That literally means ‘blackberries’ in German. But unless you live in Ellis County, Kansas, I’m pretty sure the blackberry you are thinking of right now is not schwartzbeeren. You’re thinking of a bumpy dark purple berry that looks similar to a raspberry, right? That berry is well-known to most Germans also, who call it brombeeren. So, what the heck is schwartzbeeren, you ask? Before I can explain this berry and its bewitching hold on the locals, I need to give you a brief history lesson.
In the latter half of the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, but born a German princess, enticed German immigrants to settle the untamed Volga River region with promises of freedom of religion, no taxation for thirty years, and perpetual freedom from military service. The hard-working Germans who accepted her offer maintained closed communities, retaining their German language and customs. A century later, long after Catherine had died, the Russian government reneged on Catherine’s promises and began to draft the young men into military service. Disgruntled, many of the Germans immigrated again, this time to America, where quite a few of them made their way to Ellis County, Kansas.
They brought with them the seeds of a plant they had discovered growing wild along the banks of the Volga River. For want of a better name, they called the smooth, round, blackish berry schwartzbeeren.
It is a tart berry, delicious in baked goods such as pies and kuchen, a German coffeecake. It grows on annual plants that can reach four feet in height in a single season. The plants grow naturally along creek and river banks with the seeds spread by birds who eat the berries. If grown in a garden, the plants require regular watering in order to produce an abundance of large, plump berries.
Each berry is filled with tiny seeds. Berries naturally fall off each plant and re-seed themselves annually. The climate of Western Kansas is very similar to the climate of the Volga River region, which is one of the reasons why the Volga Germans chose to re-settle here. It is also why schwartzbeeren thrive here.
Every year, I reserve fully half of my garden space for schwartzbeeren. We love them that much. I freeze the excess berries I pick each summer for use during the winter. The first year I planted my garden after our move to the farm, I sprinkled seeds from berries I had saved and dried the previous year. Since then, the plants have re-seeded themselves. Abundantly. In fact, most of the “weeds” around my cucumbers, beets, etc. are actually schwartzbeeren plants growing where they are not wanted.
Schwartzbeeren are not easy to pick. The plants are home to chiggers, minuscule blood-sucking bugs that crawl inside your clothes and give you a bite that itches like the dickens for several days. And the berries grow low to the ground so it is also slow, dirty, backbreaking work. And the berry itself is fragile so it requires a firm, yet gentle plucking technique. If you squeeze the tender berry too hard, you end up with a handful of seeds for next year’s schwartzbeeren crop instead of berries for this year’s pie. It can take an hour or more of picking to get enough berries for just one kuchen.
So, you ask, why on earth would I put myself through all that for a few berries? Simple. Because my family loves them. And this particular berry will never be found in any supermarket.
We, Ellis Countians, are not alone in our obsession over local berries. In August, 2002, Danny and I took our family on vacation to Whitefish, Montana. It happened to be peak picking season for the wild huckleberries that grow along the mountain ridges of northwestern Montana. While we were there, we purchased huckleberry cookies, huckleberry-flavored candy, huckleberry-flavored tea, even huckleberry-scented soap. One afternoon, Danny and I stepped into a small, locally-owned café for a little refreshment after a morning of sight-seeing. The friendly woman behind the counter obviously knew every person who lived in the town and did not recognize us, so she asked us where we were from. After a pleasant chat, she asked what we would like to order. We pointed to the chalkboard advertising homemade huckleberry pie, and we each ordered a piece. The previously-smiling waitress now paused and looked at us warily. She then proceeded to explain how difficult the wild berries were to find and pick. And that not everyone liked and appreciated the berries the way the locals did. It was an acquired taste, she explained. I sensed a bit of a warning when she asked us, were we certain that we still wanted huckleberry pie? Two pieces of huckleberry pie?
We were certain.
We were quite convinced that we were the only non-locals in the café, because every eye in the place was watching us critically as we each took our first bite. Thank goodness, we loved it! It was delicious! To the approval of all the observing locals, we cleaned our plates of every last crumb.
I totally got it. I, too, feel almost obsessively protective of my schwartzbeeren. You don’t work that hard just to see someone throw it in the trash. So, if I offer someone a piece of schwartzbeeren pie, and that someone graciously declines saying, “No thanks, I don’t really care for schwartzbeeren,” I am never offended. In fact, just the opposite.
Mmmmm. More for me.
(My mother, descended from Volga Germans, made entire meals out of schwartzbeeren and dumplings. It was a simple, summer staple loved by our entire family and I still make it for my family to this day.)
Next Week: An Update on Junior