|Full-flavored, lightly sweet boysenberries are well worth seeking out during their fleeting season. Frozen boysenberries are readily available year-round if fresh berries are difficult to find. Photo by Esther Oertel.|
This Veggie Girl met a passel of delightful boysenberries on Saturday and she’s still smitten with them.
We’re in the midst of the delicious but fleeting boysenberry season, which runs until late July. Once a darling of markets and roadside stands in California because of their superior taste, boysenberries are now elusive and next to impossible to find because of their near nonexistent shelf life.
If you do find them, chances are they’ll be homegrown or a local farm product. They’re just too delicate for supermarket shelves, at least in their fresh form.
Deep purple and resembling overly large blackberries, ripe, fresh boysenberries are extremely soft and thin-skinned. They leak juice (I found puddles of it in the bottom of the bag after purchasing mine at a farm stand) and are prone to quick decay.
A combination of several berries, they owe their rich, complex flavor to their ancestry. Their sweetness and floral aroma is reminiscent of raspberries, and their winey, wild tang hails from native blackberry species.
It’s best to eat them, freeze them, cook with them, or process them for jam, syrup, or wine the same day they’re purchased or picked.
Boysenberries are a recent addition to our food chain, only coming into existence just before the Great Depression of the last century.
Their story is part of California agricultural history, with beginnings in nearby Napa County and later development in the southern part of the state.
There’s some mystery surrounding their exact origin and ancestry, but it’s generally believed that boysenberries are a cross between raspberry, blackberries and the loganberry (a hybrid berry developed by Judge James Logan of Santa Cruz in 1881).
While some speculate that the original boysenberry hybrid may have been developed by Luther Burbank, Rudolph Boysen, a Swedish immigrant and horticulturist, is credited for the berry.
Boysen experimented with crossing raspberries and blackberries on his Napa Valley farm, and when he moved to Anaheim in 1923, he took with him some plants that bore large, splendidly-flavored berries, which he claimed to have bred.
His interest later turned to farming oranges, but thanks to George Darrow of the U. S. Department of Agriculture, Boysen’s abandoned berry experiment survived.
Darrow, who was also a berry breeder, traveled from Maryland to California to investigate reports of a large, reddish-purple berry that had been grown on Boysen’s northern California farm.
Darrow enlisted the help of Walter Knott, a southern California farmer who was known as a berry expert. Together they rescued several of Boysen’s frail vines they found growing in a weed-choked field.
Transplanted to Knott’s farm in Buena Park, Calif., the vines were nurtured back to health and eventually began producing berries.
In 1934, Knott named the berry after Boysen and introduced it to the public. Boysenberries quickly became wildly popular, and Knott’s roadside farm stand grew famous for the jams and pies made from them.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the boysenberry helped launch the amusement park known as Knott’s Berry Farm. The berries are still featured throughout the park as décor, a nod to the its beginnings.
Boysenberries may be used in much the same way as blackberries.
Bake them in a pie or muffins; use them in custard; replace them for strawberries in shortcake; scatter them in pancakes; add them to a salad; use them as a topping for waffles or French toast; swirl them in yogurt; top ice cream or granola with them; or toss them into a smoothie.
Peaches or apricots are a wonderful match for them in a cobbler or tart, and a little lemon zest provides a nice flavor balance when using them in desserts.
As Knott discovered, they also make fantastic jam.
Boysenberries are high in vitamin C and fiber, and contain high levels of anthocyanins, antioxidants which help fight free radical damage in the body. These are what give boysenberries their deep purple color.
They contain ellagic acid, a compound shown to be a potent anti-carcinogen, anti-viral and anti-bacterial.
Today’s recipe is for cool, refreshing boysenberry-mint sorbet, perfect mid-summer fare. While boysenberries are delicious in pies, cobblers, and the like, save such desserts for cooler weather when a hot oven is a welcome fixture in your home.
If fresh boysenberries are not available, frozen berries, which are readily found in most markets, will suffice.
4 cups fresh boysenberries
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup water
Handful of mint (or lemon verbena)
Note: Begin the night before you wish to serve the sorbet.
In a small saucepan, dissolve the sugar in the water over low heat. Add the mint or lemon verbena and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and let sit overnight in the fridge to infuse flavor.
Meanwhile, process the boysenberries in a blender or food processor until smooth. Put into an air-tight container and let sit in the fridge overnight. (If desired, mixture may be strained through a sieve before refrigerating to remove seeds.)
The following day, strain the syrup and mix it with the pureed berries. Process the mixture in an ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Freeze at least four hours before serving.
As an alternative to using an ice cream maker, freeze the mixture in a freezer-safe pan, stirring with a rubber spatula or raking with the tines of a fork every 30 to 40 minutes until frozen. This method yields a rougher textured product with large ice crystals known as granita, coarser than smooth sorbet, but equally refreshing.
Recipe by Esther Oertel.
Esther Oertel, a freelance writer, cooking teacher, and speaker, is passionate about local produce and all foods in the vegetable kingdom. She welcomes your questions and comments and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .