Yes, the cold snowy nights of winter may seem a long way off, but you can be sure, they’re coming. But if you get picking now – I guarantee this boozy, dark, thick wild berry compote will bring the heady luscious flavours of high summer back to your winter table.
Using alcohol and sugar to preserve the fruits of the summer is a century old tradition. My Oma made Rumtopf (literally meaning Rum Pot) into which she would add fruits and berries as they came into season; strawberries, blueberries, cherries, red and black currants, sliced apricots and pears. This concoction then sat until winter, when it was poured over ice cream for our families traditional Christmas Eve dessert.
My Oma didn’t like rum, so she used vodka instead. And so I’ve followed her tradition by using vodka as well- though I’ve wildcrafted her recipe by using salal berries, blackberries and Oregon grape. (Click on the links if you’re not sure how to identify.)
And it makes a dark, tangy syrup of wild berries that is absolutely delicious over winter custards, puddings, cheesecakes, pancakes, even french toast. But possibly my favourite way to enjoy Wild Berry Compote is to strain off the fruits (which can be baked into tarts, cakes and desserts) and serve as a Yule liqueur.
Now as much as I enjoy consuming homemade berry jams and jellies, I’m far too lazy for the work of serious canning. So aside from freezing, I love that this is by far, the easiest and most tasty way to preserve your berry bounty. There are many methods but the basic premise is the same — simply mix fruit and sugar with enough hard spirit to keep the fruit well soused, and let it sit. (I’ve been substituting honey for years and it works just fine).
My Oma made her Rumtopf in one large crock, layering in fruit throughout the season. I make mine in the large pot pictured above (which was handed down to me from my mom) but I also like to make smaller batches as well. I fill mason jars with different combinations of berries, foraged fruit (plums and pears) and alcohol (vodka, brandy, rum). Often I’ll infuse herbs and blossoms into the mixture, rose petals, fennel fronds, even Queen Anne’s Lace.
The only downside is, of course, the waiting. This allows the full flavours to mellow and slowly develop, and can take a few months. (That said, I do occasionally dip into mine far earlier). But the upside is that you’ll have summer in a crock – ready for savouring by a blazing winter fire. And it will warm more than your tummy and bones, it will nourish and revitalize your entire body as well.
After all, wild berries are far more nutritious than their domesticated counterparts, brimming with important vitamins, phytochemicals, polyphenols, flavonoids, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. And because many medicinal tinctures are made from soaking herbs and berries in alcohol, (which break down cellular walls, releasing their healing components) I like to think this compote as an enlivening winter tonic.
But for me, the best part of making compote is the magic. I begin picking the berries on the first of August, which in old Britain was the traditional time of the “Festival of First Fruits” better known as Lammas or Lammastide or Lughnasa. This represented the first harvesting of the growing season’s bounty and was often referred to as the berry harvest.
In Ireland, it was also known as Bilberry Sunday, the time to climb the mountain sides to collect wild berries. Bilberries were baked into pies, cakes and became part of a ritual feast held alongside bread and other fruits of the first harvest. And it marked the traditional time to start making preserves in preparation for the coming dark months.
I love these old nature celebrations, and so making this compote from wild local berries has become a seasonal ritual. It connects me to my ancestors, to the bounty of nature, to the earth and the seasonal energies of the land. And when I crack open the compote pot to celebrate the fruit of my labours, I know the deep dark flavour inside will transport me back that moment I stood in the hot summer sun, popping ripe succulent berries into my mouth. And that’s why, when the dark winter nights roll around, this boozy wild berry compote is magic.
Boozy Wildcrafted Berry Compote
- Approximately 2 cups blackberries
- Approximately 2 cups salal berries
- Approximately 1 cup Oregon grape berries
- (you can also use wild blueberries or huckleberries if you like)
- 2 cups of honey
- 1 750ml bottle of vodka ( if you like you can infuse the vodka with rose petals or other blossoms. Simply soak them in the vodka for a week or two before straining them off)
- Rinse your berries of dust and debris and let dry.
- Place in large ceramic crock or large pickling jar.
- Pour over with vodka and honey. The berries should be completely submerged. If you still have room – add a few more berries.
- Stir gently.
- Then put away for the winter i.e. two to three months.Give a gentle stir every now and then. If you want to sample it earlier – wait one month at least!
- When ready, just spoon over whatever you want.