Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Brambles (aka, Blackberries and Raspberries)

Kim O'Donnel is a freelance food writer and the author of the Meat Lovers' Meatless Cookbook and Meat Lovers' Meatless Celebrations.

Before moving to Seattle four years ago, I thought of the Pacific Northwest as ground zero for coffee and seafood.  Little did I know that we were relocating to bramble country, where prickly bushes cover every untended parcel, producing inky sweet-tart drupelets in jeweled shades of indigo, deep purple and Snow White’s lips.  I'm talking about raspberries, blackberries and their many mirthfully-sounding cultivars — Olallieberries and Marionberries, to name just two.

Back east, I could get my mitts on early summer and fall raspberries at the farmers' market, but blackberries made only rare appearances. Here in Bramble-ville, growers can explain the differences among Evergreen, Obsidian, Kotata and Triple Crown blackberries and wax eloquent about dewberries versus boysenberries. (Obsidian blackberries are referenced in this video of an Oregon berry farmer whose business was saved by her local farmers' market.) It’s where raspberries aren’t just red or black but a dreamy, almost iridescent shade of pale yellow.

While Pacific Northwesterners patiently await the arrival of slicing tomatoes (which in this native eastern seaboarder’s opinion, rarely measure up to the sun-kissed love apples of the “other coast”), we can console ourselves with the beneficence of brambles. Time is of the essence; brambles typically say their goodbyes in early September.

A Brief History

As old as the blackberry may be, the raspberry, in its original uncultivated state, is the apparent elder. There are references to a wild red raspberry in the writings of Roman author Pliny the Elder, around 1st century AD.

The wild raspberry made its way around Europe and into parts of Asia (including India and Burma) as well as the Arctic Circle and Africa. This writer has foraged for a wild raspberry variation on the tundra of western Alaska. The black raspberry is native to North America.

Brambles of all kinds figured into the diet and healing practices of Native American tribes. Blackberry pigment was used as a dye and protection against evil forces. Its astringent root was used to treat diarrhea and as a general tonic. Raspberry leaf has long been used to treat both menstrual cramps and pain during childbirth.

Factual Nibbles

  • Botanically, brambles belong to the Rubus genus, which is part of the rose family.
  • Derived from the Middle English world brembel, bramble refers to a prickly and/or thorny shrub, and in the United Kingdom, is used interchangeably with “blackberry.” In fact, “bramble jelly” is what Americans might call "blackberry jam."
  • The brambly ties between the two countries are long and strong. The Evergreen blackberry, a UK native, arrived in Oregon sometime around 1850, the beginning of a long history of commercial cultivation in that state. (Oregon leads the US in commercial blackberry production.)
  • In addition to Britain and North America, blackberries are native to South America and parts of Asia. Wild blackberries, which include the Evergreen and the Himalayan (which incidentally is from Germany) grow like weeds and are considered an invasive species in the state of Washington. Such “weeds” are considered produce loot for local foragers.

Cultivation

As mentioned earlier, brambles tend to be the fruit of high summer, although in some parts of the country, there is a significant fall raspberry harvest.

The United States is number three in global commercial raspberry production, trailing Serbia and Russia. According to the USDA, Washington State leads the country in commercial production of red raspberries, followed closely by Oregon and California. Washington and California are also top blackberry-producing states.

The modern bramble is a fascinating tangled web of cross-breeding experiments that have resulted in a multitude of raspberry and blackberry cultivars.

Here’s the crib sheet:

  • Dewberry: Looks like a raspberry but has the signature dark purple-black pigmentation of a blackberry.
  • Loganberry: A cross between a blackberry and red raspberry that was discovered in 1881 by a California judge.  Boasts a deep red color.
  • Tayberry: Another blackberry-red raspberry cross, this cultivar was developed in 1979. Named after the Tay River in Scotland, it’s a cone-shaped variety in a shade of reddish-purple.
  • Boysenberry: Blackberry meets red raspberry meets Loganberry, an unusual reddish-purple combination developed in the late 1920s by California grower Rudolf  Boysen.
  • Youngberry: Another triad cross, this time among raspberry, blackberry and dewberry. Named after grower Byrnes Young of Louisiana, who did berry tinkering in the early 1900s.
  • Ollalieberry (say Oh-lah-leh): A cross of Youngberry and Loganberry — a hybrid of hybrids — that was released in 1950. Olallie = "berry" in Chinook, a tribe with roots in Southwestern Washington.
  • Marionberry: An Olallieberry-Chehalem blackberry cross developed in Marion County, Oregon in the 1950s. In Oregon, you might refer to all blackberries as "Marionberries." (Not to be confused with former Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry or Arkansas Congressman Marion Berry).

Environmental Impact

As noted earlier, the west coast provides the lion’s share of commercially grown brambles, but in the winter, supermarket berries are shipped in from Mexico, Guatemala and as far as Chile, which adds considerably to their carbon footprint. It is worth freezing in-season brambles for those winter cravings (see below for tips).

Raspberries rank #22 for pesticide load on the Environmental Working Group’s 2012 Guide to Produce. This is the equivalent of a "C" — not so bad, but not so great, either. In the Pacific Northwest, many brambles growers are not certified organic but do not spray their crops. My advice: Get as local as you can and ask the grower about their growing methods. At the supermarket, I recommend buying organic. You can also find organic brambles in the frozen section.

(See our veggie rule of thumb, below*.)

Characteristics

Nutrition

Generally speaking, brambles offer numerous health benefits, from their fiber-rich, heart-healthy pectin to the disease-fighting antioxidants in their deeply colored pigments.

There’s some interesting news on the raspberry front: Raspberries are being studied for their potential link to controlling obesity and Type 2 diabetes. A phytonutrient called raspberry ketone (aka rheosmin) may help to increase metabolism and reduce the risk of obesity. Within the berry’s pigment is a flavanoid called tiliroside, which is showing promise to activate a hormone that regulates blood sugar and fats. (For people with Type 2 diabetes, production of this hormone is low.)

Weighing in at a mere 64 calories, one cup of raspberries contains more than half the RDA of vitamin C and nearly eight grams of fiber. It is a good source of folate, potassium, vitamin E and (news to this raspberry lover), those heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.

As for blackberries, they're king in the antioxidant department. Scientists analyzed more than 1,100 samples of food from the USDA National Food and Nutrient Analysis program for antioxidant content (also known as ORAC levels). Of the 50 foods with the highest antioxidant content per serving, blackberries top the list. These findings, which were published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2006, include raspberries at number seven.

There are about 60 calories in one cup of blackberries, which offers 50 percent of the RDA for vitamin C and 30 percent for fiber. With their extraordinary high level of polyphenols, the amazing antioxidants found in the pigments, blackberries are being studied for their ability to inhibit tumor growth.

The one caveat: Brambles are rich in oxalytes, which could be a problem for anyone with kidney or gallbladder issues. Consult your physician.

What to Look for/Storage

Brambles are extremely perishable and need to be eaten within a few days of purchase. They are susceptible to mold and spoilage and must be refrigerated immediately. Keep covered with a paper towel to minimize moisture. Do not wash until ready to use, and even then, do so gently, perhaps with a spray bottle. Pat dry.

If you're unable to eat within 48 hours, freeze your brambles: Place on a tray in a single layer and into the freezer. Once frozen, transfer the brambles to a plastic freezer bag. This will minimize clumpage.

What to Do with It

Pro Tip

Brambles make stellar desserts, from cobbler to pie, parfait to frozen yogurt (recipe follows). They zip up pancake breakfasts and take fruit smoothie hour by storm.

Similarly, they do a bang up job in savory dishes, playing nicely on a cheese plate or as part of a salad (arugula is a wonderful partner).   Basil loves teaming up with brambles; a few torn leaves (or cut into chiffonade) takes a fruit salad to a sultry dimension.

Recipe

Brambly Frozen Yogurt

Adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz. Note: This does require an ice cream machine. I use a Cuisinart ICE-21.

Ingredients:

2 cups fresh or frozen brambles
2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt (Greek yogurt yields a richer texture)
3/4 to 1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Optional: 2 to 3 ounces dark chocolate, shaved

In a blender or food processor, puree the brambles, along with the yogurt and sugar. Press the mixture through a strainer to remove the seeds. Stir in the lemon juice.

Chill the mixture for about an hour. Freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. With my Cuisinart ICE-21 frozen yogurt, ice cream and sorbet maker, the cold mixture had a soft-serv consistency in about 30 minutes. If using the shaved chocolate, add for the last minute of churning. Transfer to an airtight, freezer-safe container. For a harder consistency, freeze for about one hour.

Makes about 1 quart

*Fruit and vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them — agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.

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