Parfait Diem

Boston Berry Parfait

Parfait and Parf-B

Parfait Berry Shortcake

When I visit family in the Boston area, I’m constantly in search of food. I know where I’ll hit the farmers’ markets to see what’s in season, and the old world markets for dolmas, hummus and Aleppo peppers. I might discover a bowl of duck soup at a new pho joint in the next town over, or drive to Fall River for Portuguese seafood. But on this trip, the sweetest discovery of all has been learning how to make a parfait of foraged berries.

When I left for college, my naturalist skills had reached the point where I could avoid poison ivy. Not much, but nonetheless a skill that is extremely important when foraging those parts. Meanwhile, I’ve added some new plants to my list of local flora, most of them edible, thanks to an old lady I met in the bushes.

I spotted her while strolling along a bike path. When I saw her in the bushes I knew she was picking, and they looked like raspberries, but were black. I called out to her awkwardly with a question like, “Wow, berries already?” She regarded me with a skeptical side-eye. Her accent was German or Swiss or Austrian – I imagined somewhere in the alps –  as she reluctantly admitted “these are black raspberries.”

To gain her trust, I held out my phone with a picture of a haul of wild morels that my friend Thomas Jefferson Strange had harvested somewhere near Missoula. I was like “this is what we forage in Montana.”

Amazingly, my bragging had the desired effect. She recognized me as a member of the foraging tribe who thus deserved a chance. “There’s a mulberry tree down the path on the left, right before it gets sunny,” she said.

I walked until I saw purple stains on the sidewalk, and looked up at a canopy of dangling juice bombs. The tree was growing from a seam between the asphalt parking lot and a retaining wall, disrupting both, and had partially absorbed a chain link fence in its trunk. Mulberries resemble elongated blackberries — very sweet and juicy and so ripe I had to pick them with two fingers at once or risk knocking them off. After turning my face a deep shade of purple I noticed that she had left her leave the black raspberry patch. I strolled over, but she had completely cleaned it out.

As I headed home, she called out from beneath another tree, this one sporting blueberry-like orbs at the end of long stems. “Juneberries,” she said with her thick accent.

My forager friend had shown me enough food along a 200-yard stretch of bike path to practically feed myself. Alas, her initial suspicions were warranted. A few days later I returned, receptacle in hand, and on that day it was I who cleaned out the black raspberries. The Juneberries, in turn, had been cleaned out by the birds – every last one, even from the flimsy top.  But the mulberries were as abundant as ever.

As I strode that self-serve berry buffet, I took note of the conditions that had produced it. Disturbed habitat alongside the bike path, close to water, partial shade. Armed with this information, I was able to find more berries elsewhere in my travels.As a youngster I had flown the coop before bonding with my home landscape the way that I now know such a bond can happen. Instead, I bonded with Montana. In the process of hunting large mammals and foraging for huckleberries and gooseberries and wild mushrooms, I learned how to read landscapes. Now, wherever I go I find myself reflexively noting things like where north is, how a watershed drains, what kind of trees make up a particular forest, what the animal tracks look like, what the hoots and howls sound like. In the process of becoming native to Montana, I learned how to understand Massachusetts.

My children have similarly learned to read landscapes.  Put them in any airport, and they can find the parfait within seconds. So imagine the satisfaction of being able to prepare them home made, home-gathered parfait, which happens to mean “perfect” in French. Feeding them foraged parfait is a point of pride to me, like returning from a hunting trip with meat. But sweeter.

I came up with the recipe on the way back to my mom’s house with my berries. I stopped at the dolma store for granola and labne, a kind of extra-thick yogurt that’s like solid “cream on top.” The store didn’t stock any oats or granola, but I found a box of “petit-beurre”, a type of vanilla cookie from Nantes, France.  And I bought a carton of fresh strawberries from a local farm, as perfectly ripe as those mulberries.

Whether foraged in the hills or at the market or grown in your backyard, the strawberries are non-negotiable. They combine with the cookies to push this thing over the edge into shortcake territory, which is a good place to be.

Wherever you find yourself, be it for a day or a lifetime, you can use the quest for food as an opportunity to understand the landscape around you. Go find some berries, be it in a field, by a road, in the hills, by a river, in an alley or at the farmer’s market. Become native to where you are, even if you are only there for a visit. The process is its own reward, and the parfait will follow.

Foraged Parfait Shortcake

Any mix of berries will work, but they should include strawberries. Since most of us can’t find labne, use Greek yogurt.

2 servings

1 cup full fat Greek yogurt
½ cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon maple syrup
2 cups chopped strawberries
2 cups other berries, preferably blue in color
4-8 plain, sweet cookies
Wash, stem, trim,  and generally prepare your berries for consumption. Allow them to air dry.

Mix the yogurt, cream and syrup until totally smooth. Place a layer of berries in the bottom of each parfait glass. Add a layer of yogurt. Then start sliding in the cookies. Continue with alternating layers of berries and yogurt, adding cookies as you see fit. Finish with a bunch of berries on top. Let it sit for 30 minutes for the cookies to soften, and serve.

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