This year's berry season is sadly drawing to a close. Plump, luscious berries of all colours are my favourite fruit. All winter, I look forward to the first appearance of the new season's berries. Usually I have frozen some of last season's fresh-picked berries to tide me over but it's not the same as dipping into a container full of fresh berries that taste like you're eating sunshine.
Half the fun of berry season is the picking and gathering. Berries are easily picked, as long as you watch out for thorny bushes, and it is cheaper and more rewarding than buying them ready-picked. Although you can get a wide variety of berries from the markets (sadly I'm yet to find punnets of mulberries), there are several excellent berry farms close to Melbourne and it makes for a fun day out.
As children, berry season meant stained mouths, hands and clothes. Our neighbours had a magnificent mulberry tree growing on their farm and they would often invite us to come over and pick our fill. Mum would dress us in our very oldest clothes, as mulberry stains are impossible to remove, and we would arm ourselves with buckets and ice-cream containers. The tree had big, broad branches, so it was easy to climb and find a comfortable perch where we would proceed to fill our buckets and stomachs with the dark wine-coloured berry. Mum always made mulberry swirl afterwards, a cake-like pudding with rich berry juices bubbling through the crust. Mulberries remain my favourite berry, perhaps because it is not readily available unless you are lucky enough to have a tree or know someone who does (sadly, our neighbours' tree has long since died).
Although the blackberry is classified as a noxious weed in Australia, another favourite childhood memory is blackberry picking at Bright, a picturesque town in north-eastern Victoria. We'd put on big sun-hats, wear long-sleeved tops to avoid scratches from the bush's thorns and carry big buckets. Our stomachs were usually faster to fill than the buckets!
Because mulberries are rare to find, raspberries are my favourite berry. As Stephanie Alexander says in The Cook's Companion, raspberries are "the most heavenly of fruits. One swallows a perfect berry and the flavour swells around the mouth like the finest wine."
I've visited berry farms in both Kinglake and the Otways. Kinglake Raspberries is about an hour's drive north-east of the CBD (you can get there either through the Yarra Valley or the Plenty Valley). As well as offering PYO (pick your own), you can buy jams, sauces and cordials and there is an annual raspberry fair with live jazz, entertainment, childrens' rides, food and wine, market stalls and, of course, lots of berries!
Although it is further away (about two hours from the city), my current favourite berry farm is the Pennyroyal Berry Farm in Murroon (between Birregurra and Barwon Downs). This is because it is about a 10-minute drive from my grandfather's former farm at Deans Marsh and I remember visiting this farm as a child when it was the Pennyroyal Herb Farm. As my grandfather died 15 years ago, it's an area I've rarely visited since until I discovered the Pennyroyal Berry Farm and its near-neighbour, Gentle Annie's Berry Gardens and Tea-Rooms. For the past two years, we've picked at both these places. Pennyroyal Berry Farm has raspberries and many blackberry hybrids, such as boysenberries, youngberries, marionberries, brambleberries and jostaberries. The first year we went on the last weekend before the season ended and had to scavenge hard to fill our buckets. This season, we went before Christmas and the berries were abundant, despite the drought. We quickly filled our buckets and then it was time to retire to the tearooms for enormous scones, fresh from the oven, served with homemade raspberry and blackberry jam and a big pot of thick cream. The scones are made to a secret recipe and are to die for!
Gentle Annie's is a bigger farm and is on the Pennyroyal Valley Rd. It has raspberries, gooseberries, red and black currants, silvanberries, boysenberries, marionberries, blackberries and blueberries. You can also pick heritage apples, nashis, plums and apricots and their tearooms serve devonshire teas and light lunches with many berry dishes, including pancakes, pies and sorbets.
The first thing I do with my fresh raspberries when I get home is make a batch of raspberry jam. Raspberries make a wonderful jam because they are high in pectin and set easily. I also like to mash some berries into butter to serve on hot toast and crumpets and I've included a family favourite dessert that Mum discovered years ago in The Age's Epicure section. This dessert was often served up at her dinner parties.
Place 500g (1 pound) raspberries into a saucepan and mash with a wooden spoon. Stir over medium heat until the pulp boils. Warm 2 cups of sugar and add. Continue stirring until the mixture boils and then cook rapidly for six minutes. Cool slightly, then pour into sterilised bottles, cover and label.
Place 1 cup of berries (I think blackberries or brambleberries work best), 1-2 tablespoons of caster sugar and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice into a saucepan. Bring to the boil and then reduce heat and simmer until syrupy (about five minutes). Soften 125g (4 ounces) butter in a bowl and whip until light and fluffy. Mix through the berry mixture. Spoon into a small bowl or ramekin and refrigerate, covered, until required. This is delicious spread onto hot sourdough toast, muffins and crumpets.
RASPBERRY AND YOGHURT CREAM
1 cup yoghurt
4 tablespoons caster sugar
grated rind of 1/2 lemon
1/2 cup cream
1 cup raspberries
100g (3 ounces) dark chocolate
Mix the yoghurt, sugar and grated lemon rind together. Lightly whip the cream and fold into the yoghurt mixture. Crush the raspberries on the back of a plate. You want some juices to run but you also want some pieces of berries. Scrape the chocolate with a knife and add to the cream mixture, along with the raspberries. Don't mix too thoroughly, as it should have a nice marbled effect. You can serve within 30 minutes or leave to stand for six hours before serving.