Ode to the mountain blackberry

'Tis the season, and lest you’ve sipped a fine old Riesling from the Rheingau, you can’t imagine what a fresh-baked Rubus ursinus pie can do to your taste buds.
Crosscut archive image.

The wild blackberry: how sweet it is.

'Tis the season, and lest you’ve sipped a fine old Riesling from the Rheingau, you can’t imagine what a fresh-baked Rubus ursinus pie can do to your taste buds.

When I was eight years old, I already knew just what “mixed feelings” meant. It meant blackberries.

And blackberries meant being handed a lard pail and told to march out across the trestle of an old logging line near my grandmother’s house, stumble down the bank into the hot, dusty, stickery undergrowth, and pick.

“And don’t you come back till you’ve got your gallon.”

Oh, but when we kids came back with our gallons (the big ones helping the little ones fill their pails, a major life lesson); when we did come back it was to stand on the porch, waiting for that heavenly smell to drift from the kitchen. Blackberry pie.

If you haven’t experienced the aroma, you can’t know what it meant to us. A sweetness you could taste with your nose, with an underlying tang that set the saliva flowing. When the pie was just cool enough to eat, thanks to the scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side, its base flavor as metallic as putting your tongue on rusty iron, followed by layer after layer of bite, sweetness, then supersweetness offset by bracing acid tang. Unless you’ve tasted a 10-year-old Riesling Auslese from the Rheingau, you can’t dream what a fresh-baked wild mountain blackberry pie tastes — and smells, like.

I call them “mountain” blackberries, even though they grow just as well in the lowlands, wherever the earth is disturbed enough to receive their hard little seeds — dropped by a passing bird — and the exposure offers the dappled sun and congested neighborhood they favor. Their scientific name is Rubus ursinus, the “bear’s berry,” and if you’ve ever heard the heavy snort of competition when you’re up to your knees in brambles in a clear-cut, you'll know why.

The native blackberry is a distant cousin of the hardier, invasive evergreen and Himalaya blackberries that blockade innumerable vacant lots; “habitat” for lots of insects, birds and vermin, “noxious weeds” for homeowners and the King County Extension Service. You can make a pie out of their fruit, after you’ve washed off the worst of the hydrocarbon film and traffic dirt. You may even enjoy it; but only if you’ve never, never tasted the ursinus variety.

Crosscut archive image. To my mind it’s the most precious native foodstuff. Its finicky growth habits keep it elusive. (It’s at its best a year or two after a fire or logging opens up the understory; its voracious appetite for nutrients quickly exhausts the thin forest topsoil.)

Ursinus will never be a commodity. It will remain the reward of people who are willing to seek far and work hard for their pleasure — or the indulgence of those who can afford to pay others to gather them. (Right now you can pick up foraged ursinus at some public-market stands for about $10 a pint: That’s enough for a European-style tart, but for an honest-to-pete blackberry pie, oozing with tarry juice and scenting the whole house for hours, you'll need a quart.)

Or you can just ask your forager for a sample: just one berry, half the size of the last joint of your little finger. If the one you get is ripe, you’ll still be tasting its rusty-nail lusciousness, savoring its fragrance, its concentrated essence of autumn, half an hour later.

Got any epic blackberry recipes? Wanna share them in the Comments area below?


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Roger Downey

Roger Downey is a Seattle writer interested in food, the arts, the sciences, and urban manners. He is currently working on a book about the birth of opera in 1630s Venice.