Saturday, July 19, 2008

Johannisbeeren Konfitüre

(Pronounced like yoh-HAN-niss-BARE-ren, not like Joe hayn niss beer rin)

(Ribe Jam)

First, About the Garden
Our garden is an amazing expression of nature. The owners of the property (and previous tenants) clearly put a lot of work into this house and the garden to make it beautiful. There are roses everywhere, and all sorts of other plants that I do not recognize and can not identify.

This inability to recognize and name plants goes for the weeds, as well. As an American without a flora identification book, I can not distinguish between the flowers and the weeds. What to do with all these plants growing in the garden? Is this a weed? Is this some flowery plant we don't have in the US? What kind of plant is this?

"Let them grow" said a friend in the flying club. "You can later decide if you want to keep that plant or not if it has flowers." Great advice.

Now, About the Weeds

Unfortunately, this gave time for one weed, which I do not know its name, plenty of time to gain a foothold in the garden. I had to call it something; "that weird sticky plant" just didn't satisfy me. So I had to come up with a German name for it. I call this the "Teufelpflanze" (Devil's plant). It does not have any sticky glue on its leaves and stems, but it sure acts like it does. It is a weed with a very small root system, and a very excellent ability to stick to other plants and grow like crazy. It chokes out all the other plants as it takes over.

The good news is that they are easy to pull out. The bad news is that when you pull them out, their seeds drop into the dirt ensuring the next generation. These weeds are an excellent demonstration of evolution in action. The perfect storm of weediness. Survival of the most annoying and insufferable weed. Darwin would be proud. I spend many Saturdays fighting, cursing, and uprooting these awful flora.

"Don't bother composting these weeds, they are too terrible. Throw them away" was the advice I got about these Teufelpflanze from a local. Too late. I had composted these plants by the heaping arm-full. I figured it would be a great fate for these plants to rot with bunny poop and old kitchen scraps. I may regret this.

One great strategy I found against the Teufelpflanze is to get a pitchfork and stab it into the patch of these plants. Twirl the pitchfork like a fork twirling up spaghetti. Take the pile and put it into the compost heap. Another strategy that has proven effective is to just whack the pile with the pitchfork, and make the sticky-quality of the weed act against its self. You can flatten a whole bushel of the weeds and make the weeds at the bottom hidden from the sunlight, doomed to die a fate of darkness. After a week or so, you can remove them all with the spaghetti technique I mentioned above. The weeds are not always easily reached, as they are on a ledge not easily accessible to people.

Stinky Compost Heap
Our compost heap is an environmentalist's dream. We recycle almost all food scraps (not meat), and the bunny poop too. Also destined for the pile are the weeds and any grass-clippings from my small lawn. Within a few weeks, all traces of food are turned into dirt. I haven't had the chance to make use of any of the excellent soil from this output, but I will be sure to make Stacy shovel it out of the heap. There is currently a tomato plant that has taken advantage of the rich soil and is growing out of the side of the container.

The heap is not stinky, unless I have just added a fresh batch of bunny poop. The only really disgusting thing about this heap is when we let some of the vegetables go for too long in the little kitchen composting box, (called bioabfälle eimer or rüstabfälle eimer) If we wait long enough, the contents will liquefy and settle; causing a mushy slurry of decayed and stinky vegetables to slip from the green bioabfälle bin.

Among the roses (which I have to admit I don't like very much), there are other plants. Some wild strawberries that have disappeared before I have gotten a chance to eat, Johannisbeeren (Ribes), about three bushes full, mint, some sort of ferns, other weird plants I have never seen before that may in fact be weeds that have enough flowers to fool us. (Another interesting evolutionary adaptation that would be). Of all of these plants, my favorite are the Johannisbeeren.

As far as I know, they are pretty much unknown in the US. At least I had never heard of them before coming to Switzerland. Last summer, we bought a nice little box of assorted berries: Raspberries, blueberries, and these weird berries we had never seen before. We sampled them and occasionally Stacy would shout "WOO!" when she gone one that was a little too tart. These little guys are not very sweet, and have a lot of zing that I really enjoy.

I was at first not sure if this bushy plant was a weed or some sort of plant. There were no flowers. The only indication that I had that this was not a weed was that some of the bushes were tied up to stakes with some string that looked like it was very old. I patiently waited for the development of these strange plants. There are apple trees in the backyard which I will get a chance to harvest starting in mid to late August.

Around early June, these little green berries started to form on the plants. I found them to be a familiar shape, and looked around the Internet to find out what they were. I had correctly identified them as "Johannisbeeren" and was excited for the eventual ripening and output of these bushes. I hate the rose bushes; their thorns scratch me as I mow the lawn, and my poor remote-controlled helicopter crashes into them occasionally, causing me to reach into the bushes to draw back a bloody scratched-up nub of an arm with undamaged helicopter. They give me flowers that are OK, but the thorns I hate too much. These Johannisbeeren, on the other hand; They give me these awesome berries.

Berry Exciting
The week before I headed to Stockholm, the first batch of berries were ready to be harvested. I scoured the bushes to find a bowl's worth of berries to triumphantly bring to the kitchen. I washed and cleaned them, and Stacy and I enjoyed them with a batch of blueberries, strawberries, and home-made whipped cream. Jake joined in on the berry action. We enticed him to try the Jo'beeren by saying "They taste just like Nature's Sour Patch Kids." He tried them and enjoyed them as much as we did.

I left for Stockholm, the family left for the US, and the berries ripened. When I returned from Lithuania, there were way more berries than I had ever dreamed could come from these little bushes. I quickly gathered bowl after bowl of these red jewels. With nobody around to help me eat them, and their prime time berry joy quickly fading, I had to find something to do with them.

Making the Jam
One of the bowls I gave to the neighbors one night when they invited me over to dinner. Those neighbors speak many different languages, but English is not one of them. That evening's conversation was all in German, and I think I did a pretty good job in keeping up with the conversation, with not too much frustration at not being able to explain myself. The only part I had a hard time explaining myself was to describe my job. I had never had the opportunity to talk about what I do to people who are not computer literate. It is generally a hard time to explain what I do to people who don't know much about the Internet, or computers, or networking in English; let alone German.

With seven bowls of freshly picked berries, and time running out, I had to find something to do with them. Why not do what people did in the old days to preserve fruit? Put them into jelly! I searched the Internet high and low to find a Johannisbeeren recipe, or a ribes recipe, or something that would help me out. I had never done anything like this by myself before; so this was going to be a great learning opportunity for me.

I finally find a how-to general guide to making preserves/jam/jelly. Although nothing specifically about these berries. I give it a shot and make use of the empty jars I had just bought.

First step: Clean up the Berries. These berries you can not easily pick from the branch without getting all sorts of non-berry items: Twigs, leaves, dirt, bugs, etc. So I took the spaghetti strainer, and emptied out bowls of the berries into the strainer and washed out the berries carefully. I sprayed everything off with the sink spritzer, and separated the non-berry components, and any berries that weren't satisfactory.

I put a few spoons into the freezer to chill them down. It sounds weird, but there is a reason for this. Then I took one batch of berries a time, and added them to a sauce pan. With one of the specialized tools for making smashed potatoes, I squished the berries in the pan until they were a slurry of juice, seeds, and berry slush in the pan. With low heat, I added large amounts of sugar and stirred constantly. A little bit of lemon juice just in case this is the sort of berry that doesn't have enough pectin naturally, and lots of stirring. I take a taste to see if it has enough sugar. The trick is to not add too much sugar; it still has to be tart.

When the juice has started to thicken after boiling off for a while, take a spoon from the freezer, and pour some of the jelly into the cold spoon. Place it onto a clean bowl, and put into the refrigerator. Let it sit in the refrigerator for about 5 minutes, while still stirring the pot. If it has cooked long enough, you will find the jelly on the cold spoon will congeal and have jelly/jam consistency. It should slowly slide off the spoon just like you're about to put it on toast. If it is too watery, cook it a little longer and take another one of those cold spoons from the freezer and try again.

While stewing the berries, have your jars ready for the introduction. I washed the jars with soap and water, then sterilized them by putting them in the oven at 150°C for 20 minutes or so. It is also important to note that if you leave it in the oven for TOO long, the jars will be too hot, and the jam you drop into the jar will sizzle. If you put a 150°C jar into boiling water, it still will be too much of a temperature difference, and the jar will shatter (ask me how I know this).

While stewing the berries, and while baking the jars, take the lids for the jars and throw them into a pot of boiling water to sterilize them. Once all parts are ready, carefully pour out the stewed berries into the jars. Remove the lids from the boiling water if you like, or keep them in the vat of boiling water. Place the jars with the jam into a pot of boiling water and let it simmer for about 10 mins or so. Make sure that the lid of the jar is clean from jam that has gotten on the side by your sloppiness.

Take the lids out first, then take out the jars, and lid the jars quickly. the lower air pressure inside the jar will get even lower as the fewer air molecules inside the jar start to cool, and reduce the air pressure. If done correctly, there will be a partial vacuum on the inside of the jar. If you have one of those lids that pop up when the jar is opened, the little button will eventually pop-down as the jars cool.

Ta-da! I now have something to give to people when I go back to America for a week on Monday. Since we can not import live berries to America, this is the best way I could come up with sharing these berries with my friends and family back in the US.

Here are the pictures I took:

Here are pictures of the various flowers and plants in the garden.
No pictures of the Teufelpflanze, which I think I should include to see if somebody out there can identify its real name for me.

Another thing to mention: my American accent rarely shows through my German, but it definitely shows when I say "Johannisbeeren." One of the locals thought I was talking about Johannis bären, the bears named "Johannis." I will have to work on that pronunciation.

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