Looking into the world of berries is like falling into Alice’s rabbit hole. It’s a lot different than it seems it should be. Starting with the definition of a berry — what most folks call a “berry” frequently is not. Blueberries, red currants, gooseberries, Cape gooseberry (or ground cherry), elderberries, and grapes are all “true” berries. They are all fleshy fruits that are in one piece.
Black, rasp, Marion, Tay, Logan, olallie, Himalayan black, and straw “berries”? Nope! Not berries. They are called aggregate fruits. And then things get curiouser and curiouser. Delving deeper into the various types of berries reveals many hybrids, some old, and some new, which are thought to be old. Huh? Looking at the hybrids is like studying the family tree of European royalty before World War I!
No matter what the technical names, for our purposes, at the farmers market a “berry” is any small fleshy fruit you can pop in your mouth in one or two bites without a large pit in the center, and they grow on a bush or shrub rather than a tree. This includes all the above named fruits, and more. At the Aptos farmers market you can count on at least 20 types of berries making an appearance between June 1st and Thanksgiving, with many (like strawberries) making an extended stay in one form or another.
Like strawberries, blackberries and raspberries are in the rose family. Raspberries can be found in red, black, and golden or yellow. Golden raspberries are actually albino red or black raspberries, and will taste like whichever they are descended from, although they seem to be less tart. When it comes to flavor, it seems red raspberries have more bright top notes and taste like a dry rose, whereas the black raspberries seem deeper tasting and are more like a red wine such as a syrah. The way to tell a raspberry from a blackberry is the hollow in the center where a raspberry has pulled away from the torus when harvested. When picking, this is what you watch for to ensure ripe fruit.
The blackberry family is the most complex of hybrids it seems. There were wild berries growing in the new world when settlers arrived in our country, but species from elsewhere were brought over and spread as the land was settled. What were once domestic crops are now wild, but some are still grown for commerce.
The Himalayan Blackberry is considered invasive and a pest, but it is large and sweet, a favorite of many animals — and the primary reason it has spread so well! The Loganberry is from Santa Cruz originally, and dates to 1883, when Judge James Logan crossed a native blackberry with a red raspberry while trying to cross two different blackberries. This dark red larger berry is the parent of some of the most popular crosses including the Boysenberry and Santiam blackberry (1920s), as well as the olallieberry and the Marionberry. The olallie was created in Oregon, and the word means “berry” in Chinook and was released from trials in 1950. The Marionberry (released in 1956) is probably the most widely planted of blackberries now. You can also find Tayberries, of Scottish origin, at the farmers market. Tayberries are large aromatic berries that are hard to harvest even by hand, and on the fragile side. These are newcomers-released in 1976.
Red, White and Black Currants
Besides strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and their various offspring, you may find red, white, and even black currants. Black currant has a distinctive floral aroma with a juicy, winey flavor that is unmistakable, but hard to describe. The red currant is less floral, just as sweet, but more tart. White currant is an albino red currant that shares the same flavor profile except that it is sweeter. Although the black and white are used raw, the red is not usually used that way unless mixed with other things. All three are generally used in something to which some sugar is added such as jams, spreads, and sauces. There is a confiture from Lorraine, France that is first referenced in 1344 that is made from currants that is likened to caviar due to its luxury status and cost. The various currants show up at differing times and in small quantities, so keep your eyes peeled if you want to find them.
A close relative to currants are gooseberries. They look sort of like large grapes, with pale stripes and sometimes a light down. The texture is similar to a cherry tomato and a fig — the fig part would be the seeds, although they are smaller and fewer in a gooseberry. To describe the flavor of the green ones, think in terms of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Gooseberries may or may not benefit from a touch of sugar if used other than raw, which is also a nice way to have them when ripe. Riper ones will be less intensely green, with a golden tinge to them. Red ones are more intensely red.
Ground Cherries or Cape Gooseberry
Another fruit found at a couple stands is the Cape gooseberry, a.k.a. ground cherry, poha, Aztec or Inca berry, among others. Related to the tomatillo, this fruit is much smaller, marble sized or less, and the jacket it comes in is prettier than its larger cousins. It also does not get the sticky skin and will pop right out of its Chinese lantern of a jacket. They are round and look like tomatillos, but when ripe they turn golden orange and have a wonderfully complex flavor that like wine, then changes on the palate after you swallow. Expect tropical fruit and floral notes, ripe heirloom tomato, with a nutty flavor as well, with a lingering finish that brings something else I have yet to figure out how to describe. Eat these straight, add to salads, make a jam, or use as a sauce/salsa for fish or chicken.
Last but certainly not least of the berries, grapes are just hitting their stride at market. Look for several varieties, especially the older ones you won’t find in stores, such as Muscats or Concords. Grapes are well known, and should probably get their own article, so enough said.
How to Buy and Store Berries
When handling berries, always use care as they are fragile. Look to see that the berries are plump and full looking, not seeping juice (unless you are looking for juice berries for vinegar or cooking), and check for mold. If you are looking at raspberries, look into the center hole as that is where it usually forms first. If at all possible, give the berries a sniff-if they smell like berries, odds are good that they’ll taste good. The color of ripe berries should be deep and bright, as if lit from within. Any tinge of green and the berries will be tart and unripe.
When storing them, keep them dry and do not stack the containers unless they have super sturdy lids. If you put them into a container, avoid piling them very deep since their own weight will smash them. Should you find yourself with too many berries, or some berries that are breaking down and you won’t get to them soon, use them for sauce or a jam, or simply freeze them. Pop them into the freezer on a tray, and it won’t take long for them to freeze solid. Transfer to a bag and remove the air and you have a treat for smoothies or a sauce in winter. Berries freeze easily and keep flavor really well, and go into the blender frozen.
Many vendors have berries — look for blackberries, olallies, Marion, Himalayan blackberry, boysenberry, Tayberry, red, golden and black raspberries, red, white, and black currants, gooseberries, Cape Gooseberries, grapes, and even elderberries. You’ll find berries at Borba Farms, Cortez Farms B, Prevedelli Farm, Mello-Dy Ranch, Vasquez Farm, Bar-D Ranch, Webb’s Organics, Windmill Farms, P & K Farms, T & L Coke Farm, and Swanton Berry Farm.
RECIPES: Blueberry Coffee Cake, Fresh Blueberry Jam, Peach Melba with a Twist, Blackberry Coulis, Blackberry Vinegar Mignonette, Strawberry Preserves with Black Pepper and Balsamic Vinegar, Strawberry Shortcake, Balsamic Grilled Strawberries and Little Gem Salad with Creamy Mint Dressing, Strawberry Caprese with Basil Syrup, Strawberry Spinach Salad, Ground Cherry Relish, Three-Berry Jam, Raspberry Custard Kuchen, Strawberry-Wine Sorbet, Blueberry Vinegar, Strawberry Infused Vinegar, Savory Strawberry Tostada, Blueberry Oat Bars, Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler, Strawberry Rhubarb Limeade, Green Salad with Blueberries, Nuts, Mozzarella with Orange Basil Cream Dressing, Summer Fruit Soup, Baby Spinach Salad with Blueberries, Feta Cheese, Slivered Almonds and Berry Mint Dressing