|Berberis trifoliolata - the most common species found in Texas
Agaritas are ripe here in Central Texas, y'all! Quick, get out there and harvest them before the birds eat them all. Eat the red-ripe berries raw, seeds and all, or extract their juices to make wine, jelly, sauces, meat glazes and other creative dishes.
The story of grannies in long skirts and boots, beating agarita bushes with sticks to release the berries is commonly told throughout Texas. Indeed, the agarita berry is plentiful in Central, South and West Texas and is sweetly tart, making it an excellent candidate for nibbling trailside or collecting in large quantities for sauces, mixed drinks, juices, jellies, and wines.
Agarita blooms are one of the first sweet smells to enchant the hiker in early spring. Follow your nose to the tiny yellow flowers covering a small shrub distinguished by its tough, evergreen leaves with extra firm, spiny edges. Remember the shrub’s location, usually found on a fenceline or at the edge of the woods, and return in a few weeks to collect the tiny berries that ripen to a deep red.
When agarita berries are ripe, they can be plucked from the bush and eaten raw though the tender-fingered should beware. Harvesting the berries bare-handed is tricky. Large quantities of the berries can be collected by laying a sheet, kiddie pool, box or other container (preferably wide, rigid, and lipped) underneath the bush. Hold one or two limbs at a time and gently shake or whack it with a stick so that the berries fall into the container - ripe ones will fall easily. Once collected, the stems, leaves and other plant debris should be removed by winnowing in front of a fan, picking through by hand (again, not for the tender-fingered) or sifting through on a counter like you would sift through dried beans for rocks (this method was actually recommended by a Texas granny.) Washing and sifting can be done simultaneously by placing the harvest in a basin of water and then gently running your hands through the mixture - most of the debris will stick to your hand and the dirt will fall to the bottom of the basin. You can rinse your hands off and repeat as needed. When all the debris is removed, dry the berries on a towel.
Once the berries are washed, you can freeze them or prepare them. To extract their juices, cover the berries with hot water and let them soak for at least 30 minutes. Mash them with a potato masher and then pour the mixture through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth. The berries can also be blended with a bit of water, and then strained or they can be juiced using a standard juicer. Do not boil the berries since this will cause berberine, a bitter alkaloid, to be released. Fresh agaritas can be stored in the refrigerator for a day or two but are best used fresh or frozen for processing later. Agarita juice can also be frozen for up to a year.
Agarita Jelly Recipe
Makes 2 pints
Slightly tart and perfectly sweet, the soft-red colored agarita jelly is a Texas treat on everything from biscuits to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
4 c agaritas
1 package of pectin
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
¾ c sugar per cup of agarita juice
Place agaritas in a bowl or pan and pour hot water over the berries just until covered. Let sit for 30 minutes then mash vigorously with a potato masher to release the juices. Strain through cheesecloth or a jelly bag and squeeze thoroughly to extract all of the juices. Measure and pour the juice into a pot and add the pectin and lemon juice. Bring to a boil then add ¾ c sugar per cup of agarita juice and stir constantly. Bring to a boil for 2-4 minutes. Test the liquid to see if it will gel by taking a spoonful out, letting it cool, and then pouring it back in. If some of liquid runs together into a sticky sheet, it’s ready to gel. Pour the hot liquid into sterilized jars, place the caps and rings on tightly and boil in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Note: This recipe does not make a lot of jelly so if you plan on eating it within a few weeks, you don't need to can it and process in a hot water bath. Simply put in in airtight containers and store it in your refrigerator.