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The Fruit of Your Labor 

Blackberry picking and cocktails

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For nutrition alone, the call to capture the summer windfall of blackberries is strong. Blackberries are frequently hailed as a "superfood," a media term which simply means blackberries are really, really good for you. That same deep purple color permanently stained on our childhood memories is proof that blackberries have some of the highest antioxidant levels around. As they also provide a hearty shot of vitamin C and fiber, ramping up your blackberry intake is a smart move for preventative care and digestion.

Beyond their superstar health status, the dark-hued beauties are free — if you consider a few hours in the sunshine more pleasure than labor. But far too often summer passes by with purple-tinged guilt for all the forgotten blackberries surrounding our homes, roads and schools. This food-gleaning tragedy goes unchecked because, childhood nostalgia aside, harvesting blackberries can be a serious pain in the bum. This summer, prickly vines be damned, I was determined to harvest a bounty of the super-healthy, super-free food. After setting forth, here are my two blackberry picking mantras to pass on to you: "Fail to prepare, prepare to fail," and, "Location, location, location."

First, understand that you're going to pick berries. Don't try to multitask this activity with walking the dog or getting a tan — some form of failure will be inevitable. Your dress code should be nothing less than lightweight pants and a long-sleeve shirt, no matter the temperature, so early morning picking is ideal. A hat, shades, sunscreen and a light-duty pair of cotton gardening gloves are good accessories, though I find the best strategy is to pluck berries with bare hands and treat yourself later with a heavy application of your fanciest hand cream or coconut oil. The few itchy scratches you picked up will fade by the following day.

Additional accessories for more ambitious berry harvesters include medium-sized planks for making paths deep into the heart of berry-laden bushes and proper containers for collecting the fruit. I cannot overstate how worthwhile it is to craft a few berry-picking rigs before setting out. My favorite is a cardboard box lid, but a plastic milk jug works too — get creative. Punch two holes in each side of your container and string yarn or twine through each hole, tying them off, and making a lanyard of sorts. When you're shoulder-deep inside a prickly bush and find a particularly berry heavy branch, you'll high-five yourself for tying that container around your neck, rather than struggling to go backward with every handful.

Back to that other mantra — location! Everyone knows that blackberries on your property either need to be painstakingly cut back or destroyed. The vinous bush is incredibly prolific and only total extermination via shovel will keep the fruit-bearing weed from coming back. So the ideal location? Your neighbor's yard, of course! As soon as you start looking, you'll realize blackberry bushes are everywhere. Always be sure to ask nicely. Many folks avoid side of the road opportunities but I think a healthy rinse is reasonable. Avoid the side of highways for safety reasons. Surveying locals, I received reports of treasure troves on Freshwater Road, along the Hammond Trail, and in Korbel and Maple Creek. Personally, I gathered enough for a simple yet elegant blackberry crisp at the Arcata Marsh in a mere hour's time. A berry crisp is the classic, no-fuss way to guarantee your berries will get eaten, but in the spirit of balancing both mind and body, whip up the cocktail recipe below for a true celebration of summer and Humboldt County's bounty.

Blackberry Basil Gin Fizz

This recipe is adapted from Smitten Kitchen. Make the syrup first — adding a spoonful of it to club soda makes a fine daytime refresher.

For the basil simple syrup:

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

15 large basil leaves

For two tall drinks:

¼ cup (heaping) fresh blackberries

1 ½ tablespoons sugar

2 ½ shots gin (Henderson's highly recommended)

¼ cup fresh lime juice (roughly 1 large lime)

1 Tablespoon basil simple syrup

Club soda

2 sprigs sweet basil

Combine the sugar and water in a small pot and bring to boil, stirring until all sugar is dissolved. Remove it from the heat and add basil leaves. Cover the pot and let it steep at least 30 minutes, longer for more basil flavor. Strain the syrup through a sieve and refrigerate.

Purée the blackberries and sugar in a blender. Strain the purée through a fine-mesh sieve (be sure to scrape underside of the sieve where the rich mash will build up). Compost the seeds. Divide the purée, gin and lime juice equally into two tall glasses, stirring vigorously to combine. Add 2-3 ice cubes and top each a with a generous splash of club soda. Give them another gentle stir and garnish with sprigs of basil and a few berries. Share with a friend worthy of all your hard work.

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Nora Mounce

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