Pimbina, that delicious stink bomb of a fruit
Also known as Squashberry, Mooseberry, or Highbush cranberry in English.
This native bush and berry is abundant in Quebec, but somehow off the radar, largely forgotten. A part of the scenery, country folk take pimbina for granted, rushing by on their snowmobiles, not realising how precious these berries were to their ancestors, not even noticing how delectable the deer and fox find them.
The problem may be that they are an acquired taste. They give off a sour, fruity smell with a hint of funk.. Kind of like a cranberry, but with a touch of something stinky that is hard to describe.. Is it musk? François says the odour brings to mind a lumberjack’s cabin and sweaty sock; his uncle mentions toe jam(?), I say blue cheese or vomit. Maybe I’m exaggerating; I happen to be particularly sensitive to sour smells. And the point of this post wasn’t to turn anyone off of putting a little pimbina in their pot, rather the contrary.
At this time of year, when every wild edible is resting or covered in snow, the only thing out in the woodlands to eat (besides snow and pine needles, wild life and a little sumac) is this striking berry - a blinding brilliant red on the pristine white backdrop. However enticing, it isn’t all that aromatic in the raw state and most certainly toxic, but on cooking, whoa, watch out – all those delectable aromas described above push forth, and then some. No snacking straight from the bush; but no fear, on the stove, this certainly smells like food. Magically transformed with some heat and a little sugar, it grabs you with its heady aroma – inviting and promising with the mix of fruit, umami, sweet and sour.. if not universally appealing like brownies or chicken soup.
Come to think of it, the squashberry probably wouldn’t get the time of day in summer when all those other easy-to-love berries are around, but thank God for that.. Because it is a jewel in winter, and no less tasty, just different.. It requires a little work is all. It doesn’t make your kitchen smell so terrific afterwards, but the final product, be it in coulis or jelly form, or even to infuse a sauce, is surprisingly delightful. Even ambrosial in a way that a truffle risotto or cheese fondue can be. Think noble rot.
Historically, this berry played an important role in traditional Quebec cooking (back when everyone was a ‘locavore’), introduced to Quebeckers by the aboriginals, who also used the bark medicinally. Infusions are claimed to sooth menstrual and other muscular cramps, preventing premature births and reducing blood pressure. It was rather more important to ‘pure laine’ Quebeckers in the form of pie, jelly, ketchup or wine. On tasting it in a dish at the restaurant, customers often light up, reminiscing about a late grandmother’s tarte au pimbina.. François’ uncle makes a jelly that sells like hotcakes at Christmas for turkey and tourtière.
It took me a couple of years to get over the smell in order to really appreciate and understand this fruit. The scientists say that this behaviour is normal by the way : programmed to be suspicious of something new, it typically takes 7+ experiences to pass the hump, subconsciously recognizing that a foreign substance is ok to like. In this case, it all paid off; I’m now an absolute fan, and have something local to be grateful for in winter.
Besides the locavore appeal, I choose it foremost for its uniqueness and complexity, for its versatility too. That it can conveniently be scooped up on cross-country skis is another bonus. Actually snow shoes are better because it likes to hang out in humid, lit patches on the edge of the forest, so in covered swamp land, on the edge of gulleys. They are best picked frozen, so in the fall after the first freeze (before the birds get them), or in the winter. François says if the winter isn’t too harsh and too much snow doesn’t fall so that the birds and foxes have something else to eat, there can be enough out there for pickings all winter. But it’s best to be safe and make your stores early season as we did. Anymore to be found like now, is icing on the cake. The critters only take it as a last resort because they don’t cook.
The squashberry works both in savoury and sweet; it has the proper chops to accompany a strong cheese, or even a mild one that is rich; it pairs nicely with poultry and pork, game meats and foie gras; it’s killer in desserts, especially those with chocolate or to punch up other red fruits in sweet confections or in vinaigrette. With apples too, in a pie, crumble, compote or sauce.
Once you get to know the squashberry, its weirdness fades fast, 'interesting' takes over, and it isn’t long before say a strawberry or raspberry or blueberry seems boring. New territory maybe but this is not a berry to brush off. Not many berries are meaty. There’s chicoutai (cloudberry), another stinky one; but like the cloudberry, this is a berry for grown ups, for Nordic types. The deep flavour and funky notes make it the perfect winter berry – hearty and satisfying. Just what the doctor ordered when it's cold and gray and you're aching for some depth and soul and major sensation to waive off the blahs. A hit of something pimbina will do the trick, trust me.
I wouldn’t want it for breakfast, though.