It's often said that European settlers learned to eat maple syrup and corn bread from the native inhabitants of North America. Here on the prairies, we must add saskatoon berries to that list.
Saskatoon berries have been an important food source on the prairies for thousands of years. Saskatoons were mixed with bison to make pemmican. They were also crushed and dried in cakes that stored well into winter, when they were eaten raw, reconstituted with water or crumbled into a stew called rababoo. The hivernants of the fur trade survived on bison and berries, and the first homesteaders considered themselves lucky if there was a stand of saskatoons nearby.
In the early days, berry picking was a social event. Families and neighbours picked together, packing a picnic and making a day of it. In her history of Moffat, near Wolseley, Kay Parley recalls picking berries with down-to-earth nostalgia:
"Berry picking meant being stung by nettles, scratched by branches and thorns, harried by flies and mosquitos in sweltering heat, but it was endured patiently because the treats of the year depended on berry picking days."
Yes, pemmican and rababoo have disappeared from our cookbooks, but they have been splendidly replaced by saskatoon berry pie, crumble, jam, syrup and even wine. As Parley writes, "Who wouldn't endure a few days of discomfort for treats like that?"
This recipe is not particularly old, but the primary ingredients would have been available in pioneer days.
Saskatoon Berry Tart
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup flour
1/2 cup cold butter
2 tbsp milk
1 tbsp vinegar
2 1/2 cups saskatoons, fresh or frozen
1/4 cup ground almonds
2 tbsp sugar
1/4 cup cream
Blend 1/2 cup sugar and flour. Cut butter into small pieces. Work butter into flour with a pastry blender and/or your fingers until it resembles coarse sand. Work quickly so as not the warm the butter.
Mix milk and vinegar. Pour into flour. Blend with a fork and knead briefly. Do not overwork. The dough will be crumbly and stick together when pinched.
Press dough into a tart pan, spreading evenly with your fingers across the bottom and up the sides. Bake at 350F for 15 minutes. Toss berries with almonds and sugar. Spread into tart shell and return to the oven for 15 minutes.
Whisk egg and cream. Pour evenly over berries and bake another 15 minutes. Cool before slicing.
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(This article first appeared in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix.)