Berry picking: It’s the “currant” thing

August has arrived and with it come signs that summer is packing up and leaving. While this month may seem like the end of one season, it also marks the beginning of a different and rather delicious one – berry season.

It’s no secret that Alaska is blessed with a bounty of wild berries. But which ones are edible? Where do you get the good ones? What do you do with them after you’ve picked them? Most importantly, how can you keep the flavor of summer with you through the long winter?

I’m no expert, so I found someone who knows plenty about local berry-bearing fauna to show me the ropes. Her name is Eve Van Dommelen and she’s 12 years old.

Eve Van Dommelen, daughter of University of Alaska Anchorage associate professor of geography Dorn Van Dommelen, has lived in Bird, Alaska (just outside Girdwood) for about four years and has spent much of that time becoming familiar with the plants around her home.

On a tour of the neighborhood property, Eve Van Dommelen pointed out everything from highly poisonous white and red baneberries to strange, dangling watermelon berries.

Tara Smith, assistant professor of English as a second language at UAA, and her 2-year-old daughter, Greta, joined us on the berry walk. Greta shoved a few watermelon berries in her mouth before offering her opinion.

“That’s good stuff!”

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The Van Dommelen family frequently uses currants, both black and red. Dorn Van Dommelen recently created a sauce for salmon using black currants, sugar, cardamom, water and cornstarch. Van Dommelen harvested a few black currants for me so that I can try the recipe myself.

Red currants, Eve Van Dommelen’s personal favorite, are used for homemade jams and jellies, which the family often gives as gifts. That is, if all the currants aren’t eaten before they get home.

“My parents have to drag me away from them,” Eve Van Dommelen said.

Eve Van Dommelen said she always has her eyes peeled for new patches. In fact, she and her older brother, Lang, discovered their most prized – and therefore highly secret – red currant bushes climbing on an old cable bridge over a nearby creek. For safety reasons, the bridge has since been cut down. She showed us the bushes only after we promised not to pick too many berries from them.

Red currants may be a favorite in Bird, but a special treat for Eve Van Dommelen is getting a ride to Girdwood to pick the first crop of blueberries.

A dozen steps into the woods at Moose Meadow Park, just down the road from Alyeska Resort, plump, plentiful berries surround us. Eve Van Dommelen darted through the bushes searching for the motherlode.

“Just when you think you find the perfect bush, you turn around and see an even better one,” Eve Van Dommelen said.

Smith, 31, is working on getting her family into berry picking.

“Food just tastes better the more involved you are with it,” Smith said. “Plus, Greta is at an age where she really enjoys it.”

Blueberries are already one of Greta’s favorite snacks, and she was delighted with her surroundings.

“I’m in the blueberry patch,” she giggled.

With several different species available, the blueberry is certainly one of the berries most sought after in the state. While it has already started further south, blueberry season in Anchorage starts in early August and typically lasts through September, Eve Van Dommelen said.

The next couple of months are sure to offer Alaskans an abundance of berries – from the well-known cranberries and raspberries to the lesser-known crowberries and serviceberries.

Cranberries and crowberries are typically best picked after the first frost. Raspberries are ready in late July through September.

When berry picking, remember to look for berry patches on southwest facing slopes that are protected from the wind.

To last through the winter, berries can be frozen in plastic bags or Tupperware containers.

Still deep in the blueberry patch, Greta popped another berry in her mouth and with one word summed up why we were all there.

“Yummy.”