The summer heat shimmers around me and I can hear the oscillating buzz of grasshoppers as I sit on my front steps. Time is stretching out and slowing down the way it does only for children. I don’t even realize I’m hungry until my mother appears with a pile of vermilion stalks on a plate, with a little bowl next to it. I dip a rhubarb piece into the sugar in the bowl and bite down, savouring the shock of the sharp juicy sour crunch.
Rhubarb grew in a shady corner of our backyard, looking like horizontal ruffled elephant ears. We’d pick the stems before they got too thick and woody, and cook them in jams and pies, while the children would often eat them raw with sugar as a treat. Even though I hated celery and complained about its strings, I’d tear into rhubarb stalks with relish and valued the stringy fibres that straggled behind for their ability to hold extra sugar when I swept the stem through the sugar dish.
Ferran Adria offers a more sophisticated version of this childhood treat in el Bulli: 2003-2004. He takes tender young raw rhubarb, carefully trimmed to minimize the tough fibres, and rolls them in demerara sugar and black pepper. It’s a sharp dish -- the crystals of the sugar and the pepper’s heat seem to emphasize the sour taste -- but the added flavours round it out as well. It’s surprisingly elegant for such a simple preparation.
It's also a perfect dish for the latest edition of Sugar High Friday, hosted by the passionate cook, which is all about going local. Not only does rhubarb grow like a weed in our home province, Ontario, but the rhubarb we used to make our version of this dish was given to us by our friend Jill, who harvested the stalks from her mother's garden.
My parents no longer live at that house, but their current home does have another crop in the backyard. Wild blueberry bushes dot the rocky brush behind their house in Sudbury, and it was an easy task to step out for fifteen minutes and return with a small pail of sapphire-hued treasures. I say "was." Construction crews are building a new housing development right over the backyard berry patch. Sudbury’s economic boom is bad news for my blueberry pancake habit, which my mom has indulged during every summertime visit. At least the construction reduces the chance of hungry bears coming into the yard, lured by the berries.
And there is simply no comparison between wild and farmed blueberries -- one of the reasons I gorge myself on blueberries at my parents’ house. Sure, the domestic ones are just as pretty and twice the size, but they’re completely flat in flavour. The wild ones pack a whallop of acidity and sweetness into each tiny globe, worth every sunburn and mosquito bite and sore back from picking that I’ve endured in their pursuit.
Regan Daley agrees. "There is one thing you must remember in order to make this pie: YOU NEED WILD BERRIES! Never use the cultivated ones. They make lousy pies, and lousy everything else for that matter," she states in her book In The Sweet Kitchen. Blueberry pie has never been a real favourite
of mine, but I’d picked and brought back several pints of berries from my last visit, Rob was eager to try it, and Regan had not yet steered us wrong.
Her track record is still perfect. The crust, made with lard and butter, is phenomenal: light and crisp and flaky, we chased the last bits around the plate with our forks, unwilling to let any crumb go uneaten. And the filling! Rather than the stodgy, almost solid gel of store-bought blueberry pie, this is a juicy confederation of berries in all their summer glory.
We ate an astounding amount of the pie when it was fresh from the oven, and an even more surprising amount the next morning. The recipe specifically mentions that, being comprised of flour, egg, and fruit, blueberry pie is an "honourable" breakfast food. And though it may not be my mom's pancakes, it extends the tradition of fashioning simple, delicious treats from the bounty in the backyard.