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Tuesday, July 26th, 2016
Volume ∞ Issue ∞

A View From The Woods - Blackcaps and Bites

By Loni Kemp

Fri, Jul 26th, 2013
Posted in All Columnists

I rose at sunrise, anticipating a sweltering hot day with only a couple of hours of relative comfort in the shade before the sun reached the forest edge. I forced myself to put on lightweight slacks and a long-sleeved shirt, both stained and relegated to the pile of gardening clothes. I tucked my pants into socks, which had been put aside weeks ago in favor of sandals, and tied a bandana around my forehead to soak up sweat. With bucket in hand, I headed out into the already warm morning. A soft breeze moved the air pleasantly as I made my way to the meandering patch of wild black raspberries known as blackcaps. Beyond the garage and between the forest and sheep pasture lay my own patch of promise.

Even a quick glance confirmed what I hoped. The canes were laden with ripe blackcaps, with plenty more pale and red berries still growing towards perfection. I started in, one berry at a time, picking continuously and slowly as I reached, bent, and moved along, aiming to not skip a single ripe berry. These were big, juicy berries, in contrast to the dry small nubs of last year’s drought, and sometimes I could pick two, three, even four at a time in one cluster. With fingers turning purple, I avoided touching the spiky canes and tried to brush my way through the thicket without destroying the plants.

Blackcap canes reproduce by arching over, and where the tips touch ground, they set root. It is a great way for the canes to reproduce and go bounding over the countryside. However it can be a nightmare for humans trying to walk through the patch. To open up the patch, I walked through it the past few autumns with pruner in hand, cutting through the canes at the apex of the curve, on the theory that both ends have roots and will grow, so I’ll be able to stroll through the patch without lacerating my legs. Blackcap plants fruit in their second year and die, so stomping down dead canes can also make the patch more navigable.

Blackcaps are well known by natives in this part of Minnesota, but I’ve never seen them sold commercially, and I’ve never known anyone to grow them in their garden. I read that a century ago blackcaps were just as popular as regular red raspberries. But today one has to get out there personally and seek a wild stand bearing the gifts for free. Blackcaps like to grow in areas of transition, where fields and meadow are giving way to forests. They seem to move around over the years, fading away as their site gets too shady or too sunny for their taste.

Picking berries, tasting occasionally, listening to the birds… This would be among the most peaceful pastimes imaginable if it weren’t for one thing. Bugs. This wet summer has brought out ticks and gnats and mosquitoes. The latter we often brag that we don’t have, but not so this summer.

Yet this year there is also a new problem. I’ll call it the underwear bug. You never see or feel the insect, but some time after you come inside, red itchy spots appear. When you shower (and inspect for deer ticks) you are horrified to see multiple bites where clothing fits tightly, with none on skin that was exposed. Several people who weren’t too embarrassed to discuss it agreed that this had been driving them crazy too. I am no scientist, but I looked into it and came up with the tiny harvest mite as the cause. This nearly microscopic red spider is rarely seen, but it moves in on passing humans and animals, looking for a warm place. First it anesthetizes the skin, then feeds and injects a fluid which later causes the itchy red spots that sometimes last for weeks. They do not burrow in. Websites report that a hot soapy shower helps, and you should wash your outdoor clothes in hot water before wearing them again. I can add that a dab of aloe vera gel helps.

Even this little touch of torture is worth it however, when I taste the unique sweet and wine-like flavor of blackcaps. A fresh warm handful is a summer treat. I eat them on my granola in the morning, drink them at noon blended into a blackcap-banana smoothie, and top off the evening with blackcaps on chocolate ice cream from Kapper’s dairy in Chatfield. Many quarts of berries are frozen to continue the blackcap frenzy all winter long.


Berry Cobbler

• Place a stick of butter in a baking dish or pie plate and put in the oven just until melted, while preheating oven to 350 degrees.

• In a mixing bowl, whisk together 1 cup sugar, 1 cup flour, 1 cup milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder.

• Whisk about half of the melted butter into the batter.

• Pour batter over the rest of the melted butter in the pie plate.

• Sprinkle 2 cups of berries on the batter and then top with 1/4 cup sugar.

• Bake at 350 degrees for one hour, until brown around the edge.

Delicious with fresh or frozen blackberries, blueberries or raspberries.

Serve with vanilla yogurt, whipped cream or ice cream, if desired. This recipe has also been called “Cuppa Cuppa Cuppa Cobbler.”

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