I left for a few days and like that—!—the black raspberries are in. Six foot high plants are reaching dark crowns toward the sky, plants that just last spring were transplants. They came from our friend Tracy's yard, from the patch that was overflowing from Dotty's yard into hers over the fence. We planted them in a neat, orderly patch with the goldens and the reds, and all summer long they struggled just to send out leaves, put down roots. They looked so scraggly I was going to pull them this year—and then—when I got home from Maine, they were suddenly, abruptly overflowing with fruit.
Funnily enough, I'd never had a black raspberry before the other day. I'd had black raspberry candies, of course, and black raspberry popsicles, but I'd never tasted the real, fresh thing. Once I did, I understood why: secretly, black raspberries straight from the plant aren't really our thing.
I have a feeling other people would agree. Black raspberries are different from the reds and the goldens—sweeter, with less flavor, and more artificial tasting somehow. The first day the bumper crop came in, Alex picked a quart, brought them inside, and then promptly declined to sprinkle them on his breakfast cereal. And so although my mother and I had just finished sealing the lids on 43 pints of strawberry jam, I waited a day, picked another two cups and a handful of lemon-thyme, and started again.
As it turns out, black raspberries are perfectly suited to jam. They crush easily, soak up the sugar, brighten with lemon-thyme and lemon juice, and thicken up fast. Like red raspberries they have a good amount of pectin, so you don't need to add chunks of apple the way you do with blackberries in order to get them to set. Their flavor deepens, mellows somehow, into something real, something solid, something good.
I think in fact, that if you were to look into it, you'd find that the higher purpose of black raspberries is jam. I think you'd find they're intended to be grown with lemon-thyme in sandy soil, and to move from the back yard to the kitchen together, under a hot, sticky July sun, filling quart after quart and jar after jar, again and again and again.
BLACK RASPBERRY & LEMON-THYME JAM
I made this recipe up, inspired by the lemon-thyme growing crazily, happily underneath the black raspberry patch. The two seemed like natural partners—and the finished jam confirmed that they do, indeed, go handsomely together. [One note: don't substitute regular thyme; it is a completely different beast.] This jam is all at once tart, flavorful, and sweet. It's the kind of thing you want to eat on toast, over yogurt, or maybe even folded into a batch of sweet corn ice cream. We'll see.
6 cups fresh black raspberries
1 tablespoon fresh lemon-thyme
4 cups granulated sugar
juice of 1 lemon
Combine the black raspberries and lemon-thyme in a large, non-reactive pot. Crush the berries using a potato masher and add the sugar and the lemon juice. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat down to medium low and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes, or until the jam sheets off the spoon.
(When you first start cooking the jam, pull your spoon out and watch the way the liquid drips off of it. The drops will be light and syrupy at first. As the jam continues to boil, the drops will get heavier, and eventually, they will come together to form a fluid sheet as they come off the spoon. This is the setting point.
Another good way to keep an eye on the consistency is to put a small spoonful of jam on a plate every few minutes. It will cool quickly, and when it does, you'll be able to see how the jam, at this stage, will set.)
Keep watching or testing until you get the consistency you like, then turn the heat off. If you want to put up the jam, pour it into sterile jars and seal. Screw the lids on tightly and leave the jars upside down to cool overnight; be sure to check the seals in the morning before putting them in a cool, dark place.
Otherwise, put your jars in the fridge or give them away to very nice friends, and enjoy the jam at once, however you please.
Yield: about 4 cups plus a little bit of extra for eating fresh.