One of the great joys of prairie life is picking saskatoons.
The little purple berries ripen in early to mid-July, depending on how far north you are and what the weather has been like. They are the size and shape of wild blueberries, but otherwise they are completely different.
Saskatoons can be a little tough, but they are sweet and delicious. You can enjoy them right off the bush, but they really surrender their exquisite character when cooked. Saskatoon pie is one of the best things in the whole world. You can also throw them into pancake batter or bannock dough. Some make syrup, jelly or even wine from them.
A good stand of saskatoon bushes is a plentiful source of free food. The picking is easy – the bushes offer plenty of fruit right at eye level, you don’t have to stoop or stretch to get a basketful. The preferred method is with your basket (or a coffee can) on a string around your neck, leaving both hands free for picking, or one hand to bend a branch while the other gently pinches the berries off the twigs.
Harvesting saskatoons has been part of the annual cycle of food gathering for First Nations people since forever. They would eat them fresh, dry them, or pound them with dried buffalo meat and rendered fat to make pemmican - a nutritious, portable food that keeps for a long time without spoiling.
If you paddle north down the Athabasca River to Fort Chipewyan, you can visit the little church there whose interior is painted in rich, vibrant colours. The paints were made by the local First Nations people using fish oil and birds’ eggs mixed with the juice of blueberries, wild cranberries and saskatoons. It is astonishingly beautiful.
The humble saskatoon berry is much like the prairie landscape – its Spartan beauty is perhaps not obvious to outsiders. But the hardy little berries, like the prairies themselves, can sustain the body and spirit of those who love them.