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In pursuit of the Nagoon berry

Posted: Wednesday, August 28, 2002

"Our hunger for the 20 -minute gourmet meal, for one-pot ease and prewashed, precut ingredients has severed our lifeline to the satisfactions of cooking. Take your time. Take a long time. Move slowly and deliberately and with great attention."

- Thomas Keller, "The French Laundry Cookbook"

Ben Bohen is a local chef and food writer. His column appears every Wednesday.

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This passage from the "The French Laundry Cookbook" by Kellersums, a great contemporary chef, sums up much of his philosophy of food-taking the proper time to create a dish is not a chore, but a pleasure that only enhances the joy that is to be found in your final product. If, you share this belief, you will enjoy the pursuit of the exotic Nagoon berry.

When Jeremy Neldon, my guru of all things forageable in Southeast Alaska, presented me with a jar of his homemade Nagoon berry jam a few years back, I was intrigued. Always a berry fan, I set out to learn what I could about this elusive fruit, but to no avail. No cookbook or culinary encyclopedia I could find contained any mention of it.

So when Jeremy called me last weekend and told me that the Nagoon berries at his favorite spot (which, in deference to the unofficial honor system of berry pickers everywhere, I will not divulge), were nearly ripe, I accepted his invitation to a berry-picking expedition.

On the ride to his secret spot, Jeremy explained that Nagoon berries ripen from late July through August depending on the weather of a particular summer. They thrive in acidic soil in grassy, moist, almost bog-like areas. The raspberry-like fruit grow on short stems low to the ground and are often closely intertwined with other plants such as chocolate lillies and wild irises.

Stepping out of the car and surveying a wet, puddle-ridden meadow lush with grasses and thick with mosquitoes, my enthusiasm ebbed. I had picked berries in the Juneau area before - blueberries, salmonberries, currants and raspberries, among others - but none of those required crawling around in the mud.

"Once you pick Nagoon berries for yourself, you appreciate their flavor that much more," Jeremy told me.

As we slogged through the dense, knee-high growth, it seemed impossible to imagine actually being able to find any berries there.

"Sometimes you have to get down and brush the grasses gently away with your hands to find a patch" Jeremy instructed.

As he did so, a streak of sunlight broke through the clouds, and suddenly the deep red of a small patch of berries was revealed against the greens and browns of the meadow floor at our feet. We got down on our hands and knees and started slowly picking the berries, which grow just one to a stem.

The ripe berries range in hue from scarlet red to almost purple, redolent of the color of red wine. While they are about the size and shape of a raspberry, their bulbous flesh more closely resembles that of a black or salmonberry. Some patches yield only two or three ripe berries, while others offer a dozen or two in the space of a few square feet. At first the location and distribution of the berries felt random to me. But, after a bit, I began to recognize the coarsely toothed, pale green leaves of the berry plant through the thicket of other growth.

The relatively low yield to effort ratio of Nagoons in comparison to other berries made me hesitant to indulge in samples of my crop as I picked. But the beautiful color and firm flesh of the berries proved impossible to resist. The flavor of the ripe Nagoon berry is reminiscent of a tart strawberry, while its juiciness and texture are more like a blackberry, bursting pleasantly on the tongue as you chew.

Preparing the berries for jamming took as much time as the picking. Carefully removing the woody hull from each berry, as well as leaves, insects and other bits of debris that had accumulated in our buckets took the two of us over an hour. The berries, hulls on, may also be quickly food processed for a smoother texture.

Fortunately, the ease of actually making the jam was an enjoyable finale to the tasks of foraging and processing. We simply followed the recipe that came with the Ball Fruit Jell Pectin that we had purchased, along with a set of jars. We used the exact proportions indicated in the recipe for fresh blackberry jam.

Although the jam turned out wonderfully - a thick, somewhat chunky distillation of the flavor of the Nagoons, Consider using less sugar, depending on your taste. I imagine using and sharing the many jars of sweet tart jam in a variety of ways over the course of the winter - on toast, over ice cream, as a glaze for tarts, and as a condiment for strong cheeses and roasted meats.

Whatever I do with my Nagoon berry jam, I know that it will bring a bit of summer to the table, and that it will remind me that the slow process of finding, choosing and working with any ingredient exemplifies what the journey that is cooking is all about - relishing the sensory pleasures of flavors, textures and company each step of the way.

Ben Bohen is a local chef and foodwriter. Comments for him may be sent care of reporter Julia O'Malley at jomalley@juneauempire.com.



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