That pretty much summed up the experience. Fun. Educational. Slightly irritating. Still the day's trials had had an intoxicating effect on both Elise and me.
Hank had warned us that elderberry picking was a bitch. He explained clearly that gathering them requires you to hike through brier patches and swaths of star thistle colonies that no sane creature would traverse. This then would be followed by the finger puckering, back aching, delicate picking of the berries. The berries are so small that it would require the nimblest hands and keenest of eyes of the tiniest fairy tale creatures to pick them efficiently.
My hands were raw, my neck twisted into some inhuman Gordian knot (which a seasoned masseuse later that day would comment on saying, "I may need to get a guy with bigger hands to do this."), and my clothes and canvas bag were now splotchy with indigo juices. Fine indicators of work well done, but a pain in the butt no less.
"Hank did warn us," said Elise, "but I don't think the vast pains of this were thoroughly communicated."
After reading Hank's post about elderberry picking, both Elise and I were overcome with the desire to attack this project ourselves. If for no other reason but to give the whole thing a shot. Culinary adventurers we were! Braving the local Sacramento parks, filled with bikers in neon pants who give no warning before they zoom past you at supersonic speeds barely missing a deadly collision with you. Facing and countless bloodthirsty ticks! Blistering sun! Beware our outdoorsiness!
Yeah, I didn't buy it either, but you'd be surprised what two curious cooks will go through for a Sunday project.
Of course, you may be curious way all the fuss for elderberries. Elderberries are tiny little stone fruits that grown in bunches on, surprise surprise, elderberry trees. The flowers are often used for various liquors and syrups. The berries are generally considered a superfood; they're a natural anti-viral, often used in influenza HIV medications and studies. They're also crazy packed with the antioxidants. Plus the flavor is a funky and tart that echoes wine grapes and blueberries.
Elderberries are also the size of a pinhead. Literally. Not much bigger than this capital "O". As such you have to carefully rake these Lilliputian fruits off their itsy-bitsy branches. Otherwise you squish them in your clumsy paws, squirting their bright innards all over everything.
Armed with clippers and canvas bags we made our way through the park, snipping elderberry branches and tossing them into our hoarded load. As we marched in and out of little paths and dark natural growth alleys where local teenagers probably smoke meth we hunted down trees, always looking for the little blue bundles hanging in the air.
Over the river, through the woods. Around the brambles. Under the thickets. Across the fire ants' nest. Watching for rattlers. Dodging the falling ticks. Fighting our way through growth. Balancing on ledges. Hippity hoppity. We snipped bunch after bunch after bunch after bunch.
Soon our bags were heavy with fruit and we trudged our way back to the car. It was halfway through my rattlesnake story when I felt something wet. I looked to my side. My hip was splotched in indigo elderberry juice. The ripe berries, combined with gravity and their own weight, plus with constriction of the bag had begun to press the juice from the minuscule balls. It was almost shocking how much there was, but as they say, strength in small numbers.
Back at Elise's house we had begun the picking party. This party, physically, was a drag. Seriously, I was ready to bribe small neighborhood children to come help in some Tom Sawyer-ish scheme, the berries my white picket fence. I think I almost convinced Elise to take part in this.
Did I also mention the ticks, spiders, and other assorted creatures we encountered in the bundles of berries? You would look down to suddenly find many pairs of legs crawling over the berries, up the bowl, or worse yet up your arm. All kinds of freaky fun there. Elise and I both learned we can squeal like five year old girls. That's stuff you can bond over.
That's not to say it wasn't a party. We had a ball of a time telling stories, gossiping, trading jokes, laying out the plans for our futures. It was a great time to just chill.
By the end of things, by which I mean two hours later, we had eight pounds of elderberries. Do you have any idea what that looks like? Damned impressive is what.
At this point I had to bid Elise adieu. I went to a massage appointment. I had a coupon and never had one before, plus after our small wilderness excursion I pretty well felt like I needed one. Elise went about cooking the berries down with some sugar and straining them. She the processed elderberry slurry into jelly and syrup. (Elise is a very good friend to me. She also took these awesome pictures.)
Have you had elderberry jelly or syrup? Think of the darkest, richest port wine you've ever tasted. Now make it ever darker and richer than that, and add a slight tartness to the back of it. Yeah... that's about it. Amazing stuff. Over pancakes, waffles, vanilla ice cream, some of the syrup with a glass of gin and tonic. I plan to use some on a wild duck that Hank gave me. Oh yes, I will be eating and drinking well.
Overall, is the pain and suffering worth it? Yes. Very much so. At least to me. But the outdoors and I have a very love - hate relationship (Boy Scouts made me love nature and hate it all the same. Hiking, king snakes, outdoor cooking = good. Canoeing, fire ants, morning frost in a tent = bad.).
So, yes, I'll go next year. I'll go because the results are worth the trouble, thorns, and ticks. I'll go because you don't do elderberry picking or processing alone. You do it with friends, you make a game of it, you catch up as you pluck, and laugh as you hike through the woods. In the end you have great stories to share, a greater bond, and damn good jelly.