I’m often asked what I can find to harvest at this time of year, with a hefty coating of snow on the ground. Well, funnily enough, this is one of my favorite berrying seasons. Two winter fruits in particular, can be gathered, that are both high in vitamin C. One is candy sweet and the other one tastes like crap. I speak of course of Rose hips (rosa multiflora) and Barberries (Berberis thunbergii).
Oddly enough, it is the crappy tasting ones that I prefer to harvest. Although I love the sweetness of the Japanese Rose hips, so common in our area, I search for patches of Barberries and gather them whenever possible. I will often eat them straight off the bushes, with gusto. No, I’m not a masochist. The fact is that I have learned to tolerate the rather bitter flavor of the berries, because they are one of the highest sources, by far, of antioxidants. And, in this age of multiple electromagnetic assaults on our bodies, we need all the protective antioxidants we can muster.
The fortunate thing is that, turned into a sauce and sweetened, Barberries can actually taste pretty good. In fact, one of the tastiest pastries I make is Barberry Rugelach. Last year, for the first time, I actually made a Barberry tincture (using the actual berries). It is more common to to make a tincture from the inner bark of the plant. It has powerful antibiotic actions, owing to its high berberine content (one of the main active compounds in Golden Seal).
The great thing about berries is that they hang around all winter long. By March, those that remain are mostly shriveled and dark red (or even black), but there are still a few plump ones left for the determined forager. I have even found berries from the previous season hanging amongst the April blossoms of the new growth.
At this time of year, despite the snow, you can go into the woods and find bare Barberry bushes that are covered in ripe, red berries. As their name suggests the bushes are covered in barbs. So how do we get to the berries without piercing ourselves. Well, the fact is you can’t. However, with the technique I have used for several years, one can minimize the number of punctures one receives.
The bushes consist of long, straight branches with little spikes growing in pairs, every couple of inches inches. Hanging beneath the spikes are pairs of red, plumb-shaped berries. Unlike Roses, that have backward curved thorns (like cat claws), the Barberry barbs are straight and face forward. By holding the bottom of the branch firmly between the thumb and fore finger, then sliding your hand outward toward the tip, you will flatten the thorns as you remove the berries. It is a lot easier than picking individual berries, and, funnily enough, there is less chance of getting skewered.
Barberry butter is easy to make, but requires a lot of berries. You simply take the whole berries and simmer them in water, until they are soft. Pour off most of the water and work the pulp through a sieve or food mill, leaving behind the skins and seeds. The pulp is rather tart, but can be sweetened by reheating it and adding enough honey or coconut sugar to suit your taste . The resultant "butter" can be served with meat and poultry dishes, in place of cranberry sauce, or spread on toast, crackers or scones. I like to combine it with some rum, which helps preserve it, and creates an adult style sauce to pour over ice cream or waffles.
There’s much more to be said about these wonderful, nutritious and medicinal fruits, not the least of which is their ability to clear up acne and other skin conditions.