The entire state of Oregon is abuzz in July with the annual harvest of the marionberry. Do not confuse this fruit with deceased Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry; we’re talking about the sweet-tart and juicy oblong-shaped large blackberries named after Marion County, Oregon. ¶Marionberries are a hybrid varietal of two common types of blackberry — the chehalem berry and olallieberry — first developed in 1948 by Dr. George Waldo. Where’s Waldo, you ask? The better question is: “Who’s Waldo?” The Oregon State University scientist was an agricultural expert and breeder who was also known for the Hood strawberry, a standard-bearer for juicy Oregon strawberries. He died in 1985, leaving behind quite the sweet legacy. ¶Maybe you’re also wondering, where is Marion County? You’ll find it smack dab between Portland and Eugene in the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s vast appellation known for producing world-renowned pinot noir wine. The region’s sandy soil and gentle spring rains create the same conditions that are ideal for growing the fickle pinot noir grape as the ones favored by the thriving marionberry industry, which comprises dozens of family-owned farms. ¶Carefully calibrated machines harvest only the ripest marionberries (thorny stalks prevent hand harvesting). This technique differs from the mass harvesting practices for other berries, such as raspberries and the common blackberry, ensuring superior quality. ¶Even though marionberries are almost exclusively grown in Marion County, these aromatic berries with deep, earthy black fruit flavor and perfectly balanced acidity are beloved throughout Oregon, where they have the moniker “the king of berries.” ¶Whether you have a hankering for fresh marionberries out of hand or spinning them into pies, crisps, and cobblers, churning them into ice cream or cooking them down as a sauce to enjoy with your favorite cut of meat, you’re sure to flip your lid for these succulent berries once they are processed and canned for jams, preserves, and pie fillings. ¶Their very short harvest — just a four-week window between July and August — coupled with the fact that they were bred for flavor rather than durability mean these prized Oregon beauties are difficult to ship fresh. But don’t feel bereft. You can enjoy marionberry preserves slathered over scones or pancakes, or swirled into yogurt. And sweet marionberry preserves are a fantastic accompaniment to a snazzy cheeseboard set with an array of sharp cheeses. Or try marionberry cream cheese tortas with savory crackers for a memorable appetizer.
Theresa Gambacorta is a food writer and 25-year veteran of New York City's restaurant industry. Her writing has appeared in such titles as La Cucina Italiana, Men's Fitness, Muscle and Fitness, and Centennial's special interest publications. She is the co-author of chef Joey Campanaro's Big Love Cooking (Chronicle) and is currently working on a cookbook about Persian cuisine to be published by Knopf.