The warm, sun-drenched days of the coming months mean yet another season of summer sweets--and one of the first fruits to ripen are bramble berries.
A member of the rose family--the stems of some varieties are spiked with tiny thorns--bramble berries include the likes of blackberries, boysenberries and raspberries.
Grown on long, slender stems called canes , these berries are a favorite for fresh pies, preserves and jams or for simply popping in the mouth one after another.
For some of Ventura County's sweetest, home-grown bramble berries, visit the Ken Shelton residence in Ojai.
"Customers come up to the house, and we bring them around to the back," Shelton said.
There you'll be greeted by a hospitable, tail-wagging German shepherd, who will follow you out to a large yard filled with fruit trees and manicured rows of various vegetables.
In the back--by a red storage barn--are the berries.
Nine rows of sweet splendor.
"Each row is a separate variety," Shelton said.
In all about 100 yards of berries thrive on supporting wires.
For the past four years, customers have descended upon the Shelton residence for their "you pick 'em" fill of blackberries, boysenberries, loganberries and raspberries.
Some varieties thornless, some not. All organically grown.
To attract berry enthusiasts, Shelton first spread the word via newspaper advertisements.
"Now I rely mainly on repeat customers and word of mouth," he said.
His most popular pick with customers is the olalliberry. That variety is a thornless blackberry, he said.
Others include the Willamette berry--a red raspberry--and another blackberry, the Marion. "I've imported the Marion berry from Oregon," Shelton said.
But let's not forget his boysenberries.
"The boysenberry is a cross between a blackberry and raspberry," he said, "and it has a real bodacious flavor. It really grabs you."
For Shelton's taste, he prefers using raspberries for pies, jams and preserves.
"The raspberry is much more subtle," he said.
But for Shelton, there is no berry if it isn't a fresh berry.
"The best edible is a bowl of vanilla (ice cream) with a handful of berries," he said.
And don't wait too long to devour your berries.
"Bramble berries have a terrible shelf life," he said. "You can't pick them until peak of ripeness and they won't ripen off the vine."
And how does one distinguish between a raspberry and the rest of the bramble berry family?
"The core of the raspberry comes out when picked," he said. "That's how you distinguish--it's hollow."
If you have a hankering to grow your own berries, don't let the drought stand in your way.
But Shelton advises that you stick to the pricklier plants.
"The thorned plants are much more hearty," he said. "They're drought tolerant and grow vigorously."
Berry pickers would generally be knocking on Shelton's door about this time, "but the cold winter has delayed the harvest a bit this year," he said. He expects to be leading customers back to his berries by June 1.
Don't be a berry-picking procrastinator.
"It runs for just three weeks and then we're done for the summer," Shelton said. "It's a major glut."
Customers are given strawberry flats with 12 shallow berry baskets--each able to hold about half a quart. Pick your own for $2 per pound.
You'll find the berries at 1077 El Centro St., Ojai. Shelton can be reached at 646-8346.
SERVING SUGGESTION BERRY MERINGUE PIE
3 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
2/3 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 pint strawberries, halved
3 tablespoons orange liqueur
1 teaspoon sugar
1 pint blackberries
1 pint raspberries
Beat egg whites until foamy in large bowl. Add salt and cream of tartar. Beat in sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating until stiff and glossy. Fold in almond extract. Spray nine-inch pie plate with non-stick vegetable coating spray. Spread meringue in pan, covering bottom and sides, but not rim. Make sides little thicker than bottom and half-inch higher than rim of plate.
Bake at 250 degrees one hour or until firm. Turn oven off and let meringue dry in oven until oven cools. Do not open oven door until completely cooled.
Combine strawberries, liqueur and 1 teaspoon sugar in medium bowl. Cover and chill one hour, turning berries occasionally. Add blackberries and raspberries. Spoon fruit into meringue shell. Serve immediately. Makes eight servings.