The largest annual event out in our neck of the woods, by a wide margin, is the Pilgrimage at Lac Ste. Anne over the third week of July. I’d never heard of it until moving out here, but as a local, now, I can’t help but notice the increased traffic on the roads and at the local shops, and the explosion of garage sales to check out at the lake. The traditional name for Lac Ste. Anne is ‘Spirit Lake’, and the large body of water has held spiritual and cultural significance for the Cree for centuries. What is known now as the Pilgrimage is a time for people to gather together, for families to gather and reconnect with each other. (more information on the Pilgrimage can be found HERE)
In our modern world, we’re disconnected from the natural rhythms of nature, and no longer look to the trees in the forest, the birds at the river, or the angle of the sun in the vast prairie sky to tell the time of day or season – we have clocks, calendars and iPhone apps for that now. Living on and from the land, the wild Saskatoon berries would have been an important way to
tell time, though, so the fact the the Pilgrimage at the lake and the ripening of these delicious berries line up is no mere coincidence.
Throughout the prairie provinces, Saskatoons grow wild, and have been an extremely important crop for the Indigenous of our area for centuries. The Cree word for Saskatoon is misaskatomina, ‘mis’ meaning ‘everywhere’. Before the settlers came in and changed the landscape, wild Saskatoon berries grew prolifically throughout Alberta, on the edges of forests and moist coulees and hillsides. Travelling the land, the blooms are highly visible, so families would know to return to that area in mid-July, when extended families would gather to pick the berries together, and share news and reconnect over the harvest.
Saskatoons were a staple of the traditional diet, and one of the ways that people were able to survive the long and harsh prairie winters. The berries could be steamed and mashed, then left to dry as bricks that could be chipped off and added to soups or stews over the winter months. The Saskatoons were also added to dried meat (most often bison) and melted fat to make pemmican, which was a highly nutritious provision for both the Indigenous of the area as well as the fur traders who moved in later.
Many parts of this bush were used traditionally as medicine, or as raw material for tools such as bows, but I’m just going to focus on the berry, since that’s what we’re bringing to market. Saskatoon berries look similar to a blueberry, with their deep, rich color when ripe. The taste and texture are similar to the blueberry, only a bit more tart, and with somewhat of a nutty flavour. Recent nutritional analysis on the berry shows that they’re higher than blueberries in protein, calcium, magnesium and fiber and, like blueberries (which don’t grow well here), are an excellent source of Vitamins C and A. For more information on the nutritional value of Saskatoons, there’s a good link HERE.
I enjoy adding Saskatoons to my morning yogurt and granola, and of course the berries make a delicious pie, crumble or jam. A recipe I’m really looking forward to trying this week is for a Saskatoon berry sauce to use over some organic meat (I’ll probably pick up some fresh bison medallions for this at market this weekend). Here’s the recipe for what we’ll be trying (sans Juniper berries, most likely): Bison with Saskatoon Sauce
Here at Sunrise Gardens, the berry-picking season is also a social time. We love it when some of our son’s friends come out to pick buckets of the Saskatoons and Raspberries, and like the Indigenous peoples that came before us, it’s a social time – a time to hang out with friends and family and catch up and chat while we work. When they start to ripen, it’s hard to keep up, and as our orchard becomes more established, we have more and more berries to pick every year. Cultivated Saskatoon production is on the rise, as the flavour and nutritional benefits are rediscovered. Right now, the demand for Saskatoons is much higher than the supply- the first Saskatoon orchards were established in the 1980s, and the industry has grown in leaps and bounds since then. It takes a few years for a new orchard to produce high yields, and our bushes are just starting their prime, so we’re happy to be a part of the resurgence of this wonderful food crop.
If you haven’t tried Saskatoons before, now is a good time to start! We’ll have some at market this week, and if all goes well, we’ll be bringing in baskets of these beauties over the next couple of weeks.
Hope you have a fantastic week! If you need me, I’ll be in the berry patch.