Summer Berries

What do berries have to do with straw and rasps?

Posted Aug 10, 2011

If you're anything like me, by this point in the summer you've managed to consume more or less your own weight in berries. They may be available in supermarkets the year through, but there's nothing like locally grown berries in season to make you remember what they're supposed to taste like. Like a little bit of heaven. Come June each year it's strawberry picking time for me; in July, it's blueberries, and by the time August rolls around, the raspberries are plump, red, and so delicately delicious that it's all I can do to restrain myself from eating the entire morning's work before I even make it home. My summer meals are exercises in simplicity: berries on cereal for breakfast; yogurt with berries and granola for lunch; and for dessert after dinner: lemon sorbet with berries. On weekends I make waffles which my daughter refuses to eat unless each and every one of the grid's sixteen squares is filled with a blueberry. And then of course there's jam. Strawberry-rhubarb goes over big around here, although my son's favorite is an old-fashioned sweet and spicy jam for which I simmer blueberries in sugar and red-wine vinegar and then add nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, and cloves. Sometimes it turns out a little runnier than usual, in which case it's the perfect topping for vanilla ice cream and—you guessed it—more berries.

Delicious as they are, even I almost forget to wonder how berries came by their names. Almost. Not quite. Me being me, it's only a matter of time before I start thinking about why strawberries are named after straw and what on earth a rasp is (other than in the context of carpentry tools, that is). Crans are another matter, but since I don't generally eat cranberries in the summer, I'll wait until Thanksgiving to talk about them, and it's obvious enough how blackberries and blueberries came by their names (even though they're really various shades of purple rather than black and blue), but strawberries and raspberries? Where do those names come from anyway?

The berry part is easy. It was one of only two fruit names that didn't come to English from some other language. Way back when the Angles and Saxons were living on Britannia and eating what little fruit they had, they called any tree fruit an aeppel, while small ground-hugging fruit was referred to as a berie—including grapes, which were known as winberige, or wine berries.

The straw part of the strawberry isn't quite as easy to pin down. Years ago a woman told me they owe their name to the straw that growers spread beneath the plants to prevent the fruit from rotting; if strawberries aren't dried well after they've been washed, they'll spoil in a heartbeat, which is why berry bowls are always perforated, like pretty little ceramic colanders. All things considered, the straw story made sense to me, but then I read that the name comes from the spreading—or "straying"—way the plant grows, and that explanation also made sense to me, even though it's not a "strayberry," but a strawberry. Still another theory claims that the name comes from the little spots that dot the berry's surface (actually those spots are the berry's seeds, which in the case of the strawberry are on the outside of the fruit) and that were once described as looking like "little bits of chaff"—an obsolete word for "straw." And that explanation made sense to me as well. In the final analysis, then, no one seems quite sure how the strawberry got its name, so you're welcome to take your pick.

As for the "rasp" in the raspberry, now there's a story. The ancient Greeks attributed the berry's vivid crimson color to drops of blood that forever stained the previously white fruit (there are still whitish-yellowy varieties after all). Apparently the baby Zeus was having a divine temper tantrum one day; trying to calm him down, his nurse, the nymph Ida, bent down to pick him a tasty raspberry (which would have been white at the time) when she scratched her breast on the prickly—or raspy—shrub, staining the fruit bright red. To this day, the slopes of Mount Ida are covered with wild red raspberries. The Latin name for the fruit derives from the same myth: Rubus idaeus, or "bramble bush of Ida." Less bloody, the Old English name raspis still derives from the berry's hairy or "rasping" surface (as compared to the smoother blackberry). Over time, people decided that since it ends in an "s," raspis must be a plural and so they created the singular rasp onto which they tacked their all-purpose small fruit word "berry." Thus was born the raspberry—the name of the fruit, that is. Blowing a raspberry, on the other hand, is far more recent, dating only to the late nineteenth century. Since "raspberry tart" was already a rhyming slang for "fart," it was a short step to what we know today as a "rasp," "razz," or even "Bronx cheer" and thus, much to my chagrin, was the delicious fruit ever after associated with rudeness and flatulence.

Spiced Blueberry Jam

2 pint baskets ripe blueberries
½ cup red wine vinegar
3 cups sugar
¼ tsp each ground nutmeg, cinnamon, and mace
1/8 tsp ground cloves

Bring berries and vinegar to a boil over medium heat. Increase the heat and boil steadily for about 10 minutes. Measure; you should have about 4 cups; if not, add water &/or more berries to make up the difference. Add sugar and spices and stir until jam boils again. Stir often to prevent sticking and adjust the heat so the mixture boils steadily for between 5-15 minutes. The jam will be very runny, but it will gel as it cools. Ladle into jars, cool, and refrigerate. If you want to preserve the jam, you'll obviously have to follow standard canning instructions, but I've never had any trouble storing a few jars in the fridge. In my experience, before it has a chance to go bad, it's gone.