When I was a child at summer camp in northern Wisconsin, I made the astonishing discovery that there were plants throughout the forests with fruit on them. Even though my family was keen on buying from local farmers, you had to drive to the farm, and you had to pay someone for the fruit (which was, by the way, already picked—not much charm in that for a child). But there I was, surrounded by fruit just waiting to be plucked from a gracefully arching branch. I could eat it any time I wanted—and it was free. This made me almost giddy with delight. While there were a few incredibly sweet wild blueberries, the most abundant fruit was raspberries.
Raspberries may not be what you think. Of course, the appearance of the word “berry” in the name might seem like justification for believing that these are, in fact, berries, but they’re not. They’re drupes—stone fruits, like cherries, peaches, and plums. Or, to be more precise, little drupelets, because each tiny globe in the cluster that comprises a single “berry” is a separate fruit with a tiny little stone in the center. Like all the other stone fruits, raspberries are members of the rose family.
Though many plants were under cultivation before written records were even imagined, raspberries, though popular in Europe since prehistoric times, were not domesticated until quite recently. They appear to have not come under cultivation in Europe until the 1600s. However, since most things have historically come under cultivation because they needed improving, rather than because people liked the extra work, this neglect in domesticating raspberries is testimony to the fact that this fruit is just dandy in the wild. (Some scholars say the Greeks domesticated them, but Roman historian Pliny the Elder identified raspberries as purely wild fruit. So it seems likely that “domestication” may simply have consisted of letting wild plants grow in one’s garden.)
Wild raspberries exist in several regions of the northern hemisphere. However, despite the fact that raspberries were widely dispersed very early on (at the latest, by the Mesolithic period), the concentration of species suggests a possible point of origin. North America has three important species of raspberry, plus a few minor ones; Europe has one species of raspberry (though many cultivated varieties of that one species); and eastern Asia has more than two hundred known species. So, while scholars are hesitant to really nail down a precise location for the origin of raspberries, the general consensus is that eastern Asia seems like a pretty likely spot.
Despite the fact that North America has more species of raspberry than Europe, colonial Americans preferred imported European raspberries until the time of the Civil War. Even today, though we no longer import our raspberries from Europe, among raspberries under cultivation in the US, European raspberry varieties outnumber American varieties.
Europe’s one species, Rubus idaeus, was named for a mountain, Mount Ida in Turkey, where it was originally found in great abundance. At least that’s what Pliny the Elder tells us. Then in 1925, a French physician named Henri Leclerc published the following tale: There was a nymph named Ida, daughter of King Melissos of Crete, who was picking raspberries, which were white at the time, to feed a very young Jupiter. She scratched her breast on the thorny bushes, and her blood turned the raspberries red. Yum.
The relative importance of the raspberry in Great Britain can be illustrated by looking at the amount of land given over to growing it. In Great Britain, 10,000 acres of red raspberries are cultivated. In the United States, which is about 40 times larger than Great Britain, about 11,000 acres of red raspberries are cultivated. It should be no surprise, then, that raspberries feature prominently in this classic English dessert.
This is a fabulous summer dessert—and beautiful, as it’s a stunning, bright pink. It’s also much easier than you might guess from the number of notes following the recipe. It’s just that this dish has so many possible permutations. Enjoy.
English Summer Pudding
Approx. 1-3/4 to 2 lbs. berries (see notes)
1/2 to 1 cup sugar (see notes)
8–10 slices white bread, crusts removed
whipped cream, crème fraîche, thick cream, or Devonshire cream
Wash and pick through berries, removing any unripe or moldy ones. If using currants, remove stalks. If using strawberries, hull and quarter. Put all the berries in a saucepan with the sugar, and cook over medium heat for 3–5 minutes, just until the sugar has dissolved and the juice has begun to flow. Do not overcook, or you will spoil the nice, fresh flavor.
Line a bowl or pudding basin with the bread, overlapping the edges and pressing to seal. Fill in any gaps with smaller pieces of bread, if necessary. (You don’t want the fruit slipping through.) Pour in the warmed berries and juice. Put a couple of slices of bread on top of the fruit, to cover, and fold over any bits of bowl-lining bread that stick up above the level of the berries. Place a small plate (one that fits exactly inside the bowl) on top of the layer of bread. Then, on top of the plate, place a weight (a large jar or can of something) of 3 or 4 pounds. Leave the weighted pudding in the refrigerator overnight.
Just before serving the pudding, remove it from the refrigerator and turn it out onto a large serving dish. (You may need to warm the bowl slightly with your hands to get the pudding to “let go.”) If there are any white spots left on the bread, use a little of the escaping juice to “paint” the spots. To serve, cut into wedges and serve with your chosen form of cream. Serves 6–8.
Notes: The most traditional combination is red currants, black currants, and raspberries. Many versions add blackberries, cherries, or quartered strawberries. American versions include blueberries (yep, they’re North American natives). There is almost no wrong way to make this. You do want to use primarily red fruit, because too many black currants, black raspberries, or blackberries will make the dessert look muddy, instead of a brilliant, appetizing pink. A weight range is given because some berries are denser, weighing more for the amount of space they take up. For the traditional currant/raspberry mix, you’d use about 1 lb. raspberries and 3/4 lbs. of currants. When I made a “red, white, and blue” version (with whipped cream for the white), I used 1/2 lb. raspberries, 3/4 lb. blueberries, and 3/4 lb. strawberries. (And just so you know, you can go over 2 lb. This is not a recipe where precision is important, as long as your bowl is big enough to hold the fruit. Your main focus is good, ripe, juicy berries.)
The range for sugar is because some berries are sweeter than others. If you use currants, you’ll need more sugar, as they are considerably tarter than, say, blueberries or strawberries. You can start at 1/2 cup, and then taste the mixture, adding more as necessary.
If you do choose to try this with currants, in case you haven’t worked with currants before: currants come in small clusters of several berries ranged along a thin stalk. Picking them off the stalk one at a time is tedious, but you can make this task easier with a fork. Grasp the thicker end of the stalk, slip the stalk between the tines of the fork, and simply move the fork down the stalk to strip all the berries off, quick as you please.