One of the items on my Summer Bucket List this year is “blackberry picking at a local farm.” Blackberry season here in the Bay Area is rather short, usually running from the end of June until the end of July. If you want to get the best berries (or any berries at all, for that matter), you have to make a point to plan your visit to a u-pick farm. Sure, you can purchase local, organic blackberries at most farmers’ markets — no muss, no fuss — but where’s the fun in that?! If you’re a DIY kinda person, and don’t mind getting your hands dirty (or fingers stained or arms scratched up), then u-pick is a great way to get your hands on the freshest berries around.
Knowing that I was running out of time, and with all kinds of plans for what I might make with the pounds of plump, sweet dark-purple berries I’d pick myself, I decided that last Saturday was The Day. We were having perfect berry-picking weather here in the 650: sunny with a few clouds and temps in the low 70’s. I thought about making the 45-minute drive to Coastaways Ranch in Pescadero, especially as they were about to close their blackberry u-pick for the season, but opted to head over to Webb Ranch in Portola Valley instead. Getting to Webb Ranch would take less time, and they were advertising more varieties of berries. Win-win.
Webb Ranch is family-friendly and well set up for u-pick. Signs point the way to the u-pick parking lot and to the fields’ entrance (look for the white tent where you’ll enter and exit the fields). When I checked in with the ladies at the u-pick entrance before heading out to the fields, they let me know that pickins were slim (sad face). However, there were berries to be had for those pickers willing to search (hint, hint). Undeterred, I grabbed several boxes and headed out.
I saw lots of unripe, red berries on the vines, but the dusky berries I was expecting were few and far between. Anything at eye level was definitely picked over, but there were some berries at ground level. It took some scraped arms and pricked fingers from moving vines to get at those hidden treasures, but I can get a little obsessive when it comes to berry picking. After a while I got into a groove, searching vines in sections, and really just enjoying walking through the fields. I lost track of time, moving from one row to the next, squatting, moving vines (ouch), slipping my hands under leaves (ouch), and occasionally finding a cache of ripe berries, missed by the early-morning pickers.
Lost in my hunt and enjoying the fresh air and warm weather, I started to get this weird feeling. You know that point when you realize that things have gotten really quiet and there’s no one else around? When I finally put my head up and checked the time, yikes! It was past closing time for u-pick and yes, I was actually alone out in the fields. Well, that’s a first. I’ve closed bars and restaurants, but never a berry field. I looked down at my haul. Barely two containers full. Oof.
Fortunately, farmer Deano Lovecchio and his wife, who were (ahem) waiting for me so that they could close up, were nice enough to chat for a few minutes about my picking experience and what’s going on at Webb Ranch. I got the low-down from Deano on what they’ve planted and why, and what’s up with the lack of berries. Basically, it comes down to what Deano called “our weird weather” — cool, foggy mornings in the Portola Valley hills has slowed down the ripening process — along with a lot more of “you folks,” meaning more u-pickers. And this isn’t a bad thing for the farm — more of “us folks” picking means higher demand for their berries and a growth opportunity for the farm. In fact, Deano was telling me about all the additional crops he’s planted for the coming year to support the farm’s growth. (More about that in a future post!)
During my drive home I had a little internal debate as to what I might do with the berries I’d picked. Quantity-wise, things hadn’t worked out as I’d anticipated; I probably ended up with about a pound. But quality-wise: jackpot! These very ripe berries were at their best right now (ok, so I’d taste-tested few while picking…); they were very sweet, flavorful, even a bit jammy tasting, with just a hint of tartness. They wouldn’t be better tomorrow or the next day. That’s the thing about u-pick: you need to be thinking ahead as to what you’ll do with the fruit. How much you can eat or cook now and whether the fruit is sturdy enough for storing for future use. It was pretty clear from the juice leaking into the box holding the berries that these super-ripe babies needed to be enjoyed or cooked right away. I decided to split the difference: eat my fill now and cook the rest into a blackberry syrup that I could enjoy for the next week or two.
Not to be a big tease after all that talk of sweet, ripe berries, but if you’re thinking about getting your blackberries from Webb Ranch, better hurry up! This Saturday, 9am–2pm, is the last chance for blackberry u-pick for the season! Check out their website or Facebook page for the latest updates. And if you do get your hands on some sweet, ripe berries, make up a batch of this versatile syrup!
Recipe: Blackberry Syrup
This syrup is delicious on waffles, homemade vanilla ice cream, or a scoop of Greek yogurt (hint: you don’t need to buy yogurt with fruit added — make your own fruit sauces and syrups). It’s also a great way to use up very ripe, soft, or ugly berries. Note that blackberries, depending on the type, can vary in size from about 1/2-inch to 1-inch, so I recommend weight over volume measurements for consistent results.
Yield: 8 – 9 ounces syrup
What you need:
Small container or bowl to hold the strainer
Glass or plastic container with lid for storing the syrup
12 ounces ripe, fresh blackberries, boysenberries, olallieberries (or a combination of any of these)
3 – 4 ounces sugar
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 ounce of water
- Taste your berries.
Seriously, before you go any further, taste several berries to get a good idea of how sweet and/or tart they are. If they’re very sweet with a hint of tartness, start with the minimum amount of sugar (3 ounces) and lemon juice (2 teaspoons). If the berries are more tart than sweet, they’re likely not ripe enough, and you’ll need to add more sugar — up to 3 ounces more.
- Place the berries in the saucepan and add the sugar, lemon juice, and water.
Per your taste test in Step 1, add more sugar and/or lemon juice as necessary. Just to give you an idea of what I did: the berries I used were super-ripe and very sweet, AND I prefer a less-sweet syrup, so I used only 3 ounces of sugar. Next time, I might add another half ounce to see if that brings out the berry flavor a bit more without making the syrup too sweet. If your berries are tasting more tart than sweet, consider adding more sugar.
- Bring the berries, sugar, lemon juice, and water to a boil and reduce the heat.
- Cook for 15-20 minutes over low-medium to medium heat until the mixture has thickened and reduced to about three-quarters of the original amount.
Make sure you’re stirring the mixture regularly and using the rubber spatula to break up the berries in the pot. I press the spatula against the berries until they pop.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and strain the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing down with the spatula to extract as much liquid as possible.
I haven’t yet figured out a good use for what I call the “smoosh” — the leftover skins and seeds from making the syrup. Got any ideas??
- Taste the syrup and make any final adjustments for sweetness or acidity by adding sugar or lemon juice in small increments.
- Allow to cool. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.