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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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August 15, 2008 11:13 AM

Urban foraging -- a berry good pastime

Posted by Nancy Leson

On Tuesday morning, after dropping my son off at camp, I was driving down the street just a few block from my house when I spotted this woman enjoying a quick snack:

So I did what any food blogger with a camera in her purse would do. I pulled over, got out of the car, introduced myself and said, "Hey, lady! Save some for me!"

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I was fascinated by the number of berries -- among other edibles -- that grew wild here, as I discussed this week on KPLU. And I've since gone "accidental" berry-picking everywhere from Vashon Island to Fir Island to Seattle's city streets, collecting enough fruit to bake a pie or two.

That bounty of berries is no surprise to Sabra Contreras, posing here in Edmonds with a handful of berrified booty. She's been urban foraging her whole life, takes vacations to Montana where she gathers wild huckleberries (alongside bears!), and grew up learning how to can a wide world of fruit from her mother -- who grew apples and pears on their family's property in nearby Woodway. "I walk by this patch every day and watched them coming on," she said. Given this profusion, on a residential street no less, the mother of three notes, "I don't think people have the time -- or make the time -- to pick berries."

But on this warm August day, with the freebies coming on in great profusion (and "fresh" berries on "sale" for $3.99 a pint at the supermarket), Sabra insisted she'd be back later with a bucket in hand. "I'll make pies, jam -- there are so many of them."

This morning, after dropping Nate off at camp, I drove by the same patch and watched as a gentleman out for his daily constitutional grabbed a few berries before heading down the street. Again, I pulled the car over for a chat. His name is Harry Bower, he's a native of Los Angeles and he's lived in Edmonds for 40 years. Like Sabra, he regularly walks the neighorhood, keeping an eye out for free sweets. He said he uses them to bake blackberry cobbler and favors the prolific berry patch near the holding lanes for the Edmonds-Kingston ferry. "Usually they're big and sweet," he said. "But this year, they're small and sour." He blames that blight on lack of rain.

Not everyone is thrilled to find berry brambles on the roadside -- or anywhere else, for that matter. Himalayan and evergreen berries grow like tospy in our temperate climate. And while they're not considered noxious weeds, the King County Government labels these prickly chokers "weeds of concern." No doubt they'd voice concern about foragers picking berries "perfumed" with noxious fumes from cars, or with fragrant "reminders" from dogs like Sabra's mutt Olive, who accompanies her on her daily walks.

I should probably be concerned about the dastardly brambles invading my rosemary plant and attacking the apricot tree in my backyard. Here's a wide view:

And a closeup:

But those fruity marauders don't bother me too much. Here's why:

So, where do you go picking? And what do you do with your bounty?

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Posted by CindyW

1:18 PM, Aug 15, 2008

I pick mine for daily breakfast in August. My favorite spot is from the vast blackberry patches that border a big open meadow area in Redmond, where I walk my dog each morning. Other than a few other dog walkers who grab berries as they go by, it's mostly birds who keep us company. Best of all, though, are the two or three patches of black raspberries. They're not quite ripe yet, but when they are. . . yum!

Posted by Jeanne

2:35 PM, Aug 15, 2008

This brings back memories. Every summer my parents would load up all six kids and every pot and pan they owned and head to "Monster Road." I'm not sure if that was really the name of the road or if that's what we named it. It was in Tukwila and was close to a rendering works. In my memory, it was always hot, dusty and smelly. Everyone, from youngest to oldest, picked until every container was filled to the brim. I can still evoke the smell of blackberries roasting in the hot station wagon as we headed home. The anticipation of pies, jellies and jams throughout the winter made it all worth while.

Posted by Chuck

2:55 PM, Aug 15, 2008

We've gone to Discovery Park in the past, which is (or at least was when I picked there last about 6 years ago) loaded with blackberries, and you can even find some wild ones on the Disocvery Loop (my kids and I found a few on our hike there Tuesday). One, year, my wife and I picked enough to produce roughly a case of blackberry wine, which was a nice treat! We've also used them to make jelly and blackberry liquor (Add about 1-2 lb. of berries with a bottle of brandy and enough sugar to mildly sweeten it, then let mull in a glass jar for a few months -- strain; great with seltzer over ice)

Posted by pivo Mike

5:35 PM, Aug 15, 2008

A friend who picks Himalaya blackberries issues a note of caution about picking berries on main roads, as they are the most likely to be sprayed with weed killers. Picking berries in your back yard or in a park should be safe, I would think.
Information from county officials or workers would be appreciated. Do you have general guidelines on which berries you spray?

Posted by stubborn1

10:12 AM, Aug 16, 2008

We used to pick enough blueberries in Oregon that we had sourdough blueberry pancakes every morning for breakfast growing up. These days my dog usually eats the accessible blackberries afore I get to them.

Posted by Diana F.

6:03 PM, Aug 17, 2008

I am so glad you did a piece on the "free food" available here in the Pacific NW. When my husband and I first moved here in 1990, I was amazed at the blackberries. They were everywhere, and there were so many! After four years in Maine, we moved back to the Centralia area, and now I have had a terrific time picking the native blackberries in the woods behind our home. They are so big and flavorful; I have to force myself to stop picking them. Wow, what a great place to live. In Maine, we picked fiddleheads, a local delicacy which grew along moist riverbanks. The folks in the area would allow pickers to come onto their property to harvest the fiddleheads for their own use. We did the same on our property. I grow a garden each year, but I love to harvest the fruits of the local land. Thanks again for the story.

Posted by Carilyn

6:06 PM, Aug 17, 2008

There are some great blackberry patches in Magnolia along the bluff. What a fun activity to do with kids. Especially when you have enough to come home and bake a pie!

Posted by Clare

4:11 PM, Aug 18, 2008

In the urban-foraging vein: do you have any info about Seattle's fig trees? There are quite a few in my Cap Hill neighborhood, but a scant percent of the fruit seems to ripen to the eating stage--perhaps the species is merely decorative?
The few figs that do mature are fabulous, so I am wondering:
1. is there anything that can be done to encourage more fruit to full ripeness?
2. do you have any suggestions/recipes for the far more numerous non-ripe fruit?
Many thanks!

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