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The enduring allure of ripe, juicy berries

(ran NP edition)

A hunter I'm not, but gathering, especially when it comes to berries, has delighted me since I was a child.

When I was small I could reach the heavily laden lower branches better than grown-ups and could plunder the half-hidden clusters on blueberry and raspberry bushes.

One berry for me and two for the bucket or maybe the other way around. There was never any concern about pesticides or herbicides because these bushes were wild, flourishing along the roadside in Long Island and upstate New York.

As an adult I have recaptured those joyous moments of picking and nibbling on occasion, especially with my children when they were young, and on a trip to Alaska, where wild raspberries and their tasty pale cousins, salmonberries, grow profusely.

Yet, even berries in the market have an irresistible attraction, especially in late summer, when so many ripe and delicious varieties compete for attention.

With some berries, like raspberries and blackberries, there is good reason to eat without delay, as anyone can attest who has purchased a precious half-pint in a market only to find the bottom layer fuzzy with mold. Raspberries should be intact, with a soft, slightly downy look, while blackberries should be plump and glossy.

To be assured of buying the freshest, go to a farm stand or green market and look for baskets unprotected by cellophane or plastic, a sure sign that the berries were picked no more than a day before and not shipped a great distance.

Take them home, refrigerate them and use them by evening after picking them over and giving a quick rinse. Some recipes call for forcing berries through a sieve to remove the seeds before making a sauce, but they are beautiful uncooked in a tart, and they also hold up extremely well in baked desserts, including custards, crisps, cobblers, pies and muffins.

Blueberries are not only easier to pick _ no thorns or stooping _ but also much sturdier, and always look for blueberries with a pale bluish bloom, which indicates that they are fresh. This natural protective coating begins to disappear as the berries sit around.

Cultivated blueberries are usually fairly large; wild ones, as well as huckleberries, are smaller and more intensely flavored.

Blueberries are excellent for baking and are delicious lightly sweetened and splashed with gin.

Tiny fraises des bois, as red or white Alpine strawberries are called, are also harvested throughout the summer, but you may need a bank loan to buy them.

Summer Pudding

1 1-pound loaf good quality thinly sliced white sandwich bread

1{ cups sugar

Juice of 1 lemon

3 pints mixed fresh berries, including raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and, if available, currants

2 tablespoons berry-flavored eau de vie, like framboise

1 cup heavy cream, whipped

Remove crusts from bread and arrange slices, trimming them to shape or cutting them in half, to line a 2-quart mixing bowl completely. Press bread into bottom and sides, leaving no gaps (the slices can overlap slightly around sides of bowl). Save enough bread and any trimmings, including crusts, for covering the top.

Place sugar in heavy 2-quart saucepan over low heat. Stir in lemon juice. When sugar has melted, add berries. Stir gently with wooden spoon and cook 5-8 minutes until all of the sugar has dissolved and the berries have given up their juices and are soft but still hold their shape. They should be in a rich deep red syrup. Add the eau de vie.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer berries to the bread-lined bowl. Pour all but about cup of the syrup over the berries. The bowl should be nearly filled. Fit reserved bread over the top, using the crusts if needed. Cover with plastic wrap.

Place bowl in a pan with sides to catch juices. Place a plate nearly the diameter of the bowl on top of the pudding. Place a heavy jar or can on top of the plate to weight the pudding. Don't worry if some of the syrup oozes up. Refrigerate the weighted pudding for at least 8 hours or overnight. Refrigerate the reserved syrup.

To serve, remove the weight, plate and wrap and run a thin knife or spatula around the inside of the bowl. Unmold the pudding onto a serving plate with a rim. Use the reserved syrup to paint any patches of bread that were not completely soaked with the berry juices. Serve at once with whipped cream on the side.

Yields 8-10 servings. Preparation time: 45 minutes plus overnight chilling.

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