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Sometime near the end of July I get a sudden hankering for a day in the woods. While I might take along a fishing rod or even a rifle, ostensibly to catch a few trout or snipe at a distant woodchuck, the real reason for my wanderings is to monitor the status of this year’s raspberry crop. Sportsmen like to say that a good berry crop means a hard winter ahead, or that the bears will be fattening up early before heading into hibernation, but I go out with the intent of finding buckets of berries because I like them myself!
I don’t care so much that the bears, deer or partridges are going to eat well for a few weeks, but I do derive some peculiar joy from standing in the middle of a berry patch and just picking away for hours on end. I’ll fill a large bucket or bowl about halfway to the brim with ice water (to keep the berries firm and cold), and plan to spend the better part of a day filling my fists with the ripest, juiciest berries I can find. It may be hot and it may be buggy, but I’ll slide on my briar-proof Filson hunting pants and a heavy-weave canvas shirt so that the thorns and canes won’t tear my soft parts to ribbons. A serious day of berry picking can mean wading through an acre or more of dense, sharp briars, and if you aren’t dressed for the occasion you’ll soon know it. I’ve often thought that a good “reality show” test would be to have some of those Hollywood 20-somethings pick 10 quarts of Maine raspberries dressed in those skimpy outback outfits they all seem to wear. I’d love to see Richard Hatch try berry picking in the “outfits” he’s most known for.
A lot of people can’t even begin to start picking raspberries for one good reason – there are millions of them! It’s best to avoid looking at a raspberry patch as a complete unit. Instead, look at the patch in small sections, perhaps as small as 10 square feet. Though you’ll lose nearly as many berries as you can pick, especially if they are overripe and literally falling off the canes, the goal should be to select a small area and work your way through it, top to bottom, leaving no berry unpicked. I try to focus on the square foot or so around my hands and ignore the rest, otherwise the tendency is to trample through and miss half the patch as you pursue a ripe berry here and another ripe berry there. Have a system and stick to your plan. Don’t let the monotony of “work” undermine your strategy!
What I like best about July berry picking is that it is invariably quiet, peaceful and serene in the patch. You might run into a bear, a fox or even a deer in the course of a day’s picking, but these animals are most active at night. The odds are that you will have the patch (and all those big, ripe berries) all to yourself and, like spring fiddleheads or fall apples, the berries are all yours, too.
I have an addiction to anything with berries in or on it, so I tend to make the most of my days in the patch. I’ll fill several buckets in a sitting (and eat all I can hold), dodging the boredom by imagining fat raspberry pies, fluffy raspberry pancakes or tin-filling raspberry muffins. Once I’m in the berrying “zone,” I can pick two-handed and fill a large bowl in a little over an hour. On a good day in a virgin patch, I’ll plan on spending the entire day and come home scratched, tired and sunburned but with 40 or 50 quarts of ripe berries, enough to last the winter with some to spare.
These days, I tend to freeze my berries in serving-size bags. If I have specific recipes in mind (and I’ll admit that I do!), I’ll freeze the required one or two cups of berries and label the bag as “muffins” or “pancakes” so I can just pick a bag out of the freezer next January and have just the right amount of berries for a serious Sunday morning feast. There are several ways to can berries for storage – just follow the instructions in your preferred canning guide and start filling the pantry shelves.
Back in my homesteading days (12 years without electricity or running water), I would consider myself wealthy if I had a winter’s supply of seasoned hardwood and a pantry full of apples, berries and fiddleheads by Oct. 1. There were many years when cash was unavailable (homesteading is not normally a profitable venture), but having enough food to get us through was like money in the bank, and, except for the time and effort, it was free!
At that time I knew all of the best raspberry, blueberry, apple and fiddlehead pickin’ hotspots in the county at one time, and was forever on the lookout for more. I would often find a new spot while canoeing or hiking and feel so sorry that, in all likelihood, no one would get there in time to reap the harvest. I knew of more patches, orchards and barrens than I could visit in a single season, and though I told everyone I knew where to find them, few folks ever reaped the bounty. It takes a particular kind of “nut” to wade through an open patch of raspberries on a hot July day and call it fun, but, as the Little Red Hen knew, there were benefits for everyone in the long run.
Now’s the time to start looking for your own secret stash of red raspberries. Look for them in open, fallow fields, along woodland edges or railroad tracks and in clear-cuts that are three to eight years old. You should have no trouble finding enough berries to satisfy your needs for the day or for the future – our area of central Maine is a berry-picker’s heaven and it’s all yours right now!
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