Berries were vital to the well-being of the indigenous population, who made a kind of fruit leather by pounding berries and drying them in the sun. This was eaten raw or reconstituted in hot water or soup. They made pemmican by mixing berries with bison meat and suet, a power food that kept for months without refrigeration. They sold it by the sack-full to European explorers and fur traders, making it the first processed food industry on the Canadian plains.
The early settlers were wild for berries at a time when any other fresh fruit was hard to find. Back then, wild berries grew much more abundantly than they do today. Early memoirs relate tales of picking parties heading out for wild strawberries, raspberries, chokecherries, gooseberries, saskatoons and blueberries by the bucketful.
John Diefenbaker, Canada's thirteenth Prime Minister, remembers his parents picking like crazy in berry season, listing a typical haul at 30 quarts of strawberries, 50 quarts of saskatoons and 100 quarts of raspberries. A quart is the size of a large pickle jar.
By the time I came along, it was hard to find a wild raspberry or strawberry but, fortunately, domesticated varieties had been planted on the farm. We had a large berry patch and, from an early age, I loved to pick. I loved being outside on a hot summer day with the buzz of insects and the scent of dry grass. I loved the rhythm of picking, like a meditative exercise that occupies the body but frees the mind.
Best of all, I love eating those berries in the depths of winter. Toast with raspberry jelly. Cranberry scones with strawberry preserve. Blueberry smoothies. Chokecherry syrup on pancakes. And, of course, saskatoon berry pie.
Now there's a new berry on my pick list: the tart prairie cherry developed by fruit breeders at the University of Saskatchewan. It's perfect for cherry pie or a fruit compote on roast pork.
One year, my husband and I did an experiment in local eating, choosing not to buy imported fruit from the grocery store and relying on prairie fruit alone. We ate berries in one form or another almost every day. In the spring, he made a surprising observation: neither of us had suffered a cold all winter long. All things being equal, was our local berry diet responsible for our good health?
I like to think so. Berries are high in vitamin C, rich in antioxidants and full of flavonoids (the dark red, purple and blue colours) to boost the immune system and fight disease. Berries are as good as fruit gets.
This recipe is a great way to show them off. Clafoutis (cla-foo-tee) is a French dessert traditionally made with cherries (often unpitted, as the pits are said to add extra flavour) but I like to make a prairie version with a mix of berries I picked myself. It's perfect for brunch any time of year.
Use fresh or frozen berries (or a mix of both). In season, you can also add some sliced young rhubarb to the berry blend.
2 tbsp butter
3 tbsp sugar
1 cup milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup flour
1 tbsp flour
2 cup mixed berries such as cherries, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, low bush cranberries, saskatoons
Heat the oven to 350F. Put butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet or a pie plate. Place in oven until butter is melted but not brown.
Meanwhile, in a blender mix eggs, sugar, milk, vanilla and salt. With the blades running, add 1 cup flour and blend well.
Toss fruit with remaining 1 tbsp flour.
Remove the skillet or pie plate from the oven. Pour in the batter and scatter the fruit on top. Return to the oven. Bake about 20-25 minutes, until the centre of the custard is set.
Serve warm with a dusting of icing sugar or cool with a drizzle of syrup.
(This article first appeared in Grainews.)