M is for mash, Or marish or mish, A wet, grassy spot where your rubbers go squish. With blackflies and bog Aunt Bertha will grapple Whenever she goes there To pick the bakeapple.
-A Second Newfoundland Folk Alphabet
I’d head about bakeapple before coming to Newfoundland. It’s a word that catches your eye. The very sound of it is delicious.
But bakeapple has nothing to do with baking or with apples. It’s a berry that grows in certain places in colder latitudes.
“It’s called bakeapple because when the sun shines, it smells like apple pie,” said Martin Foley, owner of the Gannet’s Nest Restaurant and RV Resort. (“Resort” being used loosely here.)
He should know since his Irish forebears landed on this remote and foggy coast of Newfoundland some 300 years ago.
Martin likes bakeapple all right, but his favorite Newfoundland berry is partridgeberry.
You see, regular stuff doesn’t grow in Newfoundland. You won’t find locally grown tomatoes or sweet corn. You won’t find 0rchards of cherry and peach trees cloaking these rocky hillsides.
What Newfoundland has in abundance, however, are wild berries. Berries that you’ve never heard of, like crowberry, squashberry, and partridgeberry, as well as some that you have, like blackberry, blueberry, and raspberry. Rhubarb also grows wild. No one plants this stuff here–they just go out on the marsh and pick them.
I was on a hunt for bakeapple.
My first close encounter was on the drive across the island on the Trans-Canada highway when I spotted a hand-scrawled sign beside the road. A quarter-mile farther, a small motorhome was parked beside a card table covered in jam jars.
Mary Birklund was an older woman who was nicely coiffed with makeup and jewelry for a hot day selling homemade jam by the highway. She began talking almost before I got out of the truck. She told me about her recent overnight in a hotel and how the air conditioner was broken and how hot it was. I heard about the difficulty of getting a relative to the airport and how he missed his flight. She talked about her new husband. The silent Norwegian waved from the doorway of the motorhome.
“But Ah’m a NewfoundLANDer,” she said.
She also talked about picking bakeapple.
“See the bogland there,” she said with an expansive wave of her arm. “That’s what they grows on. You go out to the mahshes and picks ’em. But they’re all gone now it’s been so hot –all dried up on the mahshes. We had to drive three hours just to find them.
“The oder berries is easy, but bakeapple, oy god, them’s hard. They got this big old shuck you have to pull out of every one.”
“So, what’s your favorite?” I asked.
“Oh, the bakeapple. I loves the bakeapple. The oders you can put on toast bread, but the bakeapple I puts in a bowl with sugar and mashes it up and eats it just like that.”
But a little jar of that elusive bakeapple was $10 while a little jar of partridgeberry jam was half that. I am very Scotch, so I bought the partridgeberry and decided to wait on the bakeapple, since I figure that delayed gratification makes the object of desire so much sweeter.
Mary was still talking when I said good bye. She was still talking when I walked away.
Days later, on the west coast of the island in a tiny grocery store in the middle of Gros Morne National Park I found it. There on the counter were three pint-sized jars of bakeapple, handpicked and locally canned. (They call it “bottled” in Newfoundland.) I bought one and returned with my treasure to the campsite.
Bakeapple is a big, puffy berry, like a raspberry on steriods. When it’s ripe, it turns a beautiful golden amber. Some describe the taste of bakeapple as like honey or apricots, but I think that’s what its color suggests.
The taste is hard to describe. It’s lightly sweet and delicate. But the most noticeable thing about bakeapple is the seeds. It has large, crunchy seeds, so you can’t be discreet when you eat it. You will sound like you are chewing rocks. You will have a hard time carrying on a conversation because of the crunching in your ear. I think bakeapple tastes good, but I couldn’t quite get to the taste because I was trying to figure out what to do with the clump of masticated seeds in my mouth.
The final goal in my search for bakeapple was Dark Tickle.
A tickle in Newfoundland is a narrow channel–one that “tickles” both sides of a boat that passes through. I guess a dark tickle would be one that’s mostly in the shade.
The Dark Tickle I was looking for is located at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula where icebergs from Greenland float by in spring and humpback whales frolic in summer. This is the company that makes jams and spreads and chutneys and what-have-you from all the Newfoundland berries. This is as commercial as you get in Newfoundland.
I’d been seeing Dark Tickle products in stores throughout the island, but I had to go to St. Lunaire-Griquet at the far northern tip of Newfoundland to find where it was coming from.
Dark Tickle describes itself as offering “a taste of the unique, handpicked wild berries of Newfoundland,” and the Knudsen family has done a bang-up job of producing and distributing those products with attractive packaging and a distinctive logo.
“There’s still a tradition of picking here, so people pick for us and for each other,” said Kier Knudsen, the son of Dark Tickle founders. The company buys berries from about 100 pickers from all over the island. Bakeapple, however, “is very expensive and hard to pick. A gallon of the berries goes for about $60.”
The same price as morel mushrooms here in swampy Michigan.
Dark Tickle is one of a handful of Canadian Economuseés, which means it is a company that engages in a traditional craft and that educates people about it. At Dark Tickle, visitors can watch jam being made or they can wander around the boardwalk and see native Newfoundland plants, including the various berries, that grow behind the store. It also sells a quality selection of handmade Newfoundland products.
Squashberry is Kier’s favorite jam.
On my last day in Newfoundland, I hit berry paydirt, so to speak. On a farewell hike to the beach at the provincial park where we had camped to wait for our return sailing, I found patches of raspberry and blueberry, partridgeberry and crowberry, blackberry, and serviceberry. I ate them all, filling myself with the taste of Newfoundland
Partridgeberry is my favorite, but I never got to taste the squashberry.