A Beautiful Berry and How Not to Follow Recipes

This is an article about foraging and failure. The failure was not in the foraging, but rather in what I did with the results.

My wife and I took our kids to Amite, Louisiana on Saturday to spend time at what I will henceforth describe as our “family seat.” When we visit, the first thing I generally do after unloading kids and baggage is take a walk in the field behind the house, which I’d guess is roughly 80 yards wide by about 200 yards long. My mother has it cut periodically, but all along the fence line on either side it’s more or less wild.

Now and again I’ll dig up a plant or two like Nandina or Privet to take home and plant. I also look for wild edibles, because I’m incapable of walking around outside without looking for wild edibles. On this trip, I also walked the quarter mile from the house to the end of the street, to the edge of some property owned by family friends that’s undeveloped.

When I got there, I found a few interesting plants, including what I believe is a wild grape and another plant with bright purple berries that looked familiar.

Now I’m not about to sample any plant that I can’t positively identify, but I will crush a leaf or a berry in my fingers to see what it looks and smells like. These berries had clear juice, white flesh, tiny seeds and a fragrance that was interesting – sort of a floral grape scent.

When I got back, I did some research on multiple websites I’ve come to trust and became convinced that I’d found Beautyberries. The images I found were identical to the plant; it grows throughout the region, and while most sources claimed the fruit doesn’t taste like much, there are dozens of recipes for making jelly out of the juice. 

I went back to the plants and as I was beginning to pick the berries, a man doing yardwork across the street walked up and said, “found some beautyberries, huh?” We chatted for a while and he told me he and his daughter had picked a gallon of the berries last year. He asked me what I was going to do with them, and I told him about the jelly. He said he’d ended up throwing the berries away after leaving them in his freezer for a few months, and wished me luck.

I ended up with about a quart and a half of berries, a half dozen unhappy spiders and a few assorted other bugs. I washed the berries when I got back and then put them in a ziplock bag in the fridge. I’ve never made jelly before, but Sunday evening I read three or four recipes and followed one.

Here’s where it went off the rails. The recipes were consistent in the ingredients listed, but not so much in the amounts. The basic method is to boil the berries in water, then strain the juice into another pot before adding sugar, the pectin, and sometimes lemon juice. You return the mix to a boil for a couple of minutes, then strain again into jars. The variance in the recipes mostly had to do with the amount of water you use to boil the berries, and the amount of the pectin.A Beautiful Berry and How Not to Follow Recipes

When I cook most things, I have no problem ignoring the specific amounts for most ingredients. If a recipe for baked chicken calls for a single clove of garlic and two “medium” onions, for example, I don’t hesitate to up the former and reduce the latter. The dish is going to be fine, or at least it will be exactly what I expect it to be, because I’ve done it hundreds and hundreds of times. I’m generally looking at recipes for something I’ve cooked before for interesting flavor combinations; I don’t need to be told to use a certain amount of salt.

But in this case, the recipe I ended up using did not specify how much juice would result from boiling the berries in 4 cups of water for 20 minutes. I assumed it wouldn’t matter, because I had temporarily lost my senses. I used the specified amount of pectin, and it appeared things were going well; the recipe said that an indication it was ready to be canned was that it would coat the back of a spoon, and it did.

But I do not have beautyberry jelly. Rather, I have a very thick beautyberry syrup. Now to call this a “failure” is a bit harsh, since the syrup is actually really tasty, but it sure isn’t what I’d been after. So now I’ve got a big jar of bright purple syrup in my fridge – and since I didn’t actually process it in a water bath, I’m going to have to use it up fairly quickly, I think. So far I’ve used it over vanilla ice cream, and I’ll likely use it to soak some cake, but if you have any ideas for something else I can do with the stuff, please leave me a comment.


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