by Cathy Erway
[Cathy writes about Wonderberry Jam and much more on her new blog Lunch at Sixpoint. -mb]
One of the cool things about gardening is that you get to grow things that you didn’t even know existed. Browsing the catalog at Baker’s Creek, Seeds of Change or Seed Saver’s Exchange, some of my favorite sites to find crazy heirloom seeds, is like opening the door to a third dimension of food, where cantaloupes come in fifteen distinct shapes and flavors, and eggplant can be ghost-white, green, golden or red. Or rather, welcome to agriculture, pre-monoculture, again. Eight-ball zucchini, anyone?
I still don’t know of anyone else who’s heard of wonderberries. They seem to have slipped through the cracks of popular food culture, and that was what probably compelled my boyfriend, Shane, to order seeds for the plant. From the start, it was one of the most prolific growers, beating its neighboring brassicas and lettuces in its race to regenerate. Branches and leaves multiplied. Flowers blossomed and withered in early spring. Now, we’re looking at three great bushes that seem to want to crawl out of their keg-containers and blanket the rooftop with berries. Maybe that’s why they were regarded with “wonder.”
Not to be confused with “miracle fruit,” which everyone who hears the name seems to immediately think of, the mature wonderberry is a very small, spheric berry. A nightshade, the berries turn from green to purple-black, and swell with sweet juice until too heavy to stay on its stem. Running a hand underneath clusters of them at this stage, they fall right off. The wonderberry doesn’t have a very distinct flavor; it’s only marginally sweet, and not very tart. It’s not dissimilar to a tiny tomato, or ground cherry. So I didn’t know what to do with these berries when they began falling from the bush onto the soil. Toss them into a fruit salad? Make a pie? I just snacked on them, straight up, until my curiosity got the better of me.
Making preserves with no pectin — just fruit and sugar — is an easy feat, as long as you don’t mind a slightly runny consistency. Some fruits just naturally create a thicker jam in the end than others. Wonderberries certainly make a thin one, as my first test-run would prove. But its flavor made it every bit worthy of its name. I grated fresh ginger and added it to the bubbling wonderberries and sugar, and finished it off with a good squeeze of lemon. This rendered the once benign-tasting berry spicy and bright, and its color a brilliant indigo.
Jam-making was not a part of my upbringing; I’ve only taken it up in very recent years. So I asked my friend Laena, from Anarchy in a Jar, for advice on how to thicken it. “Macerate the berries by mixing them with sugar and leaving them overnight. Cook down just the liquids to reduce and thicken it,” was her prescription. And then I promised to give her some wonderberries to try it out, too. I hope I’ll be blogging about my next attempts at working with these fruits again, and I hope I’ll get to try a jam by Laena to compare. In the meantime, here’s a pretty good syrup for your pancakes.
Wonderberry Ginger Jam
(makes 1 small mason jar)
1 cup wonderberries
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
juice of half a lemon
Cook wonderberries, sugar and ginger over a medium-high flame for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, sterilize the mason jar and lid by boiling completely submerged in water for at least 10 minutes. Taste wonderberry mixture and add lemon juice to taste. Remove from heat. Carefully remove jar and lid from boiling water, and fill with the wonderberries immediately. Tightly screw on lid, and place the jar upright in the pot of hot water and adjust water so that the water level almost reaches the lid. Boil for another 10 minutes to process. Remove carefully and let cool completely. Jar can be stored unrefrigerated until opening.