It’s the Berry Best Time of Year
by Stacey Wiebe
Summer is in full swing! The days are gloriously warm and flowers and vegetables are starting to appear in gardens. The birds are all back by now, and we can hear them in the trees every morning and evening. Many of us are thinking of summer holidays; get-togethers with friends and family and having a great time until the snow flies again.
I am very blessed to live out in the country around this time of year when I and my kids go and look for berries. We especially love saskatoons, haskaps, and raspberries. We have saskatoons growing wild all over our cow pastures, so we are lucky enough to be able to go and pick those right from the property. For raspberries, we usually pick from friend’s canes who are generous enough to share, and we have bought frozen haskaps from local producers in the past.
Saskatoon berry (Amelanchier alnifolia) is a deciduous native shrub that grows from Western Ontario to British Columbia and the Yukon. The city of Saskatoon takes its name from a Cree word for the sweet, fleshy fruits, which were of prime importance to Aboriginal people and early settlers. On the Prairies, saskatoons were a major ingredient in pemmican. Saskatoons are very hardy plants that can survive winter temperatures of -50 to -60º Celsius with a lifespan of 30 to 50 years. Plant size ranges from a small to large shrub or tree 4 to 6 metres high. Flowering occurs from early May to early June (3–20 days long) and fruits are harvested from mid- to late July.1
Saskatoons have many health benefits including vitamins and minerals such as iron (needed to make the oxygen-carrying proteins, hemoglobin, found in the red blood cells, and myoglobin, found in the muscles), manganese (helps the body form connective tissue, bones, blood clotting factors, and sex hormones), magnesium (needed for more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body), calcium (for healthy bones and teeth, blood clotting, functioning of nerves and hormones, and regulation of heartbeat), and vitamin E (supports immune and metabolic function and is an antioxidant). The berry also contains phenolic and anthocyanin antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances, or nutrients, in food that can prevent or slow the oxidative damage to our body. When our body cells use oxygen, they naturally produce free radicals (by-products) which can cause damage. Phytosterols are also present in saskatoon berries. Phytosterols play a role in improving cholesterol profiles, which can reduce heart disease.2
Besides the health benefits, saskatoons are beautiful in flower, and the fruit is a beautiful bluish purple colour when fully ripe. They taste great right off the bush, warmed by the sun. You can tell someone has been picking saskatoons by their purple-stained hands! Saskatoons also taste great in pies, tarts, jams, syrups, as well as dried and frozen. In the dead of winter, it is wonderful to be able to pull a bag of frozen saskatoons out of the freezer. A taste of summer in January.
Haskap is the Japanese name for Lonicera caerulea, also known as Edible Blue Honeysuckle, Honeyberry. Haskap is an ancient Japanese name of the Ainu people of Northern Japan for the fruit meaning “berry of long life and good vision.” The first introduction of the cultivated plant to Canada was at Beaver Lodge, AB in the 1950s. The fruit was bitter and not palatable. It has been found in the wild in every province in Canada except for British Columbia. The name “Haskap” was chosen as the brand name that has been applied to new varieties bred by the Fruit Program at the University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Haskap berries come from varieties common to a circumpolar species native to northern boreal forests in Asia, Europe, and North America. It is mainly found in low lying wet areas, or high in mountains, in a variety of soil and growing conditions. Most people mistaken the fruit as part of the Vaccinium family (blueberries and cranberries), when in fact the fruit is just as closely related to tomatoes. It comes from the Dipsacales Order and is related to the Snowberry and Elderberry. Haskap berries grow on bushes that form a globe shape and can grow 5–7 feet tall over 5 to 7 years. It is one of the first fruit crops to set and ripen in the growing season (earlier than strawberries by a few weeks) and continue to produce berries into the fall.3
Haskaps are a weird-shaped little berry with a really distinct flavour, kind of a tart sweetness, and they pack a nutritional punch. They are full of vitamin A (important for cell growth, vision, and immunity), vitamin C (important for blood vessel formation, collagen, muscle and cartilage formation), and vitamin E, calcium, potassium (help maintain normal levels of fluid inside our cells), phosphorus (helps filter out waste in the kidneys and plays an essential role in how the body stores and uses energy), and iron. They contain polyphenols (increase good cholesterol) and antioxidants as well. In fact, haskaps have the most antioxidants of any berry on earth.4
My family has grown haskaps in the past. They have become my daughter’s favourite fruit. She first tried them when she was about three years old. At first, she was a little unsure of the fruit, being as it looked different than anything else she had seen or eaten before. She was assured that it was good and she did end up trying some. Once she tried them, she ate every single berry off one of the bushes we had (the bush was not very old and also not very big). She has since begged me to put in new bushes at our new farm. She is now nine years old. I think this year will be the year I will finally have the time to do it! Haskaps also have a special place in my heart because they are a very early producing fruiting bush. By the time June comes, I can pick berries right around the time I am longing for fresh, local fruit again.
Finally, our last favourite berry, the ever present, ever aggressive raspberry! We have wild raspberries growing all over our farm. We get out into the bush and pick the fruit and eat it right out of our hands. For jams and frozen fruit, we do rely on cultivated varieties of raspberry for the simple fact that they are bigger and more localized. Raspberries are perennial plants with canes that live two years each. The canes are either armed with prickles or smooth, and many only produce fruit in their second year. Often reaching more than 1.8 metres (6 feet), the canes bear compound leaves with three or more toothed leaflets, depending on the species, or cultivar. The leaf undersides are characteristically white to gray in colour and often hairy. The white to pink flowers have five petals and produce juicy red, purple, or black (rarely orange, amber, or pale yellow) fruit. The core of the delicate fruit remains on the plant when picked, unlike that of the blackberry. Though they are commonly called “berries,” the fruit is technically an aggregate of drupelets (small drupes), each of which contains a single seed. Most commercial red raspberries are cultivars, or hybrids of Rubus idaeus and R. strigosus. Raspberry plants are fairly resistant to disease and pests, but must be staked or trellised to control their wild growth.5
Raspberries, like most berries, contain antioxidants. They also contain potassium, manganese, and omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, vitamin B6 (impact on your energy levels, brain function, and cell metabolism).
I encourage everyone to get out and find these great local foods this summer! Find a U-pick, or a neighbour, or even a wild space that has berries. Get out and enjoy the sunshine, the wildlife, and the memories. It’s good for the soul!
The following is my favourite way to enjoy saskatoon berries. It’s not very health conscious, but it is very good. It contains two of my most favourite things: butter tarts and saskatoons. And it’s very Canadian.
Saskatoon Berry Pie Filling:
2 cups saskatoon berries
2 tbsp water
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
6 tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tbsp corn starch (or flour)
Butter Tart Filling:
1/3 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
1 tsp vanilla
4 tbsp cream
1 cup raisins (seedless)
2 cups flour
1/2 tsp salt
2/3 cup shortening (lard)
1/4 cup water
Making the Saskatoon Berry Filling:
In a saucepan, mix together the berries and water and simmer for 10 minutes over low-medium heat. In a separate bowl, mix together the sugar and cornstarch. Then add the sugar/flour mix to the berries and combine. Stir in the lemon juice. Simmer until the mixture slightly thickens. Set aside to cool.
Making the Butter Tart Filling:
First beat together the eggs. In a saucepan, melt the butter. Then add the sugar, vanilla, cream, raisins, and beaten eggs to the saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat, and boil for 3 minutes. Set aside.
Making the Pie Crust:
Sift flour and salt into a bowl. With a pie cutter, cut in shortening until the particles are pea sized. Sprinkle in water, 1 tsp or so at a time, mixing lightly with a fork. Don’t over mix or the crust will be tough. Press into a ball. It is okay if it is crumbly. In fact, crumbly makes for a tender, flaky crust!
Putting the Tarts together:
Preheat your oven to 375ºF. Using a rolling pin, roll out the pie dough to about 1/8 of an inch thickness. Using a 3-inch circle (like a drinking glass, or cookie cutter), cut out your tart shells, either 12 or 15. I rework any extra dough to make more tarts. Place the tart shells into a muffin tin. Add a heaping tablespoon of the butter tart mixture into the shell, and then add a tablespoon of the saskatoon pie filling on top of the butter tart filling. Do NOT mix. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until the crust is slightly browned. Let the tarts cool in the pan for about 5 minutes, and then remove them onto a cooling rack.
Stacey Wiebe lives one hour north of Yorkton, SK, where she farms organically on White Owl Farm with her partner, Dale Maier. They have been certified organic since 2018. Together they raise organic beef cattle and goats, as well as cereal and oilseed crops. They also have two children aged 7 and 9. Stacey and Dale are passionate about ecologically-minded farming. They are members of The Farmers’ Table (see the display ad on page 9 of the 28.2 July/August issue of the WHOLifE Journal).