Prairie fruit continues to deliver its goodness

The distinctive almond aroma as we approached our farmyard as we came home from school spelled saskatoon pie.

We quickened our pace.

In late June, when the fruit started ripening, our mother navigated the underbrush and picked the first ripe berries from the tall bushes, enough for a pie for supper. Mother’s delectable crust and the delicious saskatoon filling “tasted like more.”

In addition to dairy products, eggs and meat from the farm, and vegetables grown in the garden, our diet included wild fruit that grew on and near our small mixed farm, which included grain fields, a wooded area, pastureland and a garden patch.

Gathering the wild fruit was a summer ritual. Voluntarily or conscripted, off we would go, usually with a syrup pail, accompanied by our mother.

She relished the idea of time in the bush: picking, eating and dreaming jams, jellies and preserves —sweat and mosquitoes notwithstanding.

All summer long and into fall, we stripped the trees of their burdens, eating as we picked, lips, teeth and fingers stained, emptying our smaller pails into larger buckets and then transporting them home. The berries had to be cleaned, preferably that day and prepared for immediate consumption or stored for future use.

We picked saskatoon berries in late June from shrubs about five metres tall, on sandy hills. We munched on the berries on our way to and from school. They were smaller than the blueberries that grew in Manitoba’s White Shell area.

This healthy fruit’s name comes from an anglicization of a Cree word, misâskwatômina (Mis-sack-qua-too-mina), which means “the fruit of the tree of many branches.” We used them in jams, cakes, muffins, breads, sauces, salad dressing and snack food.

Sweetness makes up for size. Sun-ripened homegrown strawberries cannot compete with the mouth-watering miniature wild strawberries.

Roger William, an early colonist of Rhode Island, in 1643, aptly said “…that God could have made, but God never did make a better berry…” We snacked these delicious berries; cooked up a bit, they were the perfect sauce for ice cream.

I remember the jars of bright orange-red plum jam. We were reminded to leave some stones in the jam for that extra zip.

There is nothing like fresh bread and plum jam or jam-gems cookies filled with this sweetened filling. The berries were plucked in woods, roadsides, pastureland and riverbanks in late August or early September.

Although we picked the yellow high-bush cranberries in early September and the red softer berries in the end, I vividly recall going to school on wintry days and spying red berries, frozen solid and rattling in the driving snow. The cranberries were flashing their scarlet on tall bare branches, providing food for birds and animals.

Cranberries were easy to pick, hanging in bundles like an upside down umbrella. The difficulty is they grew in places close to fallen trees, with branches sprawled every which way and in the thick underbrush, which made it hard to navigate. But they were worth the trouble.

Probably the greatest hit for us was the high bush cranberry pie with stones and all. Last year my sister baked one for Thanksgiving dinner. Not a piece was left over.

A perfect time for picking chokecherries was in September when the berries are black and tangy, hanging in grape-like fashion on loaded branches on shrubs and small trees. These gleaming black berries have that astringent taste; after the frost, they lose some of the tartness, become wrinkled, and a bit dry, but sweeter. When it was difficult to make chokecherry jelly to thicken, we added a bit of cranberry juice. The chokecherry and cranberry juice created a great energy drink.

There were other fruits — pin cherries, wild grapes, nanny berries and western sand-cherries.

Although our family used the fruits for juice, crisps, perogies, jams, jellies and sauces, my all-time favourite was when Mother made crepes. A ritual for Saturday mornings — my siblings and I standing around with plates in hand waiting as Mother poured the mixture in the pan. When she flipped it, she would ladle the fruit on one side, add some sugar, fold it over and cook it a bit longer. She slid them on our plates and we doused the elegant dessert with syrup and a dollop of sweet or sour cream.

Mother made crepes using her own recipe with any fresh fruit in season.

Here is a recipe for crepes that I use.

  • 2 eggs slightly beaten
  • 1 c. milk
  • 1/2 c. flour
  • 1 tsp. sugar
  • powdered sugar
  • dash of salt
  • whipped or sour cream
  • fruit

Combine eggs and milk. Mix flour, sugar and salt; stir in egg mixture and beat until smooth.

Lightly oil crepe pan and pour in about ¼ cup batter and cover bottom evenly. Cook until underside is lightly brown.

Turn crepe over and add about ¼ cup fruit with sugar to taste, to half of the crepe. Fold over the other half and cook. Turn crepe over.

Put on plate and sprinkle with powdered sugar and a spoon of sour or sweet cream. Douse in syrup.

Even today, eating wild fruit is a delicacy and cooking with it is not a lost art. My sisters and I still go combing through difficult terrain to pick wild berries to eat raw, dry, freeze, can and make them into jellies, jams, syrup, pies, crepes and juices.

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