Monday, July 13, 2009

Dog Breath Berries

This week I'm stripping the black currant bushes. It's the end of the season and I'm spending an hour or so each afternoon before dinner diligently finding all the late-ripening berries on our 30 or so bushes. The patch is located just south of our new greenhouse, on the edge of our main garden, and berry picking is a meditation for me. Very centering. The patch is dense and I carefully, methodically work my way around one bush at a time, looking under each branch for the precious black fruit—about the size of a pea.

Sandhill Farm is now 35 years old, yet our black currant stock is much older than that. The scions came from my Aunt Hennie's house in Elmhurst IL, carefully transplanted cuttings from her homesteading backyard—now smack in the midst of the Chicago suburbs. Hennie is my mother's ony sister and both of them were born in that house—Val in 1917 and Henrietta in 1907, the duaghters of Johnnie and Gertie Golden. The two-story clapboard house with its steep winding stairs was built in 1899, and we have a picture in the family archives of the surrounding area just after it was built. At the advent of the 20th Century there were no other buildings in sight, just wind-swept prairie. Today you'd have to drive for more than two hours west to get a comparable sight.

As the suburbs gradually crept west, the Goldens kept their plot of land and continued a tradition of serious gardening. They still had chickens in my lifetime, and one of the highlights of the holidays was the homemade red currant jelly (stored in glass with a paraffin seal) that Hennie used to contribute to roast beef dinners, and the fruit cake she'd make every October (and soak in bourbon for two months before distributing it the form of carefully wrapped bricks to all her nephews and nieces under the Christmas tree). There was a long run of Concord grapes in the backyard and once we found several bottles of a forgotten vintage in the cellar, left over from when Johnnie & Gertie made communion wine during Prohibition. It was incredibly good.

The Goldens favored raspberries over strawberries, and currants over blueberries. When I moved to Sandhill in 1974, Hennie gifted me a set of ceramic crocks, a sauerkraut slicer, and and an asortment of various hand tools. It didn't occur to any of us (at first) that we might also need plants.

Upon arriving at Sandhill we enthusiastically purchased lots of fruit stock, almost all of which was easily obtained from mail-order nurseries. It turned out though, that black currant bushes were not obtainable. We learned that black currants serve as the alternate host for the fungus that causes White Pine Blister Rust and the forestry lobby (in the '70s) had sufficient strength to get black currants banned from interstate sale in an effort to contain this disease.

We were somewhat put out about the whole thing (given that white pine lives nowhere near us)
, but instead of calling Congress, we just called Hennie—and placed an order for some cuttings. She obliged and black currants are now firmly established in northeast Missouri—both at Sandhill and anywhere there's a neighbor who's requested starts over the years. While the ban on the sale of black currants plants has since been lifted, and you can now buy rootstock from nurseries, we're self-sufficient these days and no longer needing nursery help.

Black currants are a hardy bush that needs little attention. Too tart to be enjoyed fresh, they're best used in jams and in winemaking. While almost everyone I've met enjoys the wine, I've known many who were able to contain their enthusiasm for the task of picking the berries. The tedium of small fruit collection is typically relieved by the allowing harvesters to graze as they work. In the case of black currants, however, there's not much incentive.

In fact, we had a long-term member at Sandhill named Julez (she was with us 1988-95) who used to call them "dog breath berries," and it wasn't a term of endearment. I took it as a sign of her enduring affection for me (and perhaps the wine) that she'd agree to help pick the berries at all.

Tomorrow, I will dust off one of Hennie's 10-gallon crocks and continue a family tradition: I will begin a batch of black currant wine. When Ma'ikwe and I got married two years ago, I had reserved the entire 2006 crop of black currants to make 20 gallons of wine for the wedding. Although Hennie did not live long enough to see me get married (she'd died in the '90s), she was there in spirits.

And it raises my spirits each year as the new berries ripen and I practice my heritage. This week in the agricultural cycle, my mantra goes something like this:

I am Laird
Son of Valborg
Nephew of Hennie
Picker of Berries
Vintner of Black Currant Wine
Keeper of Tradition
Celebrant of Life

1 comment:

Becca Krantz said...

so, were the Goldens Jewish?