It struck me a couple days ago that I have gotten out of the habit of baking, and was missing having nibbly bites about for those mid-meal moments that require just a little something.

I briefly mentally bemoaned my lack of muffins, before remembering that this is one of the things that I can actually address in short order.

I turned to the simple cakes section of a non-fussy French baking book (no really, it is) with the equivalent of opening an atlas blind to plan a vacation. Cornmeal cake with berries was what chance proffered – why not? Not only did it turn out to be a delicious use of the languishing store of cornmeal in the back of the cupboard, but an excellent vehicle for a new addition to my repertoire: the haskap.

Haskap (no “s” for the plant in the plural – I can’t quite wrap my grammatical tongue around that one) are honeysuckles (Lonicera caerulea) that bear oblong dusky blue berries. They are native to the circumpolar north and were initially cultivated in North America as an ornamental in the 1950s – these varieties had incredibly bitter berries, so its no wonder nobody caught on to the fruit potential. In Japan however, fruit growers have been working with haskap for centuries. As per usual, they’re onto a good thing.

Delving into the origins of the haskap plants on the market today (names like Tundra, Borealis and Aurora might be familiar) led me to learn about the development of the named plants that we buy and grow. In this case, the University of Saskatchewan’s (U of S) Plant Sciences Department has been working with haskap material since 1998 under the direction of Dr. Bob Bors. They have obtained cultivated material from Japan and the US and wild material from Canada and Russia and are crossing different lines and measuring the progeny for all sorts of things: fruit quality and size, bush size and shape etc. They look for how well berries hang on once they ripen and how well the plants and berries respond to mechanical harvesting – an important issue for plants that might end up in large orchards. For us, testing for hardiness is even more valuable; those plants that produce the largest, juiciest berries are not necessarily those that can survive the harshest winters, or remain dormant if it warms up mid-season.

New cultivars are coming online every year, and it can feel hard to keep up – I’m only just starting to explore how to use the berries as a group. There is a lot of variation in taste among the different lines, which allows for complex flavour development by varying proportions of each.

Another fun element is colour – the colour of haskap juice is pH dependent, turning more purplish blue in a basic environment and crimson in acid. I’ve noticed this when I add sparkling water (containing carbonic acid) to a splash of haskap juice for a lovely afternoon refresher, and then put the red-stained glass in the dishwater and see it turn the whole sink blue. This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the University of Saskatchewan who have gone in-depth into the chemistry at work (check it out at Fruit.USask.ca).

I am eager to see what someone like Miche Genest will do with this colour-shifting berry, or for that matter any of our brilliant non-culinary artists. In the meantime, I’ll keep experimenting in my random sort of way, and while these in no way replace blueberries and the delight I find in getting out into the mountains for a good picking day, it’s no bad thing to have a berry-laden bush right out the back door!


Afternoon sparkler

I like to use my frozen berries to make a simple concentrated juice that can be added to sparkling (or still) water for a refreshing drink. Of course a shot of something medicinal could be added – but the teetotaler’s version is lovely on its own.

I bring a small potful of frozen berries to a simmer on the woodstove, with a little water to prevent burning. I sieve out the berries and collect the juice, then return the pot to the stove with another cup of water.

I repeat this up to two more times depending on the strength of colour in the juice, and then save the leftover berry mash to add to my breakfast cereal. I make enough to last a week or two and find it keeps fine in a jar or bottle in the fridge.