The sweet season: Northwest berries on their way

Every child should experience the taste of a sun-warmed strawberry plucked right from its greenery, or a fragrant blackberry picked on a summer morning, for a berry never tastes quite as wonderful as those we popped into our mouths along some dusty road during childhood.

Knowing how to bring out the juicy, complex flavors that are the essence of berries is a similar lesson in simplicity.

It begins with an awareness of the true growing seasons in the Northwest, which can be confused with produce from other countries arriving year round.

We can buy strawberries from Mexico in December, but our own Northwest berries don't begin to ripen until late May to mid-June. And this year's cool, rainy spring has set back harvesting of many of the crops by at least two weeks.

In the next few months, look for the following berries at the Pike Place Market and at neighborhood farmers markets. Supermarkets such as Larry's Markets, Thriftway and Whole Foods all carry different varieties of berries and their hybrids during the peak of the season, and are savvy to educating consumers with specific labeling.

So the waiting game has begun, but the prize will be some of the best berries in the country. Here's a primer on the season ahead.

Cultivated strawberries have rugged names evoking the Northwest landscape, names such as Ranier, Shuksan and Hood, which perfectly describe these large, often jagged-tipped berries. Look for berries that are fully ripe and deep red — a strawberry tinted with green or white won't ripen further.

Store in the refrigerator unrinsed, and use them as soon as possible. Ripe berries deteriorate quickly. Strawberries can be eaten fresh in shortcakes, tarts and ice cream, or they can be cooked into jams and syrups. They freeze and dry well.

Another variety of strawberry is the wild (alpine) berry or fraises des bois. Its growing season ranges from July to September, but this miniature berry is not grown commercially, making it difficult to find and very expensive. Its color ranges from white to reddish-pink. This is not a berry for cooking, but sweetly scents salads and desserts.

Sounding like some quaint phrase plucked from an English fairy tale, bramble berries include the varieties of blackberries, one of nature's most exquisite creations.

Each berry is made up of tiny drupelets or sacs forming cone shapes, and each drupelet contains a tiny seed. The center core stays attached to the berry when picked, making it more stable than the raspberry. Jim Johnson of Johnson Farms in Olympia says there are more than 100 varieties of blackberries, of which we see just a fraction.

The berry most likely to be found growing along city streets and trails around mid-July to early September is the wild Himalaya. It's a large and juicy berry, equally delicious eaten fresh or cooked into pies, jams and syrups.

The marionberry, a Northwest favorite, is a cross of blackberries, the chehalem and olallieberry. The berries are large and elongated in shape with a deep purple color. Their delicious sweet-tart flavor and small seeds make them ideal for pies, jams, jellies and ice cream. Look for them around mid-July through mid-August.

Another cross of wild and domestic blackberries, the olallieberry, may be less familiar to us. (In fact, Johnson planted his first crop of the olallieberry just this year.) Usually harvested around mid-June to mid-July, this long, slender berry has a shiny black color. A good balance of tart and sweet flavors make it a wonderful all-purpose berry.

The boysenberry is a blackberry-raspberry hybrid harvested from mid-July through mid-August. The reddish-black berries are about 1½-inches long and have large seeds. They are juicy and sweet with a tangy aftertaste. They're equally inviting eaten fresh or cooked into pies, jams and syrups, and they freeze well.

A good choice for pies, cobbler and jams, the loganberry is one of the juiciest berries with a flavor more tangy than sweet. The deep reddish-purple berries are about 2 inches long and are generally harvested from mid-June to mid-July.

When Johnson, who sells his organic berries at Pike Place Market, began growing tayberries in 1985, "we couldn't give them away," he says. But it's now his best-selling berry, going into the production of a popular jam.

This blackberry-raspberry cross has produced a deep crimson-purple berry about 1 inch in length with qualities that are considered the best of both.

They have a tart flavor, and make outstanding syrups and jams. And tayberries mix beautifully with other berries for pies and cobblers, sauces and ice cream. Harvesting runs from mid-June to mid-July.

Caneberries, which include the varieties of raspberries, have drupelets similar to bramble berries, but are of a separate family. Their center core separates from the fruit when picked, making it the most fragile berry. Pick caneberries when fully ripe, putting them into shallow containers with few layers so that the bottom berries won't be crushed.

A first crop of red raspberries is available from mid-June to mid-July, with a smaller crop often gathered from mid-August to mid-September. The berries burst with perfectly balanced sweet-tart juices. A few lightly crushed berries topping a scoop of vanilla ice cream is a sublime ending to a summer meal. Cook into jams, jellies or syrups for a taste of summer all through the year, and freeze a batch for winter garnishes.

Another variety, black raspberries or blackcaps, are small with lots of seeds. The dark purple-black berries are best in jams and sauces.

Sun-kissed golden raspberries are mild and sweet without the balance of tartness that characterizes red berries. Most groceries have stocked the amber berry over the past few years, although supplies are often limited and generally more expensive. They're best eaten fresh and are stunning when mixed with other berries, but use care to preserve the glowing color and fragile texture. The golden berry does not freeze well.

Both the golden and black varieties are ready for harvesting in July.

Early varieties of blueberries begin to arrive in mid-July, others from August to September. At Canter-Berry Farms in Auburn, Clarissa Metzler Cross and husband Doug grow eight varieties of cultivated highbush blueberries, each with a distinct character.

For instance, the Concord berry is tart with a dark skin, while the Dixie tastes a bit spicy.

Metzler Cross favors the Jersey berry. "It has a sweet, full flavor and wonderful texture. Our customers tell us it reminds them of an old-fashioned berry," she says.

"Many of the berries we see in supermarkets have been bred for size, often sacrificing flavor," continues Metzler Cross. She suggests buying only blueberries with a white bloom on the skins, an indication of freshness. If the berries are shiny they are probably old.

Blueberries freeze and dry well, can be eaten fresh or cooked into syrups and jams. And they are possibly the best berry to bake into muffins and quick breads.

Huckleberries look similar to blueberries, but they grow only in the wild and are of a completely different family.

While the seeds of a blueberry are so tiny they are virtually undetectable, a huckleberry has four to six large seeds. Their flavor is more tart and the skins are thicker, which adds an unusual crunch.

Break open a berry — if the color is blue all the way through, it's a huckleberry. A blueberry will have a green, somewhat mealy interior. The skins of huckleberries can range from blue to red to red-violet, but all of the varieties are ready for picking from July to early September.

The translucent colors of gooseberries range from pale green and gold to pink and purple. They are generally too tart to be eaten fresh, but large amounts of natural pectin make them perfect for sauces, jams and pies. Look for these berries at farmers markets in late June to mid-July.

Fresh currants, one of the most beautiful berries, have a short harvest period from early July to early August.

The tiny, jewel-like red currant is the most common found in our markets. It can be eaten fresh or made into the classic red currant jelly. White currants are slightly sweeter than the red berry and can be used in much the same way, but the dark black currant has a strong, more bitter flavor. The juice is made into syrup and crème de cassis.

Sources: "Northwest Berry Cookbook" by Kathleen Desmond Stang (Sasquatch, 1998) and "Berries: A Country Garden Cookbook" by Sharon Kramis (Collins Publishers, 1994). Both Stang and Kramis are local authors.