Winter is not a great time for foraging, as there is very little to gather, particularly when snow covers the ground. However, one of the true prizes of the season is a visitor from the far east, the Japanese Barberry (Berberis vulgaris).
Barberry bushes were introduced into this country over a century ago for use as exotic ornamental plants, but thanks to the birds, who eat their bright red fruits, they have been spread throughout much of the country, and are now considered an invasive species.
In the spring these small prickly shrubs start to sprout clusters of small tear shaped leaves, which are soon followed by light yellow flowers that bloom along the long slender branches. Once the flowers have dropped off, small green berries appear in their place and slowly grow throughout the summer, finally ripening by mid fall. These tart red berries usually remain intact throughout the winter months, deepening in color until they are either dark red or almost black. Others may shrivel and fall off, or are eaten by birds. However, it is not unusual for some of the berries to still remain during the following season when the plant is flowering.
Although barberries are not very tasty straight from the bush, they can be used in several different ways in a whole variety of dishes. To harvest the berries, you can pick them individually, so as to avoid being pricked by thorns, or you can throw caution to the wind and scoop them off in bunches. This can be achieved by grasping a branch, loaded with fruit, near the bottom and pulling up toward the tip, removing the berries along the way. As the thorns point forward, you can remove the berries without getting pricked (if you are careful). The only problem is that you'll need to use bare hands. Gloves make it too awkward. The fact is that there is really no way to avoid getting stuck a few times.
When I'm harvesting, I select my bushes and my berries very carefully, depending on the purpose I have for them. If I'm using the berries to make sauce, I'll look for fat, ripe fruit. Shriveled berries are fine for tea or for drying. However, for use in rice dishes and salads, I like to gather the smaller fruits, with the undeveloped seeds, so that they can be used whole (deseeding the berries is very laborious). To preserve berries for use at other times of the year, they can be dehydrated and stored in a dark dry place.
I've used the berries in many dishes over the years. They make a colorful addition to greens dishes, chicken salad and are traditionally added to the Persian rice dish Zereshk Polow. However, one of my favorite ways to prepare them is in making barberry sauce. It is easy to make, but requires a lot of berries.
Recipe: Barberry Sauce
2 cups fresh or dried Barberries
1 cup water
2/3 cup coconut sugar or brown sugar
Place berries in a 2 qt saucepan (it doesn't matter if stalks are attached).
Bring to boil and simmer for about 10 minutes until soft
Using a food mill or a sieve and a wooden spoon ,grind the pulp through into a smaller pan, leaving behind the seeds and skins
Reheat the pulp, adding more water if necessary
Add the sugar and simmer until it has dissolved
Store in a lidded jar in the refrigerator
The sauce can be served with turkey, in place of cranberry sauce. It also goes well with pork or wild fowl. It is works well poured over ice cream. A thicker version makes a a good spread for toast, crackers or scones.
Vitamin C rich barberry has been used medicinally for thousands of years. It is an effective treatment for diarrhea, fever and anemia. It is also useful in lowering blood pressure.