This time of year, from late June until September, the woods feel like a u-pick berry farm here at Milkweed Inn in the Upper Peninsula’s Hiawatha National Forest.
It’s a u-pick with an element of danger. For the next couple of months, I’ll crouch down next to berry bushes in a mosquito suit, because the bugs are so bad this time of year, picking blueberries into a basket and looking over my shoulder. This deep in the woods, you always feel like you’re being watched, because the likelihood that an animal is spying on you is high. Don’t worry too much. The bears won’t bother you. In fact, they’ll be afraid of you. If you see one, consider yourself lucky. But if you spot a baby, do not take a picture. Get the hell out of there.
Up here, we’ll never be able to pick the number of berries nature provides, but it’s important that we always leave some behind, because the bears have to feed their babies. The deer like to nibble on wild berries, too. And by now, we should all know about the birds and the bees and the importance of berries and flowers to both. We’re just one of the species that looks forward to berry season in the U.P.
I make a lot of things with wild blueberries: pies, hand pies, jam, pickles, vinegar, shrubs… For now, I’ll tell you about my jam.
Our wild blueberries are tiny, like confectionary dots on a cake, and perfectly tart and sweet. They’re smaller than berries grown with assists from man-made fertilizer, but the flavor is ten times stronger. They’re exactly what blueberries are supposed to be.
I make a lot of things with wild blueberries: pies, hand pies, jam, pickles, vinegar, shrubs… For now, I’ll tell you about my jam. I save berry baskets from the farmers’ market and use them for my own wild harvest. If I can fill at least four of those pint containers—which can take about an hour, because I examine each berry as I go, making sure to only pick what is ripe and ready—then I know I can make enough jam to last through a couple of loaves of bread. It’s hard to be exact, because we go through wild blueberry preserves too quickly to take notes.
If you need to aim for an exact amount, I’m going to say to collect eight pints, or four quarts. That should cook down to a little over a pint of jam. Our woods are so clean that I don’t worry about washing the berries. I make the jam immediately, rather than waiting for a day or two and letting the berries chill in the refrigerator. The refrigerator, I believe, changes wild berries. Have you ever put a silky fresh tomato in the fridge and found a few days later that the flesh is mealy? Something similar seems to happen to berries.
Add your four quarts of blueberries to a large nonstick skillet over medium heat with a dab of flavorless oil—a tablespoon or less of canola or grapeseed—and a tiny bit of kosher salt, maybe a three-finger pinch for the whole harvest. Once the berries are softened, add a cup of sugar. That’s it. Let the sugar dissolve into the berry juices. Don’t mix too much until the sugar is melted, because you don’t want the sugar to crystallize, but do help it along a little bit. Use a wooden spoon to push the mixture around. Once the sugar is melted, let the jam do its thing. There’s no need to add pectin. The berries will have plenty. You should stir occasionally, so you don’t scorch or caramelize the bottom layer.
After forty minutes to an hour, depending on the size and juiciness of your berries, drag a spoon through the thickened mixture. It should leave a clear trail, which the jam will slowly fill. That’s it. You’re done. Let the jam cool, transfer it to a container, and store it in the refrigerator, where it will thicken. If you like, you can add a small splash of vinegar to brighten the finished product, though our wild blueberries are tart enough already.
By now, after months of shelter-in-place, you’ve probably perfected your sourdough. Bake a few fresh loaves and your jam will be gone before you know it.