Thurmont -- I am fickle about blackberries. I like them. Then I don't. The other day, for instance, I bought a box of blackberries at a roadside stand in the mountains of Western Maryland.
I spotted the stand, called Catoctin Mountain Orchard Inc. Roadside Market, while driving along Route 15 just outside Thurmont.
The market sat next to an orchard, and the rows of fruit trees stretched up toward the mountains. It was scenic. Inside the market there was also a lot to look at. My eyes darted from boxes of fresh blueberries to blackberries to cantaloupe to red and yellow plums to peaches. This stand -- which I later learned is operated by Harry Black, his son Robert and his daughter, Patricia Black Runkels -- only sells fruit that the family grows.
At first I was going to buy a box of blueberries, but while standing in line waiting to pay for the blueberries, some blackberries about the size of silver dollars caught my eye. I switched from blueberries to blackberries.
As I walked out the door I popped one of the fresh blackberries in my mouth. It was sweet, and I am a sucker for sweet fruit.
Later I learned that Harry Black, the 74-year-old patriarch of the orchard, prefers to eat blackberries raw. "I like to pull them off the vine and eat them," said Black when I talked with him by telephone. Black said he had been growing fruit in Western Maryland for the last 50 years.
Eating blackberries is enjoyable, Black said, but picking them can be painful. Some of the older blackberry bushes have thorns. When you pick berries from these bushes the thorns "almost reach out and grab you," he said, adding "nothing sticks like a blackberry thorn."
Blackberries from prickly bushes are usually harvested by professional pickers. But Black said there are now thorn-free varieties of the bush for folks who want to pick their own.
Thanks to modern science, I could, Black said, pick my own blackberries from late July until the end of summer and not get gouged. I told him thanks, but I prefer my blackberries in a box, not on a bush -- even ones that have been tamed by science.
Blackberries have their followers, Black said. They aren't as numerous as the strawberry pickers or as zealous as the fresh raspberry crowd, but folks who grew up eating blackberries, he said, feel they must have fresh berries every summer.
Black said it looks like a good year for blackberries. "So far, this has been a wonderful crop," he said.
Blackberries have few enemies in nature, according to Black. "Birds don't bother them," he said. But Japanese beetles have a taste for sweet fruit, he said, especially blackberries.
I put my box of blackberries in the car, and took a slow, scenic route from Thurmont to Baltimore. By the time I got home, I had a plan. I would cajole my wife, a skilled dessert maker, into making a blackberry tart.
I found a recipe for a blackberry tart in Janie Hibler's cookbook, "Dungeness Crabs and Blackberry Cobbler" (Knopf, $23). I consider Janie a friend. Having eaten many wonderful desserts in her Portland, Ore., home, I feel qualified to say that strawberries, blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries should consider her a friend as well.
So I figured with fresh berries and a good recipe, we were in good shape. Then I sabotaged the tart. I turned off the oven as the tart was baking.
I am not sure why. Maybe it was some deep-seated subconscious resistance to blackberries. Maybe I don't like blackberry seeds. Maybe I just did something stupid. Before we sat down to dinner I checked to make sure the stove burners were off. In a fit of switch-flipping, I turned off the oven. The tart ended up being cooked twice, once for about 15 minutes. Then, after a pause of 30 minutes, the tart cooked for about an hour.
It came out looking great. But at first it tasted too sweet. My wife and I figured that since the blackberries were full of natural sugar, we should have cut back on the one cup of sugar the recipe called for. My little trick with the oven might have changed the taste of the tart as well.
That night I wasn't very fond of blackberries. The next morning, however, the tart didn't taste nearly as sweet as it had the night before. The fruit flavor increased. A piece of blackberry tart with a cup of black coffee got the day off to good start. A second piece got me off to work. So I am back in the blackberry camp, which is probably where I will stay for a while, at least until the tart is gone.