Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tastes Like

We had our first frost the other night and, although it wasn't a hard frost, tender things like peppers and basil have bit the dust and the tomatoes are knocked well back. Consequently, A and I have some last of the season canning to accomplish. We've put a bit by this year, including one wild fruit new to me. On an unsuccessful mushroom hunt in late summer, we came across some heavily fruiting elderberry trees. The first tree we saw had quite a few berries on it, but was a lone tree. I'd seen elderberries fruiting in the mountains before, but never very heavily and this lone tree was interesting but nothing more than that. However, on our way off the mountain, we passed a number of trees drooping with ripe fruit, inspiring us to stop and pick what turned out to be 11 pounds of berries off three trees in just twenty minutes or so.
Lots of elderberries.
A day or two later, we sat down in front of the tv and de-stemmed the whole batch, then weighed it out.
We cooked the berries in a bit of water to soften them, then extracted the juice- enough for 3 1/2 batches of jelly and a batch of "membrillo" as well. Membrillo is quince paste cooked to a jelly-like state, often paired with cheese. The elderberry membrillo, rather than orange color you get with quince, is the beautiful dark purple you see below. Slightly sweet, we dusted it with sugar to keep the wedges separate. Served alongside manchego cheese, lucques olives and perhaps some thinly sliced tasso, it is very good.
Both the elderberry membrillo and the jelly have a flavor similar to dark cherries, although slightly less sweet and with a vinous funk near to that in some red wines- a slightly green, earthy note that recalls to me a bit of the flavor of the cambium of some trees. (What, you never split a piece of green oak and thought it smelled so good you had to taste it, or wondered what elk find so appealing in aspen bark?) The flavor isn't quite the same, there is another note, perhaps a little like latex or green fig that also goes along with it. However, all this is a subtle undercurrent to the overall tart cherry flavor, making elderberry jelly or paste both reminiscent of and more complex and appealing than cherries.
Once again, a wild food that is unique and very, very good. The juice of elderberries is supposed to be a tonic and a bit mixed with a citrus soda (or likely, club soda and vodka) was quite nice. With any luck the elderberries will come on again next year and, if they do, we'll spend some time up in the mountains gathering more to put aside.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Two Months

I've  now spent two months in one small region of Alaska, a week at a time, in eight trips spread over ten years with each trip occurring between mid-August and late September. In this way, you get to know a little bit about a place, at least in a particular slice of season. In much the same way, I feel I know a particular series of ridges in western Colorado, based upon eight or nine fall hunting trips spread over twenty-some years. For that matter, I used to know a particular mountain in western New Mexico and I have a fair idea of a particular basin in the northern end of that state, along with a few other spots.

 I've mentioned  before some of the various trips we've taken to fish for silver salmon (see here, here, here and here). Consequently, I don't have much new to say, more of a report. This year saw a little bit of sun and also a fair bit of rain. Over one 48 hour period, about 7 1/2 inches of rain fell. It felt like more to me, but that's what the web says fell for those days, and I'm sure the web wouldn't lie. I don't really have the experience to grok that level of rainfall, as less than that has fallen in my slice of New Mexico for the last 18 months. In any event, the rain brought all the rivers, creeks, and sloughs up quite a bit and rendered them unfishable. We ended up on some of the smaller tributaries and got to wade through some waist-deep water in head-high alders.

The fishing was pretty tough and most of the fish ran a bit smaller than we're used to, lots of eight pound fish instead of tens and twelves. For wildlife, apart from the usual ducks, geese, cranes and swans we had some river otters swim right up to us. No bears, apart from one little black bear right in town.

This portion of Alaska strikes me a lot like the Grand Canyon- photographs, at least my snapshots, never capture the scale of the country. It feels a little bigger than the already big Western landscapes that I call home.

Thinking about the near-annual, one-week-only connection with a place over 2,500 miles from my home, I'm reminded of the conflict between local and visiting interests and the power of conservation movements. I've put a bumper sticker (only one that actually says anything) on my truck that addresses an issue local up there. Driving on a high-desert highway, I've had occupants of an overtaking vehicle honk and wave thumbs-up in apparent agreement, again, thousands of miles from the scene of the issue. I like to think that hunters and fishers are more than regular tourists- that if a place special to us is changed for the worse we just don't find another spot and move on, because our time in those places is more significant, that we'll invest a little more and fight a little harder for them. In the meantime, we'll head up there with friends and family as we can, enjoying the cool clean air and the rain, the scenery, and the salmon. One of the best weeks of the year.