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Tremendously Useful Book on Very Important Food
on June 27, 2004
Thirty-five years ago `The Berry Bible' by Janie Hibler may have attracted a place in a relatively small market of hippies, vegetarians, and Pacific Northwest berry boosters. Today, I suspect the book will and should attract a lot more attention with the discovery and publicizing of the health benefits of all berries, specifically cranberries and blueberries.
Even though I easily qualify as a `cookbook collector', I have never given much thought to what constitutes a good book for a cookbook collection, as my primary objective in acquiring cookbooks is to review them. But, this book easily qualifies as a paradigm for an excellent member of a cookbook collection. The two most interesting types of volumes in cookbook collections, I think, would be books on specific regions such as Provence, Tuscany, Mexico, and The Philippines and books on specific ingredients such as potatoes, duck, salmon, and eggs.
So, once we start collecting books on ingredients, what should they include? The most obvious answer is recipes. For these, a book on berries has much more to offer than a book on eggs or potatoes since, aside from the relatively small variations between starchy and waxy potatoes, there is not much to tell about how to make the best use of different varieties. There is also not much room to capitalize on recipes that can serve many purposes by being a stage for a wide variety of color, species, and cultivar of product. A good berry recipe can give you recipes for muffin, scone, tart, coulis, or smoothie for blackberries, raspberries, and mulberries in one fell swoop. To this end, the book contains recipes for:
Coolers, Cocktails, Smoothies, and other Drinks
Soups and Salads
Putting Berries By (jams, jellies, and preserves)
Ice Creams, Sorbets, and Other Frozen Treats
Pies, Tarts, Cobblers, and Such
Pastries, Puddings, and Other Sweet Treats
If the book did no more than this, it would be worth its reasonable $30 list price, but it does do much more.
The intellectually most attractive feature of the book is `The A-to-Z Berry Encyclopedia'. It is a revelation to see how widely dispersed in the plant kingdom the main types of berries are, and yet, how closely related other berries with distinct names actually are. I was really surprised to discover that the boysenberry is not only related to the blackberry, it IS a blackberry, simply a specially named humanly developed cultivar of naturally occurring blackberries. Another interesting aspect is distinction between two or three different species with the same common name. Both blueberries and cranberries have lowbush and highbush varieties with markedly different geographic ranges and different commercial importance. The blueberry in your local megamart will almost invariably be the highbush species, unless you happen to live in northern New England, where you may have access to Maine lowbush blueberries. Those little blue beauties you see being gathered in Maine on the Food Network are not the same as what you see in your `Super Fresh' produce department.
All this babble about species and cultivars has an important message for you, the consumer. If you want your local market to carry good stuff, the author recommends you find out from what cultivar a good batch of berries was picked, and ask for those berries in preference to inferior berries laid out on other occasions.
The berry encyclopedia has much other useful and interesting information. The common name is useful if you happen to be reading foreign cookbooks, even those written in English, and run across an unusual name. The scientific classification shows who is related to whom. It turns out that many berries, especially the blackberry and raspberry clans are closely related to roses. Figure they had to get those thorns from someone in their family. The habitat and distribution section will give you a really good idea of which species and cultivars you may find in a true `local sources' farmers market. The history is interesting, if for nothing else than to show that berry fruits, barks, and leaves have been used as medicines since the time the Greeks started writing about their tummy aches. `Where They Are Grown Commercially' will give you a good idea of how fresh your megamart produce may be, if it is in season locally. `How to Pick' is essential if you are playing hunter-gatherer. The most common advice is to pick berries in the early morning, before the sun has warmed them up. `How To Buy' is for the us urbanites who do our gathering at SuperFresh. The more important types of berries such as blackberries and raspberries have a sidebar describing the various commercially available varieties.
The book ends with a list of web sites I truly believe you would not find by yourself. Most are of commercial booster groups and academic or state organizations dedicated to studying berry culture.
The very last section is an excellent little bibliography. You have to love a book that cites both Elizabeth David and the Ukrainian Women's Association of Canada, with a stop at `Leaves in Myth, Magic, and Medicine' along the way.
This is my kind of book. Even if you never want to but blackberries in your barbecue sauce or abandon your Bernard Clayton book on breadmaking, this book will reward you. If it does not, you should find a way to make berries a more important part of your life. They are that important nutroceutically. There, the book will even expand your vocabulary.
Highly recommended for understanding, buying, and using berries for enjoyment and health.