IN THE KITCHEN: Farm features hard-to-find berries

By Pat Tanner, Special Writer
   A Kendall Park backyard is not where you’d expect to find a berry farm, yet that is, in essence, what Michael Brown has established. And not just any berry farm: His Pitspone Farm specializes in hard-to-find elderberries, gooseberries, and red currants, as well as exotic or obscure berries such as goumi, juneberries, serviceberries, aronia (black chokeberry) and jostaberry (a cross between gooseberry and black currant).
   Last year Mr. Brown began selling some of these to chefs and eateries in Princeton, among them the bent spoon, elements, the Whole Earth Center, and Terra Momo Group restaurants, which include Mediterra and, in Kingston, Eno Terra.
   Although Pitspone berries are not available to the public, Mr. Brown does sell his naturally grown established plants, many of which, like the European elderberry, make attractive additions to home landscapes.
   Mr. Brown recently took me on a tour, explaining that he started out in 2007 with what he hoped would be a model for a small, viable suburban farm growing niche produce like heirloom tomatoes and squash blossoms.
   ”These really weren’t available locally back then. Now, everyone is doing those. So every year I try to grow what is new. My advantage is proximity. I can harvest pea shoots or alpine strawberries — which have a short shelf life — and have them to the Princeton restaurants in 20 minutes.”
   He made the switch to berries last year.
   ”I began growing on about one-tenth of an acre,” he says, and estimates that his backyard is, in total, about two-thirds of an acre, the majority of which is now dedicated to the farm.
   The name Pitspone, he says, is “a play on the Hebrew word for ‘very small.’ It was kind of an inside joke. It’s a big garden, really.” In any case, neighbors do not complain because it is fenced in and because Mr. Brown employs neither power equipment nor chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
   Mr. Brown, 56, grew up in Kendall Park, and then moved to Israel, returning to Kendall Park in 1989.
   ”After coming back, I missed having backyard fruits, so I grew (and sold) some fig trees,” he says of his beginning. Pitspone Farm is a sideline that provides summer income for Mr. Brown, who is a middle school librarian in Marlboro.
   He says he loves experimenting, and among his current projects are mara de bois strawberries
   ”It’s a French gourmet strawberry prized for its texture, fragrance, and taste”, he says.
   Rosa rugosa, he says, has edible petals as well as hips, and jujube is popular in China. He also is experimenting with six or so varieties of serviceberries, which he says are “similar in taste to blueberries.”
   He doesn’t grow just one type of gooseberry — the standard green one — he’s experimenting with Black Velvet, Hinnomaki (a red gooseberry), and a hybrid that produces “giant” berries — one so new that the U.S. government, which supplied the sample, doesn’t even have a name for it; it’s simply labeled CSFR.
   Mr. Brown says he feels strongly that homeowners should consider adding more kinds of berry shrubs to their landscape and gardens.
   Aronia (black chokeberry), he says, “are nicely shaped and interesting even in the fall, when its foliage is bright red-orange. Its berries are pleasantly astringent and packed with antioxidants. Best of all, because of their astringency, they’re low on the totem pole as far as birds wanting to eat them. Yet they lose their astringency when baked or juiced.”
   Elderberries are prized for both their flowers and berries, and are used to make cordials (St. Germaine is a commercial variety), wines, and even fritters.
   On the day of my visit, the European elderflowers (he grows both European and American varieties) were in bloom.
   ”They’ve grown 7 feet tall in three years,” he says.
   Although Pitspone Farm does not sell berries directly to the public, I did notice that last summer gooseberries and red currants began popping up at area farmers markets, so I’m offering two very traditional, very easy recipes that employ each one.
   The recipes differ in that summer pudding is attractive while groset fool is, well, homey — at least when made with gooseberries, which render this creamy, custard-like concoction a pale gray-green. When made with raspberries, as it sometimes is, it turns a pretty pink. “Groset,” by the way, is Scots dialect for gooseberry.
   Summer pudding — originally a way for British housewives to use up stale bread — has a pretty dome shape and should be made with at least two kinds of berries or fruit. Because red currants are by tradition one of them, the dessert usually turns out bright pink or pinkish purple. I was surprised to find a recipe by Emeril Lagasse, but it’s a good one. Note that he uses an eggy bread like challah or brioche, but a true homestyle white is customary.
   1 loaf homemade style white bread, such as challah or brioche, crusts removed
   6 to 8 cups assorted summer fruit, such as blueberries, strawberries, red currants, black currants, red or golden raspberries, and/or small plums, rinsed well and drained, and large fruit (i.e. strawberries/plums) halved or quartered
   ½ to 1 cup sugar, depending on sweetness of fruit, plus ¼ cup
   2 tablespoons ruby port or brandy
   1 pint heavy cream
    Line a large bowl (about 6- to 8-cup capacity) with plastic wrap. Cut the bread into diagonal halves and arrange them, puzzle-like, into the bottom and up the sides of the bowl.
   In a large saucepan, heat the fruit, sweetening with sugar and port and cook until the fruit is tender and beginning to burst, but still holds its shape, about five minutes (less for small berries). Remove from the heat and cool slightly. Using a slotted spoon, spoon the fruit into the bread-lined bowl, and spoon most of the juices over the fruit. Reserve the remaining cooking juices.
   Top the fruit with a flat layer of the remaining bread, so that the fruit is completely covered. Cover with the plastic wrap and place a plate over the top. Add 2 heavy cans or a 2-pound weight to the plate and refrigerate for at least eight hours or overnight.
   In a large bowl, whip the cream until soft peaks just begin to form. Add the 1/4-cup sugar and whip until almost stiff.
   To serve, remove the weights and plate and unwrap. Place a large serving plate on top of the bowl and gently invert. Shake gently to release the pudding onto the plate and remove the plastic wrap. Spoon the reserved fruit juices over the top and serve with sweetened whipped cream.
   Serves six to eight.
(Gooseberry Cream)
British and Irish Cooking
(Garland Books; ‘Round the World
Cooking Library 1972)
Note: A recipe on the blog “Hungriness” mixes elderflower cordial (i.e. St. Germaine) into the whipped cream instead of vanilla extract. Brilliant! – p.t.
    1 pound fresh gooseberries
   ¼ cup water
   ½ cup sugar
   1¼ cups heavy cream
   ¼ cup sugar
   1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    Place berries in a saucepan, add water and ½ cup sugar and cook over low heat until fruit is soft. Force the fruit through a strainer to remove the seeds. Allow pureed fruit to cool. Whip the cream until almost stiff. Beat in the ¼ cup sugar and vanilla and fold the cream into the fruit puree. Chill four hours.
   Serves four.
Pat Tanner blogs at