Oh Summer! At long last, we bask in warmth and enjoy potluck picnics…and we tackle projects that may be fanciful or practical or a bit of both. The Summer Project is a seasonal response, a call to action for enhancing life in the great Canadian outdoors, like my husband’s driftwood bench with foot rest and side “tables” and an ocean view, amid a sea of blue chicory flowers. Or, in the case of experimental blackberry mead production, a summer project destined many months later for the great Canadian indoors.
It may require many hands and feet to lift a new dock to its watery destination, resembling, as seen from the right angle, a multi-coloured human centipede in T-shirts, shorts and sandals lurching downhill. A truly great Summer Project is the kind of group endeavour people can point to for years and say, “I worked on that in the summer of aught eight. Took us weeks…or most of one afternoon.” Little kids will take visitors to see this wonder, whatever it is: a mural-bedecked barn with enough room inside for a circus, complete with trapeze. Or a three-storey tree fort big enough for first and second cousin sleepovers, with a mosquito net for every level. Or a nine-tree frisbee golf course in the woods.
There are immensely satisfying destruction projects as well. One of my favourite memories of these occurred during a family get-together at the Clear Lake cottage in Riding Mountain National Park. A garage built in 1936, as was the cottage, became a laundry, then handled overflow kids and teens as well by the 1960s before being renovated as a proper bunkhouse in the 1970s, with basic indoor plumbing to replace the outhouse, and a much-needed extra shower. The bunkhouse provided sleeping space for several generations of kids, with enough room and beds to accommodate an entire family of five.
By the new millennium, it was undeniably crumbling into the earth, a mouldering version of its former self. The family decided to begin Demolition Day, appropriately enough, with the deck. It was sturdily built and there weren’t quite enough claw hammers and crowbars for all the willing workers but soon enough, board by well-nailed board, we took it apart and piled the debris up for a truck to remove. That winter the heavy snow load caved the roof in and the following spring, professionals finished the job and took out some elderly trees too. Now there is a pristine expanse of lawn and room for doubles badminton where the bunkhouse once stood.
Most of our summers since 2008 are spent working seven days a week as lighthouse keepers because it is the only season dry enough to accomplish many of our necessary maintenance tasks, especially painting, not to mention looking after our large garden and greenhouse.
Summer on the Lennard Island Lightstation near Tofino means blackberries too, usually a bumper crop of the luscious, if a tad seedy, berries. Only a foul seasonal combination of cool, wet weather and relentless fog, hence the month known by west coasters as Fogust, can ruin the output of big, perfect blackberries, which have a generous ripening season of at least three successive weeks. The only other berry we have on the island is the humble salad berry, which clings tenaciously to its leathery mother shrub and then, if you do manage to wrestle most of it off, you’ll end up with stained purple fingers for days. You’ll also need to soak these berries in salt water for half an hour to rid them of plentiful numbers of tiny white worms which often inhabit them. I did not know about the worms when I first arrived and ate these berries without close inspection. On the upside, the protein in my diet was boosted effortlessly, if unwittingly. When cooked, the small, stubborn salal berries make magnificent apple and salal oatmeal crumble or crisp-style desserts and thereby redeem themselves completely.
Blackberries became the focus of our latest Summer Project and I have to say my husband is much more besotted with them than I am. We both love to pick and freeze them in many, many plastic containers. Jeff makes a sorbet-like dessert called Blackberry Ice in our ice-cream maker, a spectacular summery dessert. I usually make blackberry jelly and in mid-winter, “bumble-berry” jam, which makes good use of aging frozen berries of all sorts, plus any elderly rhubarb in the freezer. Jeff wanted to tackle blackberry mead based on a recipe for regular mead which he, true to form, decided to tinker with despite my mutterings about “chemistry” and “following recipes exactly as written for good reason,” et cetera, to no avail. The freshly picked berries and the process of mashing them to make juice began.
We lacked the right size of carboy, an oversized glass container with a narrow neck, to ferment the blackberry juice, honey and spice mix, so we used an assortment of clean wine bottles. We also lacked proper bottle-stops, which release air slowly and safely, but MacGyver Jeff, ever-inventive, raided one of our First Aid cupboards to come up with seldom-used items called finger cots. Finger cots are like tiny condoms for fingers should you ever need to probe an open wound or remove a marble from some kid’s nose. We have a supply of nitrile gloves that we wear while painting, and our First Aid kits have sterile gloves which peel on and off very efficiently, so the individual finger cots were a passing trend I think. They certainly made us snicker every time we walked by the mead bottles but they did handle escaping air during the fermentation process.
In spite of many months of delayed gratification, the mead tasted sour and thin, not full-bodied and flavourful. Turns out my novice vintner had reasoned that freshly picked blackberries were “sweet enough by themselves” and had not added as much honey as the recipe called for. Fortunately, some lovely friends brought a 3 kg pail of dandelion honey from Hudson’s Hope, B.C. Some of this golden elixir was added to the so-so mead and we began anew. By now, the chances of replicating this recipe had long since evaporated.
Eventually we decanted it into elegant bottles I’d been saving for years for just such an occasion. We inserted corks and stored them horizontally. One day I noticed some telltale purple stains on several corks. I alerted the vintner, who also noticed a new purple puddle on the basement floor. Some of the mead genes obviously longed for the open air of their thorny ancestors and popped our corks. I now have upright bottles of Cooking Mead. A generous slosh of this stuff truly enlivens a beef stew or a tomato-based pasta sauce.
We do have another batch of blackberry mead developing downstairs and have yet to hear any ominous popping or gurgling noises. So far, so good. A taste of summer, a glass of mead with blackberry cake and whipped cream, is something to look forward to. Finger cots crossed.