I remember when my brother moved to the Pacific Northwest some 20 years ago. He was living in Ohio with his first wife and they were contemplating the eternal question of "what next" when she finished her studies. I don't know that my big brother actually asked my advice about the various options, but I do remember that as soon as I heard him mention Oregon I was emphatic in pushing it. I knew he'd love it. And I think he'll agree I was right. It is and was full of folk-singers, nut and berry gatherers and - if you'll excuse me - a fair number of nuts. So over the years my brother has gotten even more knowledgeable about gardening and foraging. Not only do I have the satisfaction of knowing he's happy where he is, but I also reap the rewards in terms of the fruit he finds when he's out and about on his bike.
The last time I was pregnant, I went through the entire jar of huckleberry jam he and his wife made for us, all by myself. It was a great morning sickness remedy and by the time I was through that stage of the pregnancy I was hooked anyway. I finished the jar, licked my lips and looked hungrily towards Oregon.
And this summer when we saw my brother in Illinois, he again showed what a wonderful loving sibling he is and gave me a completely new delight, one I had never heard of: Thimbleberry Jam. So my first question was: what on earth is a thimbleberry? It turns out that it is a member of the raspberry family, but is actually softer and so does not pack or ship well. So the only place you can find them is in the wild, not your local supermarket. And even then it's apparently something of a Holy grail of berries; my brother told me he'd been looking for them for quite a while before happening on a bank of bushes large enough to give fruit for a small batch of jam. And out of that small batch of jam, he gave me a precious little jar.
So, how does it taste, you may be wondering? In a word: delicious. But that is not a very descriptive word, now is it? It tastes a bit like raspberry but indefinably different. There are a lot more seeds than raspberries (which is saying a lot, really) but they are not as hard and annoying. They don't get caught in your teeth. One of the most amazing properties, though, is the incredibly high pectin level they have. My brother told me that when he made his first batch he used pectin and the resulting jam was almost impossible to spread. I was actually convinced he'd accidentally sent me some of this batch, as the jam I received was pretty darn solid, better on crumpets and English muffins than delicate slices of toast. But my jar did not have the marking 1.0 (my brother is a geek, yes) on the lid, so obviously I got the "soft" jam.
I asked my brother how he first heard of thimbleberries and how he knew to recognise them and he wrote back the following:
"Boy, where did I learn about them first?? It probably was from my friends Leif & Michelle, who first took me hiking when we came to the Pacific NW. They were very good about educating folks about local flora; one time they took me out mushroom hunting for morels.
Thimbleberries have very distinctive five-lobed leaves, and usually grow in areas which have been disturbed by logging or trail-building. You find them at the interface where light meadow and dark forest meet; they like sun, but not too much. The berries themselves ripen singly on stems, which makes picking them fairly laborious. The berries are like raspberries, being composed of individual drupelets arranged in a thin little cap that is about the size of a small thimble, hence the name. When I went looking for a recipe I found resources on the internet that indicate that they're not just a Pacific NW phenomena; people in Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula apparently pick similar berries and make them into jam.
Enclosed is a photo of a stand of bushes. These are across the road from where I work. As to how I recognize them, I'm just always on the lookout for various berries in wild places. Thimbleberries are my favorite, but I also enjoy finding blue huckleberries (which you generally only find above a couple thousand feet elevation), salal berries (which are a meaty berry that local indigenous peoples ate as a staple), and salmonberries (which are found in moist places and are not so sweet). Then of course there are blackberries, which are ubiquitous: for six weeks in the summer I supplement my breakfast with a lot of blackberries that grow along the bicycle path to work. Many people tend to lump blackberries all together, but in fact there are indigenous blackberries as well as the non-native European blackberry. Some are big and fat and sweet, while others have a flavor that is best described as spicy.
For those out here on the West Coast wishing to identify berries, I recommend this little pocket guide:
http://www.powells.com/biblio?isbn=0912550023 (wow, the price on these has gone up, mine has a $3 price tag on it).
You can see why I thought the Pacific Northwest was the perfect place for my brother, can't you?
If you happen to find a trove of berries like the one pictured here (thanks, Kurt, for the photo!), and are interested in preserving them, here is the recipe he used.
Personally, if I ever move out that way and find myself with some thimbleberries, I'd be tempted to mix them with peaches for a variation. Back when I was about 13 years old, I tried to make a batch of peach jam and ended up with a dozen jars of very sweet, very soupy peach sauce, which lingered in my mother's basement for - literally - years. Obviously the peaches needed more pectin and obviously the thimbleberries have plenty to spare, so why not?