July 31, 2012

picking summer fruits and a little more...

Another month goes, and and here's another one of my futile effort to post something at least once a month (typically at the very end of one). I was going to write about how we racked up more summer fruits than we could handle this month, but I seem to be running out of time (again), so today I'm just posting some photos from a day we went berry picking earlier the month.

...But before then, we also went to pick apricots!

My mother knows someone who has an apricot tree in their (huge) backyard, and they shared some of the fruit, as they do almost every year (the last time being two years ago).

It was one of those sunny, warm days in the midst of rainy season. The sun was shining, and so were these golden orange orbs!

A peculiar thing about fruit trees is that, even when it doesn't appear to have so many fruits on the tree at first glance, when you actually get to it you always end up with more fruits than you first thought there would be. (I learned it in a hard way when I spent hours helping my folks pick apples in their orchards.)

These may not look as perfect as those blemish-free sorts you find at supermarkets, but they are perfectly pretty in my eyes - and pretty much the ripest, freshest you could get.

And there was another thing we were there to pick:
Do you recognize these green things? They are walnuts - young ones, that is. Also two summers ago, we got some of these green walnuts along with apricots and made them into a walnut liqueur, or nocino as they call it in Italy.

I made it for the first time two years ago, out of curiosity, and to my delight (or more to my booze-loving families') it turned out to be quite exquisite. I vowed to make it again in a larger batch, and here I am finally with some young walnuts in my hands again.
Last time I used this recipe, and I did the same this time. I hope it'll be as good as my last batch; the last of which is pictured above, the dark stuff in a small bottle; it's two year's old, and I plan to leave it sit for a little more and enjoy it slowly....

Now, back to apricots...
Let me set something straight here: apricot has never been one of my more favorite fruits, a opinion I've voiced more than once here and the one I still stand by. But as I've made myself try and bake with them over and over again, they have grown on me - at least when cooked. The only time I really enjoyed eating fresh apricots as is was when I had most scrumptious, intensely sweet and tart fruits in France. And even the ripest ones just picked off the tree here weren't quite up to par, which is a shame when they look so promising and inviting.

So I've reached this conclusion: with apricots, you really do need to cook them to make them shine, brighten up their flavor. When uncooked, they can be a bit mushy and taste rather bland; the heat seems to bring out their intense tartness and impart the freshest smell.
And that makes apricots one of my favorite fruits to bake with, and I've made a few things over the past few weeks. But one of the first things I did with them was to make honeyed apricot sauce. It was my mother's apricot sauce that made me really appreciate for the first time how lovely the fruits can smell, a couple of summers ago. It was essentially just apricots cooked with some sugar until they collapse into a sauce. I tried it last year, using honey in place of sugar, and it turned out just as good. And quite surprisingly, it kept for a year in the fridge, despite the relative lack of sugar in it - and I didn't even can it properly (though I do think you should for a long-term storage).

This year, I made it again with honey, and with some white wine - also taking a leaf from my mother. I started with very ripe apricots, chopped and pitted (but not peeled), mild honey (about one-quarter by weight of the fruit), and a good pour of dry white wine. I cooked everything down to a slightly chunky sauce-like texture.
You might want to use a bit more honey, if your apricots aren't very ripe - and especially if you plan to use it to accompany unsweetened yogurt, etc. I use it more for making desserts (such as ice-cream), so I like to leave mine not too sweet. Like I've said, I recommend you keep this sauce in the fridge and use soon, unless you can your jars properly. This year I did, so I will see how it keeps.

And the stuff in the large jars? Why yes, more homemade liqueurs...
On the right is apricot brandy, or just a mixture of some whole apricots, sugar (in my case rock candy), and cheap brandy, like I did two summers ago. The other one is something lighter and sweeter, apricot liqueur with cardamom - our favorite from last summer; I adapted these recipes, and prepared it by gently heating together 300-350 g (11-13 oz.) halved and pitted apricots, 150 g (5.5 oz.) honey, and 500 ml (about 18 fl.oz.; a little over 2 cups) white wine, and 1 tablespoon amaretto (optional) to a boil before removing it from the heat, pouring it into a large jar and adding 200 ml (about 7 fl.oz.) vodka. I left it in a cool, dark place for a week, then strained and filtered it to leave it for another month or so before it is ready to serve.

By they way, don't discard the fruits left after straining the liqueur; they are sweet and boozy, and absolutely lovely in some little desserts!
Other than what we picked from the tree, I bought several baskets of apricots from the store and baked a whole lot of stuff with them. You see, last summer I didn't take a full advantage of their fleeting season, so let's just say I did my best to make up for it. I even longed for the apricot season to come this year - perhaps it's now safe to say that I kind of like apricots. Kind of.


And you'd think I'd have been busy cooking with all the apricots we'd picked? Well, I was, except I went out to pick some more fruits, on the very next day we picked the apricots.
We left home early in the morning, and drove through mountains (and on the tollways!) to Ina, a city located in the southeast of Nagano Prefecture.

Our destination of the day was Santa Berry Garden, a pick-your-own farm specialized in a variety of berries and currants.

And my target of the day was berries.
... and not just berries, but raspberries!

See the little scarlet gems? Can I get excited now???

Fresh fruits are abundant here in Nagano where I am now, and we are blessed with a large variety of fruits that aren't too common (or inexpensive) in many other parts of the country. Apricots and blueberries are among them. Raspberries are not.

I love most of fruits (not apricots... well, not fresh), and love all sorts of berries. And raspberry is possibly my most favorite berries of them all. My tragedy is, they are not among the most widely available fruits in Japan, especially fresh ones. Basically all fresh (or frozen, for that matter) raspberries you find at supermarkets are imported, and disgustingly expensive; a small basket for ten bucks, what a bargain! I shudder at the thought of cooking them, and could only dream of making desserts laden with fresh raspberries, or simply gorging myself with a bowl full of the fresh berries.

And on one late June day, as I was munching on mulberries, it occurred to me: there must be someone growing and selling raspberries somewhere around here. So I did a bit of research on the Internet, and couldn't find any near us. But there were a few of them in Nagano, and one of them was this Santa Berry Garden.
They are not exactly close, but at that point I was obsessed with the idea of going to pick raspberries, so I made arrangements (reservation is highly recommended when visiting there to pick fruits), talked my folks into going there with me.

This was my second time to visit a PYO farm for raspberries. The first time was when a friend of mine took me to one near Sheffield in northern England, more than five years ago. I was practically bouncing up and down in excitement back then, but I was excited nearly as much this time, too, as it was my first time in Japan, and this time I could bring home as much as I wanted.
...Well, maybe not as much as I wanted, exactly, even if I would have loved to, as that would get me go bankrupt. Raspberries here ere not as expensive as what you buy from the stores in Tokyo, but still not cheap; at 300 yen (a little over 3 bucks) per 100 g (3.5 oz.), they seem quite pricey compared to strawberries and blueberries, which we can buy a lot cheaper. But when fresh, local raspberries are so hard to come by, that was a price I was willing to pay (plus the toll fees...), if not every day. Plus, they are organic, and freshness is guaranteed.

So after a little over half an hour, we picked nearly three pounds of raspberries, as well as over a pound of boysenberries.

The farm website said they had blackberry and a bunch of its cousins, and this time boysenberry was ready to pick. As a hybrid of raspberry, blackberry and loganberry (which itself is a raspberry-blackberry hybrid), boysenberry has raspberry's refreshing tartness and blackberry's deeply rich, wine-like flavor. And no, they are definitely not a common item at supermarkets in Tokyo.

Now, while I was all excited taking photos of beautiful raspberries (who wouldn't??), my folks were checking out other parts of the farm and found something that interested them more...
What they found was gooseberry bushes, which are by no means something that special around here. Though little known in many parts of Japan, gooseberry has been a common fruit in our neck of woods here in Nagano, something you'd pick off the plant and just wouldn't think about buying - much like how mulberry is. But then, gooseberries that they're used to are typically green, either because they are picked still young or they are a green variety; possibly both, I'm not sure. Anyhow, it wasn't common for my folks to see such ripe, purple-red gooseberries this early in a year, and they were very sweet, too.

While they were happily picking the purple gooseberries, I went further into a currant section of the farm... find a couple of mulberry trees, which I could afford to pass by this time, since I'd already got quite a lot from a friend's tree back in June.

Then I found some redcurrant, which, too, is fairly common in Nagano and perhaps around the country. Apparently, we have a shrub in our garden too, though I never noticed it. But I've never seen a redcurrant bush so heavily laden with the fruit!

Gooseberries and redcurrants I could pass up. But this, I couldn't:
Blackcurrant! No, they are not a common fruit even in Nagano, and no, I've never seen them at stores, in Nagano or Tokyo. And I had certainly never seen the fruit on the branches. This is where I had to ask for another basket to get on with more picking.

Now perhaps many of you may have seen all these berries and stuff a lot of time and can't see why I could be so excited about them. But what about these?
White currant! Okay, perhaps you've seen them too. But I'd only seen them in Europe (at the markets, not the bushes), and having seen them used in dessert books, I'd long wanted to get my hands on some.

And above all, I didn't come here expecting to find white currants, so imagine how happy I was here! It was like a dream come true.
(The irony is, on the very evening I came back from berry picking, I saw this post by Aran, where she used a gorgeous bunch of rose-colored currants, which were dreamily beautiful. Now I find myself coveting for some of these... we never seem to stop crying for the moon!).

But all in all, I was a very happy girl there.
The only regret is, I really wish I'd got more of the currants there. Perhaps we were a little tired from working in the sun, and perhaps we were getting hungry too - it was past noon -, but for whatever reason I decided I'd had enough of the currants and called it a day. How I regret it later.

That said, I'm not sure if I should have been wanting more for the day...
...with this much of fresh berries (there were more raspberries and boysenberries not seen in the picture). Considering my budget and the berries' short shelf-life, I think we were pretty good where we were. And this time, we brought an ice box cooler with us; as far as getting a large amount of perishable fresh berries in the warm season, I have a bitter lesson from my past blunder, you see.

Now, after a hard work, we treated ourselves to some refreshments.
The farm has a little cafe on the premise, where they serve a selection of drinks and sweets. But when you come here to pick berries, your 600-yen admission include a drink and a scone at the cafe, so that was what we had.

They served mint lemonade and house-made scones, accompanied by raspberry and gooseberry jams (also house-made) as well as clotted cream. Though we were hungry, we didn't want to fill up as we had somewhere else to go to for lunch, so this little set was perfect. And we were more thirsty than hungry, so the ice-cold mint lemonade (and a very minty one that is!) was just what the doctor ordered.

And as we looked around sitting back in the shade with our thirst quenched, we could see the place was really rather pretty.
Berry picking aside, this might be a nice place to have near you, to come for a cup of tea and perhaps a bit of chat with friends.
And trust me, that's not something we have aplenty where I am!

Before leaving the farm, I picked up a handsome raspberry plant, which eventually found its home in a corner of our family friends' sunny vegetable patch. Our own garden is hopeless for most vegetables and fruits; we've already killed a few blueberry plants along with many other things. Although, a blackberry plant that nearly died last year is coming back now, so we're hoping it'll make it....
And even if I now had a plant of my own I was already thinking about coming back after the summer for some fall berries. Well, a single raspberry plant isn't going to bear enough fruits for me to gorge myself on, right?

And by the way, that was exactly what I did on the following day.
For breakfast, I had a bowl of yogurt with a bunch of berries - a lot more than you see in the picture (I threw a bunch more in after the shot), with a swirl of my honeyed apricot sauce. This was my idea of perfect early summer breakfast.

And of course, there were a few more things I made with my berries and currants - and apricots too.
I meant to write about them here, too, but my time is up for today. I will share with them hopefully soon.

Meanwhile, I hope you are all enjoying or otherwise getting on with the summer (if you have it) and treating yourselves to a lot of summer fruits and vegetables. Summer has just began here. -cxx