This project started when my ecological-anthropology professor brought a couple bright red, prickly-looking berries to a lecture. I think she surprised the class when she announced that not only were these berries local and edible, but that she had picked them while on her way to class.
Mystery berries — right under my nose? Awesome!
We were told that the fruits came from a leafy shrub belonging to the arbutus family, more commonly known as the strawberry tree, as the berries were passed around the student ranks. The professor encouraged us to take a nibble, but I noticed that hardly anyone did. Maybe it was because they came from outside, unwashed and unprocessed?
Well, I wasn’t about to let the wild, hand-picked nature of the berries keep me from taking a bite!
Hmm. The arbutus berry’s flavour is difficult to describe without using comparison — to me, it tasted like something between a salmonberry and a huckleberry: tangy, sweet, a hint of a tartness. When I scratched away its soft prickles, I found that it had a scent similar to that of a lychee, only much more earthy.
I mean, it was unusual — but surprisingly palatable!
Later that afternoon I went to where the arbutus shrub was said to be growing, in hopes of collecting enough fruit for a food project.
My first idea was to possibly make a jam, although making jam requires quite a bit of ripe fruit — but for a jelly a meager amount of fruit will do, and it doesn’t have to be as perfectly ripe!
First, I had to simmer the flavour out of the arbutus berries and into a liquid base. I used the entire half-cup of berries I collected and added two cups of water and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice.
As the berries boiled, they lost their lovely, reddish hue and turned pale — however, the upside of this process is that simmering made the berries intensely fragrant! My whole apartment filled with a scent like fresh, sweet apples.
After an hour on medium heat, the liquid had seemed to gel a little, but I still didn’t trust the jelly to set on it’s own.
I removed the pot of simmered berries from the stove top and strained out the mushy pulp. The remaining by-product was gorgeous — like liquid honey, sweet and slightly tart (although the tartness probably happened because not all of the arbutus berries I collected were completely ripe).
Next, I discarded the strained pulp and returned the arbutus berry juice to medium heat. I added 2 tablespoons of white sugar and cooked the liquid until it reduced to approximately 3/4ths of a cup.
Using store-bought powdered gelatin, I followed the instructions on the packet and prepared enough gelatin to set 1 cup of liquid. I added the liquid gelatin to the hot arbutus berry concoction on the stove and simmered for an additional 5 minutes, then poured the soon-to-be jelly into a clean glass jar.
Lastly, I let the extremely hot liquid cool on my counter for an hour before moving it (with oven mitts) to the refrigerator to set overnight.
I confess that I checked on it obsessively before I went to bed — opening the fridge door a crack to stare at it, nudging the jar to see if the jelly was setting properly or not. I had never made jelly or used gelatin before, so waiting on the results made me pretty anxious.
In the morning, the result: success! Arbutus-berry jelly, ready for toast or crackers!
I went to the grocery store the following day and picked up some black pepper crackers and a block of havarti, since I wanted a creamy, slightly salty companion for the subtle sweetness of the jelly. I picked a black pepper cracker to add just a little bit of heat. Delicious!
All in all, I was definitely proud of myself — especially since after I brought the jelly to my ecological anthropology class, a few of my classmates thanked me for sharing the jelly I’d made.
For those of you who might want to make your own arbutus berry jelly, it’s not too late!
The berries are in season until the end of November — if you can find them growing around your neighbourhood, just make sure to inspect them and wash them well before use.
To make your own jelly, all you need is…
- 1/2 heaping cup of arbutus berries
- 2 cups of water + more, to make gelatin
- 2 tablespoons white sugar
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- gelatin, prepared, enough to set 1 cup of liquid
Simmer your berries with 2 cups of water, 2 tablespoons of sugar, and 1 teaspoon lemon juice until the berries are pale and the liquid is fragrant. Strain the liquid, then return it to the stove and reduce to approximately 3/4 of a cup over medium-low heat. Add prepared gelatin, bring back to a gentle simmer, remove from heat, then cool for 15 minutes before pouring the liquid into an empty jar. Allow to cool for another hour or so before transferring to the refrigerator to set overnight.