a few weeks back, Current Editor Elaine Wolff asked me to write about Agarita Mania. Yippeee! I thought. I get to tell everyone about this little-known annual ritual, one in which I have lovingly participated for the past few years. What makes Agarita Mania so special is the opportunity for good friends to get together, celebrate, and pass down the tradition of jelly-making using a native Texas fruit.
The full Mania experience consists of seeking out and harvesting bags of agarita berries in the late spring and early summer, then winnowing them, washing them, boiling them, straining the juice, adding the sugar, cooking the juice to the gelling point, and then pouring the jelly into sterilized Mason jars. The entire process takes a good weekend, but it’s well worth the pain and tedium every time you open a jar and spread the delectable jelly on a slice of toast or a good homemade biscuit.
Agarita is not just the name of a street in Monte Vista. It is a very prickly, indigenous, fruit-bearing evergreen shrub, similar to holly, that grows all over central and west Texas. In late spring, the shrub produces an abundant crop of tart-sweet red berries. The agarita has a rich history in native Texan lore. According to my old high-school Texas-history teacher, Miss Ippy, early settler wives regularly swatted the spiny branches across the rumps of their drunken husbands. This agarita-whuppin’ not only inspired the men to go to church and repent their misbehavin’ ways, but was also one of the first recorded methods for collecting the bright red berries.
At 9 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, Agarita Mania Maestro Mike Casey called: “Hey, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal, get to my house. It’s agarita season, and we’re going berry-picking.” I was thrilled, if slightly hungover — we had been dancing to the DJ sounds par excellence of John Mata and Daft Punk at Mike’s house only two hours earlier.
By the time we arrived at the ranch/berry ground, the group we were meeting had already begun drinking Champagne and relaxing by the pool. If it weren’t for Mike’s persistence, I don’t think a single berry would have been collected. But we mustered and gathered our hats, gloves, bags, bug repellent, sun screen, and water bottles, and set off down the road, to where a vast growth of bushes ripe with berries awaited us. We spread out and began gathering berries using a number of methods. We started with Mike’s approach: Pick the berries a handful at a time. This is the slowest, most painful method, but probably allows for the best pick of the berries from the branch. I would hear an ouch here, a yelp there, and a range of expletives brought on by the constant pricking of fingertips on the spiny leaves.
Inevitably, one begins to think up alternative modus operandi. About 20 minutes into our Mania, I heard fellow picker Niles Chumney’s voice off in the distance, declaring, “I’ve come up with a new technique; everyone try this: Hold the branch over the collecting bag and snap it with your middle finger.” He demonstrated: The sudden snapping of the branch shook the berries free and right into the bag. Erick, another friend and novice berry-picker, and I found that an improvised version of Niles’s method was even more effective: A sudden but sharp whack to the branch with a small but sturdy stick produced better results. By the end of the day, we were all using the stick-and-whack method, and had collected beaucoup berries. There is nothing that makes an Agarita Maniac happier then a heaping bag of agarita treasure.
On a second visit to the ranch that Memorial weekend, a number of us went out to collect more berries. Our host and ranch owner Chris Hill prefers the bed-sheet and stick method. You place a bed sheet under the shrub and precede to beat the hell out of it, literally stripping the bush of every last berry. Sounds fun, right? This is an extremely effective technique — until you get to the next step in Agarita Mania, which is the winnowing.
Some Agarita Maniacs feel that gathering the tiny berries from among the prickly leaves is the hardest part, but to me, winnowing is the most tedious step. This is the process by which all the detritus — the spiny leaves, broken twigs, dead berries, bugs, etc. — has to be separated from all the good berries. It pains me to even write about it; there seems to be no efficient approach. The tried-and-true technique is to pour the berries onto a sheet or flat surface, then shake or vibrate the surface while using a high-speed fan to blow the lighter-weight debris away from the heavier plump berries. This works in theory, but usually one just resorts to separating it all by hand. Keep in mind that the batch doesn’t have to be perfectly clean, because the next step is to wash the berries and cook off their juice.
Once winnowed, the berries are separated into manageable batches, thoroughly washed, and washed again. (What you decide not to turn into jelly that day can be frozen for a later Mania moment.) Now comes the cooking of the berries: A large stockpot is filled with the produce; enough water is added to fill the pot just to the top of the berries. This mixture is brought to a boil, and then lowered to a simmer for 30 minutes or so. The cooked berries are strained through cheesecloth to collect the ruby-red juice.
Finally, it’s time the make the jelly itself. Mike has determined that six cups of berry juice to four cups of sugar is the best ratio for making six perfect 8-ounce jars of jelly. Again the mixture is boiled in a stockpot, until it slightly exceeds 220ºF. This thickened liquid is then ready to be funneled into sterile jelly jars.
Now comes the anticipation as you wait until the next morning to sample the fruit of your labor.
Agarita bushes are available at most finer nurseries that specialize in native Texas plants — or simply prevail upon a friend with a little country property. Suggested items recommended for proper berry-picking: long pants, long-sleeved shirt, a good hat, canvas or leather garden gloves, bug repellent, sun screen, water, a sturdy bag or large bucket to collect the berries, an old bed sheet, a good stick, some tenacity, and a lot of patience. •
Notable Berry-picking Quotes:
“Mike, these thin latex gloves don’t really work.”
“Within just a few hours we went from tediously and painfully plucking the individual berries by hand like apes to beating clumps of berries into buckets with sticks like Neanderthals. We had evolved, and it was good.”
“The best thing about the weekend was the satisfaction of being involved in the entire production cycle — old-school style.”
“The sheet I used under the bushes to collect the berries now looks like it came off of a matrimonial mattress!”
“There sure are a lot of stink bugs in my bag; they must really like these berries.”
“Pick first, vodka later.”
“Is there a machine that we could rent to do this?”
“What I have to say about Agarita Mania is that it is not very contagious.”
“The first time we caught Agarita Mania `it was` at the Gallagher Ranch, and a friend of Chris Hill left as we were starting to go gathering berries, but said that he would like to buy a jar of jelly. Our response was, ‘You can’t afford it.’”