About a month ago, Sam and I took a jaunt up to Portland. It was a glorious trip, the kind that passes you by in a swirl of color and sunlight and leaves you with a jumble of picture-frame memories. We crashed with one of my college friends, met up with a few others, spent the trip happily tangling ourselves up in conversations that lasted for hours and rambled for miles. We meandered all over the city, took in the roses and the Sunday market art stands and the surprising cloudless sky, spent hours combing through the shelves at Powell’s. We drank our fill of Portland’s phenomenal beers, and some remarkable hard ciders as well. We ate dreamily, greedily, filled ourselves with brewery food and bagels and ice cream and donuts. And berries. Lots of berries.
It was my friend Leslie who tipped us off to the Oregon Berry Festival. Self-centered California girl that I am, I’d had no idea that the Pacific Northwest is so renowned for its berries. But the calendar had handed us a sweet seed-studded opportunity: a feisty little celebration of all things berry, coinciding exactly with our weekend in Portland. Of course, we had to go. For science.
We went to the festival on our first full day in the city, a gloriously warm day bathed in white sunlight, and discovered a riot of tented stands, bearing treat after berry-flavored treat. There were stands selling berry shortcakes and berry vinegar and berry salsa and berry barbecue sauce and berry cider, all of it tasty, some of it memorable. But Sam and Leslie and I kept getting drawn to the stands selling berries themselves, in neat cardboard baskets, lined up in rows, each table a starburst of colors and textures.
We tasted, of course–eagerly, asking questions around each mouthful. There were the familiar ones: blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, all perfectly ripe and summer-sweet. There were boysenberries, which tasted just like the syrup I put on my pancakes as a child, and olallieberries, which I’d heard of but never thought to try. I tasted my first gooseberry, a rare ripe one–pinkish-red and veined with green, fleshy and tart like a slightly unripe grape. There were blackberry-raspberry hybrids I’d never heard of: tiny shadow-black tayberries and chubby red loganberries and marionberries, oh, marionberries, dark and rich like blackberries but with just a whisper of raspberry roundness. I didn’t know marionberries existed until that morning, and now I miss them desperately.
Later in the trip, over lunch in a nondescript restaurant, Sam and I shared a marionberry crisp for dessert. The flavor was just right, deep and resonant and not-too-sweet, but the crisp itself was a mess: gluey filling, soggy topping, barely lukewarm all through. It felt like an injustice to the fruit. So last weekend I decided to right that wrong, and make a really good berry crisp to remind us of Portland. I haven’t gotten my hands on marionberries yet–not for lack of trying, mind you–so had to make do with a mix of blackberries and raspberries. I studded the crumble topping with pecans, for a little added crunch, and waited till the berries bubbled volcanically before taking the crisp out of the oven. It was barely cooled before we dove in with spoons.
This is quite possibly the best dessert I’ve made all summer (and I’ve made a few). The blackberries kept their juicy burst, and the raspberries melted around them to create a purple-red liquor, almost like red wine in its intensity. The topping itself was as crisp and nubbly as I could have hoped, and just sweet enough to support the summer-ripe berries. It took me right back to the berry festival, standing at a table, eating berry after gorgeous berry, trying to tease out the the balance of blackberry and raspberry in each one.
I love cooking this way, bringing back flavors from abroad and creating food that’s as bound up in memory as it is in taste. It’s probably the most pleasurable thing I do in my kitchen. Especially when the results taste this good with a scoop of ice cream on top.