Edible gems: WNC’s landscape is bursting with late-spring berries

BUCKET LIST: Each summer, Greg Garrison, co-owner of The Hop Ice Cream Café, uses hundreds of gallons of strawberries from Rayburn Farm along with other types of berries to craft creative seasonal flavors for the shop’s frozen treats. Photo by Cathy Cleary

This time of year, the great berry breakfast shift happens in our household. Winter breakfasts often consist of raspberry, blackberry or blueberry jam on toast. But as berries begin ripening in the yard, I start to make a weekly batch of granola, and mornings begin by tiptoeing through wet grass to lift green strawberry leaves searching out the ruby-colored fruits or inspecting raspberry vines while trying to avoid the thorns. Fresh-picked berries top the granola with a dollop of yogurt for a welcome change from wintertime jam-toast.

If you are lucky enough to have berries in your yard, I highly recommend this morning ritual. But even if you don’t, you can still enjoy freshly harvested local berries this time of year courtesy of the city of Asheville.

Amber Weaver, the city’s chief sustainability officer, is working with Kiera Bulan, coordinator of Asheville Buncombe Food Policy Council, to map all the edible plants located on city property, many of which are serviceberries, also known as juneberries and locally as sarvisberries. As the name implies, these berries ripen in June and can be found in many a median and park throughout the city.

Weaver explains that when Asheville adopted its Food Policy Action Plan about five years ago, “They began plopping serviceberries everywhere, which is why they are randomly placed. The city has no database for edibles that have been planted.”

As long as the plants are growing on public land, everyone is welcome to harvest their bounty. Some of the city’s serviceberries can be found now by searching at ashevilletreemap.org. Weaver and Bulan will roll out a more comprehensive map later this summer.

Taste and learn

Serviceberries make a good choice for edible landscaping. The trees are bushy with pretty white flowers in spring and low-hanging, reddish-purple fruit in early summer. With a mild flavor similar to blueberries, serviceberries do contain small crunchy seeds like those in a wild blackberry. The seeds can be strained out of the cooked-down fruit or just enjoyed as part of the fresh fruit experience.

Jordan Diamond, FEAST cooking and gardening program coordinator at Vance Elementary School, loves having serviceberries as part of the landscaping on her campus. “They fruit right at the end of the school year, so for the last week or two of school, they are covered in edible berries, and the kids are all over the trees,” she says. “Many kids have never picked and eaten straight from a tree.”

The trees are so popular with students, in fact, that the school has had to take measures to safeguard them, putting up signs and assigning groups of children to act as protectors. The school has also put out blocks and steps so the kids can reach the berries without pulling down the upper branches.

The Vance Elementary Peace Garden also gives kids plenty of other opportunities to taste fruit right from the plant. Diamond also grows strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and wineberries. Berries are a great thing to have in a school garden, Diamond explains, because “I don’t have to cut them up; [the students] can just go graze, pick and eat.”

Most school gardens experience the challenge of dealing with fruits and vegetables that are ripe and ready to harvest when students are gone for the summer holiday. To address this, Diamond has developed a summer program called Weed and Feed, inviting parents, students and community members to help out at the garden on Wednesday and Thursday mornings in exchange for produce.

However, Diamond hopes to harvest many of the prolific blueberries that will ripen in June and July. “I try to freeze berries that I can get in the summer, so I can talk [to students] about the plant they come from and seasonality,” she says.

Blueberries are simple to freeze, needing no special preparation. As a matter of fact, all berries can be frozen raw in plastic bags or containers. When they thaw their texture changes and they release much of their juice. But cooked into pie, or made into delicious jam straight from the freezer, berries never have to go to waste. Diamond typically makes smoothies with her students, which is a perfect ending to her lessons on the life cycle of plants.

Frozen fun

Greg Garrison co-owner of The Hop Ice Cream Café with his wife, Ashley, is very familiar with using frozen berries. He buys most of the berries for his ice cream, locally and in season, from Rayburn Farm in Barnardsville. The farm, he says, “planted an entire bed of strawberries just for us. Last year we got just under 200 gallons of berries.”

Once the fresh berries arrive at The Hop’s production facility in West Asheville, they must be processed quickly — either frozen or turned into jam, which will get swirled into inventive ice cream flavors. Garrison’s team creates new flavors constantly, and fresh berries help to inspire mouthwatering combinations.

A couple of flavors you can expect to see at The Hop during the height of berry season include Black Velvet (blackberries cooked in bourbon swirled into a chocolate base) and Berry Sunrise (red raspberry sorbet, black raspberry ice cream and carrot-orange ice cream swirled together).

Folks can taste some of The Hop’s most experimental flavors at Berry Flight Night on Friday, July 27, at The Hop Ice Creamery. For that event, eight flavors will be available — including dairy-free ice creams and sorbets — all of them made using multiple kinds of local berries.

“Berries actually do really well with the nondairy ice creams — pepita milk ice cream in particular,” Garrison says. “The flavor doesn’t have to compete with all that cows milk.”

Garrison’s team has plans to include some ice cream with lesser-known berries, including serviceberries, which will most likely combine with Champagne in a sorbet called Berries and Bubbles.

Look for more information this summer about where you can find local edible plants on city-owned property, and plan to harvest your own berries to make ice cream, smoothies, or simply to enjoy atop your morning cereal bowl.

Look for the forthcoming map of the city of Asheville’s edible plants plus details about Asheville’s Food Policy Action Plan at ashevillenc.gov.

The Hop’s Berry Flight Night happens 3-9 p.m. Friday, July 27, at The Hop Ice Creamery, 167 Haywood Road.

SHARE
About Cathy Cleary
Cathy Cleary works with gardens and food. Her cookbooks include "The West End Bakery Cafe Cookbook" and upcoming "The Southern Harvest Cookbook." Find her blog at thecookandgarden.com She is the co-founder of non-profit FEAST Asheville, providing edible education to kids. Follow me @cathyclearycook

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.