What is it about jam that is so comforting? I guess so much of it is intertwined with childhood and a simpler life. Mention it and people get that far away, dreamy, glazed-over look in their eyes. You can almost see them dial back the years to a sweeter time, when sugar was your best bud, not your worst enemy. There were scrambled moments of toast and jam before school or the leisurely pursuit of happiness as you were whiling away your summer vacation in the company of your friends and large bowls of ice-cream with your favourite jam over it. Jam is a quintessential representative of childhood, of all that is pure and simple, before sugar crossed over to the dark side and became something you eschewed instead of embraced.
I have always wondered about jam-making, but reading all about the sterilising and washing and boiling and botulism made me very nervous about trying it. Homemade jam may be the perfect gifts but no one wants the secret ingredient of food-poisoning to be lurking beneath brassy gold lids. But it was a losing battle. I’m always curious to try new things. The jam fairy must have had enough of my sitting on the fence because last week she gave me a firm push in the direction of making jam, materialising in the form of ollalieberries. Some say these berries are a cross between the blackberry and another berry. Some say it’s a type of blackberry. Either way they are uncommon enough that even spell-check won’t refuses to believe that it’s a real word, firmly urging me to use ‘collieries’ instead. But I digress. Ollalieberries grow best in the Southwest, the article said, the author wistfully talking about picking them in his childhood, moving on to the fact that they were around for a short spell.
I am extremely fond of berries. I have a slightly softer spot for strawberries but am still on very friendly footing with all of the berry family. Here I was, having lived in California all this time…it was sacrilegious that I hadn’t even heard of the ollalieberry. As I began searching for farms that grow them, I understood quickly that their season here was very quickly drawing to a close. Time was of the essence if I was to try this hitherto unknown-from-my-universe berry this year. I called up Swanton Farms’ Coastways Ranch off Highway 1, a well-known organic berry farm here in NorCal; I was electronically informed by a courteous gentleman that this was the last weekend for ollalieberries. They did not have huge quantities left but if I wanted a few, there was still hope. Since I wasn’t planning to turn whole-seller, a few was all I was interested in. Swift plans were made to go to the farm on Saturday. I casually threw this last-minute plan out to my friends, many of whom, to my pleasant surprise, enthusiastically agreed to join Amey and I on our berry-discovery expedition.
Saturday dawned to grey and foggy skies in the Bay area, as is so often the case in summer. While Amey sounded ominous warnings of all of us shivering and catching colds by the berry runners, I refused to waiver from the expedition. The urge to make jam had come late upon me, but by golly, I would not back down this time. The fence is a very uncomfortable seat, once you’re off it, you never willingly go back to perch there, and I was off for good. Fog or no fog, I was set to discover the mysterious ollalieberry. We headed southward with fervent prayers that it would be sunnier there, but the journey along Highway 1 (a beautiful drive in any weather) didn’t seem to hold much promise. Then suddenly, as if a benignant god had decided to look out for us, the fog backed out into the ocean and the sun shone down through the trees. The farm was a wondrously bright expanse. It looked like it was going to be a beautiful clear afternoon.
There was a bit of a comedy of errors with some of my friends getting lost. Coastways Ranch is that kind of farm that doesn’t really scream out its whereabouts, and so a couple of friends ended up on a lovely little detour ending up at their farm-stand. There is no cell signal out on this farm so there was no way to get in touch with each other. Makes you wonder how people met up anywhere before cell phones. As my friend Aashima and I embarked upon grabbing up the few ollalies left, Amey and my old college buddy Kartik kept watch at the farm entrance, then drove up the coast a bit in search of the elusive cell signal to locate our elusive friends, Yash and Mayur. Aashima and I had a peaceful time hunting for the berries, popping the first couple in our mouth. The bushes were close to bare with the bulk of the crop having already been picked, but stooping down and pushing the leaves aside we found some shining garnet gems.
The berry tastes very much like a blackberry, the ones we picked were just a bit more tart than your average blackberry. It is sublime and refreshing, especially as you walk through sunny fields. We managed to pick a couple of pints between us just as Kartik and Amey got back from their fruitless search for our missing friends. They helped us pick another pint and we decided we were done with the scant ollalies and decided to venture into the neighbouring strawberry farm where we had much better luck, both in finding fruit and our missing friends, who had ended up there first. The strawberries are at the height of their season and are sweet and bursting with summer. This is the taste experience one should be able to bottle for those long, cold winter nights. I decided there and then I was definitely going to try my hand at canning, even as something told me that if I was successful with the jam, there was no way it would last that long….
Delighted with our pickings, we proceeded to head back after a good lunch. The fog that had been kept at bay (pardon the pun) had started to creep back. But we had a beautiful few hours of sun. I can’t think of a better way to spend a day. Unless it involves sitting under a shady tree, eating berries.