By Mark Wieser
It is approaching the 1st of May so if you are among the fortunate who live in the country you might have shrubs that have leaves much like holly. If you are a rancher, you most likely wished you didn’t have them at all. These are Agaritas. Many call them algeritas or something like that.
The Agarita fruit is very small and rather reddish. If eaten right off the bush, you would find a lot of seeds inside. Almost every species of wildlife delights in their annual appearance. Of course, the seeds are not digested and pass right on through whatever ate them, thus spreading the seeds for more bushes to appear here and there—not something most ranchers appreciate. Nevertheless, our early German settlers took delight in this accidental bounty of the Texas Hill Country and made wine. Some made jelly, and this is where the process became work—separating the seeds from the pulp and juice.
Harvesting en masse was no fun as only the 11th edition of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book ever pointed out; the task was fairly difficult and painstaking as Mrs. Hardy Mosel wrote:
“In about the middle of May, the just-ripe berries are ‘beaten” out of the bush onto a tarp spread underneath. Take these to a convenient place where you can drop the contents, a little at a time, in front of a running fan so that most of the leaves are blown away. Then wash the berries, pick completely clean.”
Agarita jelly was among the first jams and jellies I wanted to make and sell upon opening das Peach Haus. Mrs. Forest Reese, Sr. had given me permission to cut the Agarita bushes’ long stems off the plants on her ranch near Bulverde, Texas as she did not want them growing there. Incidentally, this was the first task for which I hired a young freshman at FHS, Case Fischer, to help me with. He attributes that as his first experience in seeing what happiness customers derived from buying a unique product harvested and then produced. From that day forward, he was enthralled.
Wearing heavy gloves and with loppers we cut the branches and brought them to a large, staked plastic sheet. Using a short 3-foot piece of PVC we simply held the branches over the tarp and beat the limbs. The berries fell onto the tarp. A lot of insects, as well. They simply scurried off by the time we poured them into our 5-gallon buckets. A few chiggers seemed to find us.
Back home I had a stand to which I had mounted an 18” diameter cylinder, about 5-feet in length. At its front end I attached a funnel, and by placing a fan below it I was able to winnow or blow away the leaves and remaining trash. Typically, by winnowing them twice, we had very clean berries ready for rinsing and our next step – mashing and straining. This is where that little cone shaped strainer and its stand that you might have found among your grandmother’s kitchen utensils came in so handy. With its cone-shape and a wooden tool, you simply dropped the clean berries into it and mashed them with the wooden implement. It was simply great for removing seeds and thick skins of small berries and fruits for making jelly while the juice strained into a container below. This process however, could waste a lot of valuable juice and pulp
Had I not had the opportunity to travel to Europe in ’64 to meet my aunt I would never have been introduced to a Safter (juicer), an ingenious home fruit steamer. After watching my aunt juice currents and gooseberries which were native to her area of Germany, I became so impressed with the process that I shipped one home. Case and I probably bought another half-dozen sets for use in our early manufacturing. Today one can readily purchase them on-line.
These steamers work efficiently using steam to extract all the juice, color, and flavor from any fruit. The normal time required is about one hour before all the water boils away. This process yields about a ½ gallon of juice from about ½ bushels of berries or fruit. This juice is concentrated, meaning one could add an equal amount of water for making jelly. One gallon of this made approximately 50 half-pints of jelly. We sold thousands of jars of Agarita Jelly back then—today not so many. Most folks have no idea what a great taste they are missing.
Soon it will be agarita harvest time. Treat yourself to an old-fashioned taste (or stop by Das Peach Haus to try this tasty treat!
To every 4 cups juice add 4 cups sugar.
1 T lemon juice
1 pkg Surejell™
1 T unsalted butter
Bring contents to a rolling boil—one that cannot be stirred down.
Using a Pyrex™ measuring cup dip and pour directly into ½ pint jars.
Seal each ½ pint jar as you go and invert onto their lids.
After about the third jar begin setting the first upright.
Leave untouched to cool.