While many of our area blueberry farms are starting to take down their signs and wrap-up another season, our neighbors a few roads away, Wanda and Cliff Bonnell's Blueberry Farm in North Judson is still picking in a blue paradise.
"We are really just hitting our top picking point for the best berries," Wanda told me on Monday, when I stopped by for a visit.
"The bushes are loaded with sweet clusters of good-sized berries, so it makes for easy picking."
They started this season around the Fourth of July and plan to finish up Labor Day weekend, which is perfect timing since this year's Blueberry Festival in Plymouth, Ind. in neighboring Marshall County is Labor Day Weekend.
Wanda and husband Cliff have been married for 54 years and have operated their blueberry farm for 40 years, with the help of their two daughters and a son.
The farm was originally owned by the Adams Family and Wanda said many of the blueberry picking bushes are more than 60 years old.
"We have a total of around 10 acres of bushes and they are the Jersey blueberry variety, a late berry known to be the sweetest and have the best flavor," Wanda said.
"Everyone is amazed that our bushes are 60 years old and offer such yields. But it all has to do with careful pruning and care of the bushes. And we don't believe in using any herbicides."
The picking price at Bonnell's Farm is $1.50 a pound "U-pick" and $2.50 a pound for "Pre-picked." FYI: (574) 896-5365.
In addition to his farming, husband Cliff worked as a stern fourth- and fifth-grade teacher for 35 years and was my fifth-grade basketball coach. (My mom, who in later years worked as a teachers' aide across the hall from his classroom, said parents would often request Mr. Bonnell's class for their children because he was both a good teacher and strong disciplinarian.)
In addition to the low wet ground on their farm, Wanda is also thankful for the "hardest workers in their employ," which are the 15 colonies of honeybees they own. To make sure every blossom is tended to, the Bonnells also arrange for another 50 colonies of bee hives to visit for a short stay to assure proper pollination.
As I've written in previous columns, At the Bonnell Farm, Wanda is particularly proud of her recipe for homemade, smooth and clear blueberry jelly, a product which she says many culinarians say is impossible. Though recipes for blueberry jam and preserves are plentiful, blueberry jelly is an accomplishment that has eluded others.
Wanda, whose blueberry jelly sets up perfectly, doesn't even include any of the usual gelatin-based additives to assure thickening. She told me it's not needed and her recipe is simply 5-1/2 cups strained blueberry juice, 1/4 cup crabapple juice and 3 cups sugar cooked to boiling and poured into sterilized jars and sealed.
I've long been after Wanda to share her recipe for homemade fruit pectin, which saves a fortune during our busy jelly, jam and preserves season, compared to having to pay $8 a box in stores for commercial brands. Today, she is finally sharing it with readers. Like many of the fruit-laden branches of plentiful apples we have to look forward to this fall, crabapple trees (the key ingredient for making pectin) are also in fine form for 2013. Pectin has been prized for centuries for not only the food preservation process, but also for making medicines. Kaopectate, prized for decades to treat indigestion, nausea and stomach as a predecessor to today's more popular Pepto-Bismol, is of course created from fruit pectin. It's one of the reasons applesauce is so often given to children with upset stomachs. Crabapples contain 1.5 percent concentrated levels of pectin, which is very tart.
How sour is fruit pectin? When Lucille Ball shot the 1952 episode of "I Love Lucy" called "Lucy Does a TV Commercial," she had to take heaping teaspoons from bottles of a health elixir she was promoting called "Vitameatavegamin." After every taste, she would make the most awful faces before forcing a swallow. It's because producers used a bottle of fruit pectin as the prop for the elixir syrup.
Wanda also reminds readers not to use the fruit from "ornamental flowering" crabapple trees popular in today's landscaping.
Homemade Fruit Pectin
5 pounds whole crabapples
Water (enough to cover apples)
Glass quart canning jars
DIRECTIONS: Remove any leaves from the stems of the crabapples. Otherwise, the crabapples should be left whole with skin and even stems intact. Place apples (more or less apple may be used depending on the amount of pectin desired) in a large kettle or simmering pot. Add enough water to cover the apples and simmer over a medium heat for 15 minutes, being watchful that apples remain whole and do not become too mushy. (As Wanda warns, you do NOT want applesauce!) After 15 minutes, once apples seem depleted of juices, remove from heat and strain-off the juice-like liquid into sterilized glass quart canning jars and allow to cool before capping with lids. Use 1/4 cup of the homemade pectin in place of commercial brands called for in recipes.