Nearly three decades after an artisanal northern Michigan preserves company puzzled out how to produce thimbleberry jam for retail sale, the Pacific Northwest still hasn't produced a commercial counterpart.
While American Spoon's Wild Thimbleberry Jam - which picked up a Good Food Award last year and was recently named a finalist in the 2013 contest - has been on the market for 29 years, I first sampled it last month at Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, where an eight-ounce jar sells for $29 ("by far the most precious and costly fruit in America," Zingerman's mail order catalog concludes.) The jam is outstanding, and notoriously difficult to describe: If you imagine a burly raspberry jam with an almost fuzzy mouthfeel, you're partway there, but that doesn't quite capture the jam's specific aroma and distinctive floral character.
"There's nothing else like it," says company spokesperson Megan Feely, who formerly worked in American Spoon's retail store. "People would always ask 'what's that?' I remember thinking the first time I tasted it that it tasted like roses smell. The seeds have their own flavor and texture, kind of a crisp thing going on."
American Spoon isn't the only Michigan-based outfit making thimbleberry jam: A Michigan Tech University graduate student who examined the thimbleberry jam industry found three specialized thimbleberry jam producers and 10 "informal thimbleberry jam producers" in the state's Upper Peninsula, collectively producing nearly 1500 cases of jam annually.
The thimbleberry belt runs west from Michigan to Washington, where the fragile red berries have found a fan in local forager Langdon Cook. "I love thimbles!," Cook writes. A few years ago, Cook made a batch of thimbleberry jam for Christmas gifts, which suggests how exotic the plant's considered on this coast.
Rebecca Staffel of Seattle's Deluxe Foods, who's now making a foraged mountain ash and rose hips jam, says she's never amassed enough thimbleberries to preserve.
Various attempts to cultivate thimbleberries have failed, and foraging's complicated by bushes with relatively sparse bunches of berries; a shelf life that Cook describes as "like three seconds"; and - at least in Michigan - competition from bears.
Current production is 2000 jars a year. According to American Spoon owner Justin Rashid, "the jam making is the easiest part."
Rashid 25 years ago contracted with an aging couple to gather thimbleberries for American Spoon. They've kept their collecting methods secret, since thimbleberry foraging represents one of the few money-making opportunities in a region where settlers can no longer make a living from copper or fur. When a New York Times reporter last year asked to shadow the pickers for a thimbleberry feature, the request was flatly refused.
Still, Feely clarifies that nobody's getting rich picking thimbles. The late-summer season only lasts a few weeks, and the best foragers work at a pace of 1.5 pounds/hour.
"The thimbleberry is wrapped in social aspects, not moneymaking," the Michigan Tech student said in his graduate defense. "Most people are not out there to maximize profit. They're there to enjoy themselves."
But Feely says the pickers are very aware that their fun could end quickly. To ward off bears, they wear bells on their shoes when they browse the eight-foot tall bushes, swiping delicate berries bound for a Michigan-made jampot.