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The Heart of Tartness

Like an Obscure Starlet, the Delicious Olallieberry Is Ready for Its Closeup

June 11, 2000|HENRY FENWICK

It began with a misspelling. a hand- written sign outside a little family-style Long Beach diner proclaimed, "Fresh Olalaberry pie today." I was drawn in by that name, helplessly attracted by the lure of the unknown and the sheer summery exuberance of the word. To an expatriate Englishman new to California in the late '80s, it sounded like the perfect West Coast fruit, a combination of "Ooh, lah, lah!" and "La La Land"--sexy French high spirits mixed with Southern California hedonism.

When I tasted my first slice, I realized I hadn't been far wrong. There was a tartness that made the taste buds sit up, with just a touch of sweetness to smooth them down. The world of berries is rich and it would be an offense against nature to choose favorites, but this fruit was exceptional. Perhaps a slender, rather chic cousin of the blackberry, even its flavor was subtly distinct.

When you fall in love, you want to find out everything you can about the beloved. Returning to the diner, I found that the owners simply bought the pies and seemed to think I was strange for caring about anything beyond eating them. Queries to friends and co-workers uncovered nothing significant, and eventually I gave up the quest. Work took me East and the wonderful fruit was lost to me. Then, moving back to California two years ago, I rediscovered the berry and its correct spelling. I should have been looking for the "olallieberry." I began anew.

In proper Hollywood fashion, I went to a superhero for help. "There's a place up in Cambria that makes olallieberry pies," my friend, The Voice of Batman, told me (actors know something about everything). He promised to find out where they were baked. Like a lover obsessed, I also called the Armstrong Garden Centers in Glendora, and John Bagnasco, another berry enthusiast, faxed me what information he had. I went berry picking on the Internet and finally found that Oregon State University was clearly the place to call. They treat berries with proper respect there. I spoke to Bernadine Strik, professor of horticulture and extension berry crop specialist. The "olallie"--a merging of black logan and youngberry--was developed at Oregon State in 1950 by a berry genius named George Waldo, who was working with the United States Department of Agriculture. He not only bred the olallieberry and the marionberry, but also contributed significantly to raspberry and blackberry cultivation. If there were a berry Hall of Fame, George Waldo should surely be there.

"The irony is that the olallieberry was released for cultivation in Oregon," Strik told me, "but the olallie is not winter-cold hardy enough for Oregon. We can't get a consistent commercial product. California has taken it and run with it." And which of us California immigrants can't identify with a berry that prefers a warmer climate to the one in which it was born? Up in Santa Cruz you can even find olallieberry wine. I'm not usually a fruit-wine enthusiast, but it's worth making an exception for this; it has an earthy depth of taste, without being sweet. In Cambria, Linn's Fruit Bin (The Voice of Batman called me back with the name) sells not only olallieberry pies but preserves, muffins, scones and cakes for all occasions. Anything made with olallieberries outsells any other product 5 to 1, Maureen Linn tells me. I'm not surprised. I hardly expected to be the only one seduced.

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OLALLIEBERRY COBBLER

Serves 4-6

Cobbler Dough

6 ounces butter

3/4 cup flour

1 cup sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Cinnamon and nutmeg to taste

3/4 cup milk

In 350-degree oven, melt butter in casserole. In bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, a sprinkle of cinnamon and nutmeg, and the milk. Pour into casserole but do not stir.

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BERRY FILLING

2 cups olallieberries, rinsed and hulled

1/2 cup sugar

1 cup olallieberry wine (optional)

3 tablespoons butter (optional)

Mix berries and sugar. Pour into casserole over cobbler dough mixture and bake in 350-degree oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour. Optional: For extra splendor, heat olallieberry wine with butter to boiling point and pour over berries before cooking cobbler.

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Los Angeles-based Henry Fenwick has written for the New York Times, Esquire and Playboy.

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