guess I have to cop to my recent pie-contest experience. I baked, I went, I didn't win. Maybe it was because I chickened out at the last minute, fearing my lard dough was too soft and crumbly, and made a regular all-butter crust instead. Yes, the apples--a mix of gingergolds and gravensteins--were a little soft, but that's early-season apples for you--it's just how they are. Paige and I took the rest of the pie home (after the judges had taken a slice) and I can say, honestly, that it was a really, really nice pie. Not spectacular, but certainly better than the ones I tasted at that same fair, back when I was a judge in 2002. Oh well. We had a lovely time at the fair nonetheless, and I got to chat with the very nice farm manager from Nana Mae, the orchard where I got my gravensteins.

What else? $2/lb heirlooms at the Civic Center farmers' market! Also there: MacDonald Orchards, with $2/lb Pink Pearls, my favorite obscure apple. Cream-colored on the outside, hot candy pink inside, bright and tart. these have a season of about 5 minutes, and make fabulous pink tarts and pink applesauce, so git 'em while you can.

Even better were the jumbo tomatoes and Summer Lady peaches fresh picked (and free!) from the Moraga Farm, a sweet, incredibly productive one-acre farm/garden in, yes, Moraga that's part commercial farm, part community garden. Tomatoes and squash are the farm's cash crops, sold to local fancy restaurants and markets to pay the garden's bills. The rest of the produce goes to everyone--to the locals who help to plant and harvest, to an assisted-living senior facility in the area, an AIDS hospice, a local elementary school, and more. Bartering is the way of the garden. The guy who runs a tree-trimming biz in town came out to the prune the trees earlier this year. His requested payment? Tomatoes. Same with the guys from the nursery. The firefighters who put out a fire at the farm got flats of tomatoes in thanks, too.

Wine works, too. Farmer Al of Frog Hollow Farm donated dozens of peach and nectarine trees, plus the manpower and expertise to get them planted a few years ago. Each spring, he brings a crew of his workers over to help shape the season's vegetable beds. His payment? Some of the (very good) homemade wine that David and the other Moraga farmers make each fall. It's an economy of abundance, especially during this peak of the harvest. Around the full moon each month, friends of the farm come together for a moonlight potluck, anchored around the wood-fired cob pizza oven in one corner of the farm. Pizzas are made, wine is drunk, a farm update is presented, there are dogs and babies, even a campfire.

This time, I got the bright idea to try to bake some peach galettes--with farm peaches!--in the pizza oven. Not such a hot idea, as it turned out, since the oven, heated from below, was just too smokin' hot for this kind of baking. The galettes burned on the bottom before they browned on the top. And the one galette I put aside, for baking later when the oven had cooled off, mysteriously disappeared, seemingly the victim of dough-loving space aliens or a very tidy, intrepid dog, who managed to eat all the raw crust while leaving most of the peaches intact. (Is it too gross to report that I made another galette, using those same possibly dog-licked peaches? And that everyone ate it? Like I said, really hot oven.) But it was (mostly) fun to bake on the fly, even if the disappearing galette did throw me for a loop. Best moment: taking a just-after-dark spin through the tomato plants, candlelit lantern in hand, to smell the roses and tomato leaves, listen to the crickets, and look up at the stars overhead. Abundance, indeed.

**with thanks to Lauren, pastry chef and soon-to-be cookbook author, who introduced me to the farm and all very nice people there**

Foraged Blackberry Jam
I've only ever made this with foraged berries, which usually include a fair number of not-quite-ripe berries, the ones highest in natural pectin. So my jam tends to jell up very easily without lots of extra sugar. If you're using very ripe, sweet berries, you might need a spritz of fresh lemon juice (half a lemon) or a little more sugar for a firm set.

4 cups blackberries
1 cup sugar

Mix berries and sugar, and let sit, stirring occasionally, for a couple of hours. Sterilize a couple of 8 oz jars. Pour berries and liquid (sugar should be dissolved) into a heavy pot. Bring to a foaming simmer and let it simmer gently, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until berries break down and it looks almost like jam (it should still be a little runny, since it will thicken as it cools, and you don't want it over-thickened and rubbery). Spoon into jars, put on lids, and put in a deep pot with hot water to cover. Simmer 8 minutes, then remove and let cool. Test for seal when completely cool.

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