Wild Whiskey Blues

There are some foodie words I can’t say with a straight face. “Foodie” is one of them. Terroir is another. Honestly, I can’t even pronounce it well. (Follow this link and mouse over the word to hear it.) Partly, I feel like a kid at the dinner table, trying out a grown-up word that I overheard somewhere. Then again, as an adult, I kinda want to bang my head on said table because sometimes we take what we think we know about food so very seriously, and part of me stands back laughing. (At myself, too — please understand.)

In case “terroir” hasn’t yet become trendy where you live, Easy Food & Wine defines it as “the expression of a unique parcel of land or region through an agricultural, artisanal product, such as wine.” (In its native French, the word most literally means “soil.”) “Terroir” is now used to describe the characteristics of everything from coffee and fruit to meat and cheese.

So I had this moment where I was sitting out in the woods, trying to get a handle on what makes these wild blueberries so unique and I thought: Oh, crap, it’s the terroir. I can’t totally laugh off a word that turns out to be useful. It allows you to say in one go what would otherwise take a sentence or two — but that still doesn’t mean I’m going to be able to use it in actual conversation. I’ll have to try to say something about the berries in words that come more naturally to me.

These “bog blueberries” grow at the southwestern corner of our land in the Alaskan Interior, just where the spruce forest opens up to the taiga. For some reason, this small patch of ground produces more and better berries than any other place we’ve found in our stumbling searches across acres of seemingly similar terrain. (When I say similar, I mean in part that you can easily fall down, get boggy wet, become mildly to severely entangled in dwarf trees, feed mosquitoes a steady diet of your own blood, keep watch for grizzlies and moose, and rest from these adventures on beds of unearthly green and spongy moss while gazing up at the vast and ever-shifting sky.) We’re not sure why this particular forested nook is different from the places that surround it, but it surely is. Across the taiga, there are berries that are much bigger, but puckery sour. Fringing the western border of our land, we find a density of healthy bushes that never produce berries at all. This is a sweet spot, where the bushes are productive and the berries are just right.

Last year I made jam from our berries and carried a few jars back to California. I gave one to a friend who is a true blueberry fan, and she asked what else I had put in there. This was all: wild blueberries, sugar, and a little bit of lemon and lime juice. (Perhaps, inadvertently, some bog silt, too.) They just aren’t like “normal” blueberries. (And in fact, they’re not exactly blueberries at all. They’re a type of “bilberry,” a close cousin to the blues.) They taste like blueberries, but at the same time they are dark, mossy, and spruce-fed. They are acidic, rich, and in every way intense. They are also off the chart when it comes to brain boosting antioxidants.

One thing I quickly learned is that a jam made from bog blueberries wants more sugar than a jam made from fat, farm-grown blues. This year I also added a small splash of something with similarly intense characteristics: highland Scotch whiskey. I was thinking “peaty,” but of course the makers of McClelland’s have more to say:

“A land of rugged mountains, lakes and fast-flowing rivers, forests and castles. Home of the clans and full of romance and story. The malts made here capture the spirit of the place — wild flowers, the scents of moorland, fresh heather, and the sappy flavors of pine forests.”  (This is followed by the surgeon general’s warning, lest you be too carried away by all of that.)

My blueberry picking blue jeans have just about had it

Anyway, in this jam, you get the whiskey taste only at the very first, and only a little, then it melts into the deep purple, almost subterranean, flavors of the wild blueberries. Now that I’m home from Alaska and missing it, I can taste the jam and again be on my knees picking berries on a long, quiet day after rain, with the wide blue sky and scudding clouds vaulting overhead.

Oh, damn. It’s the terroir, you see? Everything we eat has a place and a story, if we listen for it.

Wild Alaskan Blueberry Jam With Whiskey

3 1/2 pounds wild blueberries
2 1/2 pounds sugar
2 ounces lemon juice
1 ounce lime juice
1 1/2 tablespoons good Scotch whiskey

Rinse the blueberries and remove as many of the tiny stems as you can manage. Removing the stems is a chore! It doesn’t really matter if you don’t get them all. I’m thinking of them as extra fiber or a slightly woody herb.

In a large bowl, combine the blueberries, sugar, lemon juice, and lime juice, cover, and let sit overnight in a cool place. The fridge is fine. We don’t have a refrigerator in Alaska, so these went into a hole in the ground that we use as the next best thing.

The next day, put the berry mixture into a large pot and bring to a boil. I’m serious about the large pot. I don’t have a good jam pan at the cabin (that will change next year) so I cooked this batch in an 8-quart pot and, because of the increased sugar content, created the mother of all boilovers on our little propane stove. More sugar equals more foamy . . .

Cook the mixture until it reaches the setting point, stirring occasionally and skimming foam as needed. My batch cooked in 20-25 minutes. I could tell it was done because I started to get a bit of wrinkling in the fine coating of jam on my stirring spoon after I pulled it away from the heat and let it sit for a moment, then pushed at it with my finger. Again, we’ve got no refrigeration, so no freezer test. If you’ve got a freezer, I recommend that method for determining whether your jam is done. It’s described in almost all my posts about making jam, including last month’s blackberry strawberry jam.

When the jam is ready, skim any remaining foam and stir in the whiskey. Then pour or ladle the hot jam into sterilized jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe rims, add lids, and process 5 minutes in a hot water bath canner, adjusting for altitude as necessary. (We are at about 2,200 feet, so I process for 7 minutes.)

Makes about 8 half-pint jars

We had a great moose visit this year

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  • Reply Nicole September 3, 2012 at 10:23 am

    A few years ago a friend in Washington was giving a fundraising presentation and she had the word “terroir” three times in her speech. She asked what I thought of it and I told her it was brilliant, she would be so nervous about not being able to pronounce that word that she probably wouldn’t notice she was talking to 300 people!
    Looks like another great trip for you. I still have my Denali guide pants. I can’t bear to part with the blueberry stains.

    • Reply Shae September 3, 2012 at 8:59 pm

      That’s a perfect story, Nicole. I hope I never have to say “terroir” in front of ten people, much less 300!

  • Reply Kate @ Snowflake Kitchen September 3, 2012 at 12:54 pm

    One of my first forays into canning was a jar of mixed berry jam made on my internship in Juneau. Friends of mine took me picking, and I found enough salmonberries and blueberries for a few small jars of jam. Though it didnt set up very well (truthfully, I had next to no idea what I was doing) I had forgotten I made it until one particularly tough law school exam 6 months later. Over ice cream and I was right back there, staring at a cub at the end of the pick. Needless to say we got out of there quickly, but oh man. Terroir indeed. Maybe its an Alaskan thing :)

    Mother of all boil-overs indeed. Dare I ask how long that took to clean up in the bush?

    • Reply Shae September 3, 2012 at 8:57 pm

      Oh my gosh, Kate, it took a while, especially because our water wasn’t yet running from the spring, so we were hauling and boiling and keeping it in jugs. You can imagine. The funny thing, though, is that I know if the boilover had happened to me at home, I would have been really bent out of shape about it, and impatient. I was strangely calm when it happened: Okay, breathe. Turn off the heat. Take a photo of it. (Blogging is so strange, isn’t it?) Skim the foam. Finish the jam on lower heat. Clean it up. It gave me something to do! :-)

  • Reply Julia September 3, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    What a perfect post, Shae! Welcome back!

    • Reply Shae September 3, 2012 at 8:53 pm

      Thank you, my friend!

  • Reply Kristin September 3, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    Nice recipe! I recently made a blueberry-vanilla jam that turned out heavenly.
    About the berries: My guess as a biologist is that you’re actually comparing two different species of berries (both commonly called blueberries). I am from Sweden and there we have blueberries much like the ones you have in alaska, smaller and richer in flavour, a bit more sour and chock full of red/purple pigment. They are the species Vaccinium myrtillus. What you get in the grocery store here in Canada and in most of the states though are either of the species Vaccinium corymbosum or Vaccinum angustifolium. :)

    • Reply Shae September 3, 2012 at 8:53 pm

      Hi Kristin: They’re most definitely not the same species as a cultivated blueberry, and I just made a little change to the post to reflect that. Thanks for helping me to be more clear; that’s important! The bog blueberry is Vaccinium uliginosum. Apparently, like your Vaccinium myrtillus, it is a type of bilberry, which are related to the blues.

  • Reply meg- grow and resist September 3, 2012 at 9:52 pm

    Welcome back, Shae! I always love hearing about your adventures in Alaska! Blueberries are (I think) my favorite berry and I love that the taste of your jam brings you right back!

    • Reply Shae September 8, 2012 at 9:17 am

      Thank you, Meg. I think you can grow blueberries more easily where you are than I can here in California, but I’m working on it. My three big container berries made for decent patio foraging this summer. :-)

  • Reply rcakewalk September 4, 2012 at 10:36 am

    I grew up in Northern Wisconsin, eating my fill of wild blues – and they do taste like where they are from, though not nearly as wild as Alaska… I love your super-saturated photos, it does them justice.

    I also laughed at your phrases: one of my favorites is “nut milk bag”. Just try and tell someone about straining almond milk or something and using that term!

    • Reply Shae September 8, 2012 at 9:19 am

      Yeah, “nut milk bag” is awkward! I’ve never had to use that one, though I’ve been curious about making our own almond milk. We drink so much of it that I’m just not sure it would be efficient. (We buy it — organic at least — by the case from Trader Joe’s.)

  • Reply Hier September 5, 2012 at 6:18 am

    Whiskey is exactly what i like. Thank you for that article. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks, Ann-Kathrin!

    • Reply Shae September 8, 2012 at 9:19 am

      Thanks for leaving a note!

  • Reply Sara September 6, 2012 at 8:57 am

    As long as you don’t have to say “terroir” out loud…Several years of French and I still feel like it’s coming out wrong. Love these photos and the idea of this jam with whiskey (though sad to see the spillover). I also like the freezer test the best.

  • Reply Shae September 8, 2012 at 9:22 am

    Thanks, Sara. I have been enjoying hearing about some of the preserves you’ve been working on. Prune plum jam with Armagnac? Get out! That sounds amazing.:-)

  • Reply tigress September 14, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    I love everything about this post!

  • Reply Dana September 19, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    Fantastic post! My mouth is watering… and I’m simultaneously longing for Alaska and bonny Scotland.

  • Reply Elizabeth October 15, 2012 at 3:36 pm

    Love, love, love this post and your writing and your pictures and your incredible sensibilities. You, dear Shae, have quite your own Terroir!

    • Reply Shae October 25, 2012 at 9:18 am

      As do you, dear Elizabeth. Thank you so much for your kindness!

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