BERRIES are emblematic of the last, lazy days of summer. Sprinkled with sugar and a dollop of creme fraiche, folded into cake batter or heaped onto shortcakes, bushberries (also known as caneberries) such as raspberries and blackberries are a seasonal treat.
Brandon Ross, owner of Ella Bella Farm, grows organic vegetables and bushberries on his 30-acre farm in Corralitos, outside of Santa Cruz.
"We're going after flavor and unique varieties," says Ross. The farm specializes in raspberries, producing Kiwigold, a low-acid, golden raspberry, and the much sought-after black raspberry, which are not often grown in California because of their susceptibility to a water- and soil-borne bacterium that causes root rot.
Ross also grows two varieties of blackberries: Navajo, a sweeter, more delicate berry that he sells at farmers' markets, and Chester, a variety whose low sugar makes it less perishable and better able to retain its shape when cooked.
Ross devotes 10 acres of his farm to berry cultivation, preferring to keep the acreage small because the fruit is so labor-intensive to harvest and ship.
Ross has lately taken to putting up hoop houses over his berry canes. Hoops are similar to greenhouses except they are open on the sides and ends. The warm air generated by the hoop houses will trigger an early bloom on the plants, and will also protect them from unseasonably early or late rains.
"The trickiest thing about cultivating bushberries is they all bear at once," explains Ross. "The hoops are about labor management. If we trigger a bloom on certain plants, we can harvest from them first, and continue to practice rotational hooping to stagger the work load."
While this strategy makes good sense from a farming perspective, Ross' underlying reason is to provide better working, economic and living conditions for his eight Hispanic workers. By triggering rotational fruit or vegetable production on his crops, Ross ensures that his workers have a less stressful and physically taxing workload, and have crops to harvest throughout the year.
"My goal as a small farmer is to provide stable, year-round, full-time employment for resident employees."
With so many water-hungry bushberries on his farm, Ross tries to provide some ecological balance by dry-farming tomatoes. He deliberately deprives the plants of water for periods of time to intensify the sugars in the fruit and create better flavor, as well as save water.
"More than half of my acreage is non-irrigated dry farming, so I'm able to give that unused water to the berries."
Bushberries absorb pesticides like a sponge, but they also absorb water, making them mushy when rinsed. Buying organic berries eliminates the need for rinsing.
The perishable nature of these delicate fruits also means they should be used as soon as possible, or stored in a single layer on a baking sheet in the refrigerator to prevent rot. Remove any moldy berries immediately, as the mold will spread to the rest of the fruit.
Berries are one of those things that taste sublime on their own, which is usually how I choose to eat them. Of course they're a heavenly addition to any dessert, but if I'm trying to embellish fresh berries, I'll just serve them in a martini glass or compote bowl with a spoonful of ricotta cheese and a drizzle of honey.
Ella Bella Farm berries are available at the Ferry Plaza farmers' market in San Francisco, Monterey Market in Berkeley, and Berkeley Bowl.
JUST-BAKED BLACKBERRY SHORTCAKE
Adapted from a recipe by Nancy Oakes, chef/owner of Boulevard in San Francisco, as published in "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area" (Eating Fresh Guides, $17.95).
2 cups self-rising flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup sugar, plus additional for dipping shortcakes
1 ½ cups heavy cream
1/2 cup melted butter
3 pints fresh blackberries
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Simple syrup (see note)
Vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, for serving
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Combine the flour, salt and sugar in a mixing bowl. Stir with a fork to blend. Slowly add 1 cup of the cream to the mixture, stirring constantly.
Gather the dough together. If dough seems dry and won't hold together, add more cream. When it holds together but isn't sticky, turn out onto an ungreased baking sheet and pat into a 1-inch-high square.
Cut the large square into 6 biscuits. Dip biscuits in melted butter and then in sugar, coating thoroughly. Bake 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown.
Crush one-third of the berries and mix with the lemon juice and 2 to 3 tablespoons of simple syrup. In a separate bowl, toss the remaining berries with 2 to 3 more tablespoons of syrup.
Slice the warm shortcakes in half. Sandwich the crushed berries between the biscuits, and top with the whole berries and whipped cream or ice cream. Serves 6.
Note: To make simple syrup, combine 1/2 cup sugar, 1/4 cup water and 1 teaspoon vanilla in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring often. When the syrup reaches a boil, remove the pan from the heat. Set aside and cool.
Per serving (without whipped cream or ice cream): 562 Calories; 31g Fat; 6g Protein; 68g Carbohydrate; 9g Dietary Fiber; 96mg Cholesterol; 1056mg Sodium.
E-mail Laurel Miller at email@example.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org