Wild Fruit for a Tart and Tasty Jelly
In the woods one day, my friend Jocelyn saw me eat an Oregon grape, tried one herself, and screamed. I was unfazed; just after my daughter, not yet two years old, had eaten her first Oregon grape, she had pantomimed death throes.
If you were to taste one of these little not-grapes—and I urge you to try one—you too might guess that they were poisonous, for they are very tart and a little bitter. But they are rich in pectin and make a fine jelly. Nearly black in color, the jelly has a grape-like but spicier flavor.
In either its tall or short form (Mahonia aquifolium or M. nervosa), Oregon grape is an evergreen shrub with prickly, holly-like leaves and bright yellow blossoms. Though native only to the Pacific Northwest, from northern California to southern British Columbia, the plant is widely grown elsewhere for its beauty and its drought-resistance. I saw it growing in public beds all over Paris, often along with another Northwest native, red-flowering currant.
In summer, Mahonia’s yellow flowers turn to blue berries that hang on the plant for several weeks. The berries are ready to pick when they’re uniformly dark. For three half-pint jars of jelly, you’ll want to collect about three and a half pounds of berries. Just slide your fingers down each bunch, and the berries will fall into your basket.
It’s easy to extract the juice of Oregon grapes with a steam juicer. If you don’t have a steam juicer, simmer the berries, covered, with half their volume of water for fifteen minutes, mashing them after the first ten minutes. Drain the juice through a jelly bag—let the juice drip for several hours—and then boil it for ten minutes to reduce it a bit. From this point on, making jelly is quick and easy.
Oregon Grape Jelly
3 cups Oregon grape juice
2 ¼ cups sugar
Combine the juice and sugar in a wide, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pan (that is, a pan with a stainless-steel or well-enameled interior surface). Place the pan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, and then raise the heat to medium high. Boil the syrup, skimming occasionally, until it begins to jell. This will take only a few minutes. You can test for jelling by scooping a little of the syrup with a metal spoon and then tipping the spoon high over the pan. You’ll see the drops thicken and slow, and then two drops will run together. That’s the point at which you remove the pan from the heat.
Skim any remaining foam from the surface of the syrup. Immediately pour the syrup into three sterilized half-pint mason jars. Add the jar lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for five minutes.
Remove the jars from the water bath, and let them cool on a rack or pad. Leave them alone until the next day, when the jelly should be firm.