By: Lynn Ogryzlo

I rresistible pints of just picked berries, naturally nutritious, colorful and sweet will soon line tables at the farmers’ market. But before you pick up your first pint at the local market, you may want to learn from some of Niagara’s most creative chefs on how delicious Niagara berries can be.

“We all die and go to heaven when farmer Dave brings in the white buckets of blueberries”, swoons award winning pastry chef Catharine O’Donnell. “The smells that fill the room when the buckets are opened is quintessential fresh blueberry and who doesn’t get excited over that.”

At Willow Cakes & Pastries “our customers have never seen a canned fruit in any of our products”, explains Catharine who takes full advantage of working in the middle of Niagara’s best berries and cherries.

“We use strawberries and raspberries fresh, but blueberries have become our signature here at the bakery.” At Willow you’ll find just picked blueberries topping tarts, tucked into clafoutis or buried deep into muffins, but their signature blueberry dessert is their Blueberry Panna Cotta.

“First, we slice each blueberry in half and soak them in Riesling,” explains chef Catharine. “We tried icewine and a few other wines, but blueberries and Riesling are really the best partners.” They use part of the drunken berries mixture as a base for the panna cotta then when they put the dessert together, they layer panna cotta, spiked blueberries and more panna cotta. “That puts the wine soaked blueberries in the middle,” says Catharines. It’s overflowing with blueberry flavour while the cooked cream luxuriates across your palate, a truly sensuous dessert.

Berries are nutritional powerhouses whether they’re eaten fresh, frozen, dried, freeze-dried or powdered. Blueberries in particular, may improve motor skills and reverse the short-term memory loss that comes with aging.

It’s the flavour of cherries that inspire partners Ryan Hegedus and Chef Stacey Clare of Above and Beyond Cupcakes to pick their own cherries from orchards in Fort Erie. The berry loving duo bake cakes, pastries and cupcakes in their Clean Label Bakery on Main Street in Welland. The certification of Clean Label means they don’t use any chemicals, preservatives or artificial flavours in their sweet creations. This means they rely on fresh fruit in season for flavour.

Some of it is frozen and made into unusual creations like Cherry Aioli that’s spread on a turkey sandwich. “Cherry has a tang and sweetness like cranberry but without the bitterness”, explains Stacey. Chopped cherries are mixed with fresh house-made mayo. The sandwich includes roasted turkey, lettuce, pepper-jack cheese, tomato and balsamic marinated red onion. It comes with a soup or a salad for only $9.00. It’s a seasonal sandwich so enjoy it now before it’s replaced with the flavours of the upcoming season.

Niagara berries have also inspired Above and Beyond’s Triple Berry cupcake. ¬A vanilla based cupcake stuffed with strawberry compote and topped with a triple berry cream (blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and lots of butter). It’s available throughout berry growing season.

Official chef for Thirteenth Street Winery located on Whitty Farms, Oscar Turchi gets excited about the fruit that grows around the farm he caters on. It starts in the spring with fresh strawberries that he uses to top mini tarts filled with luscious lemon mousse and fresh raspberries that go on toast points loaded with prosciutto and creamy goats cheese.

His favourite season is fall when he roasts grapes with shallots, ginger and balsamic vinegar. He roasts them until the grapes pop and the juices mix together sensually. He uses this to garnish crostini, brie and pancetta. “It’s a surprising mouthful that pleases,” smiles Turchi who explains how grapes are the exception to his berry rule. “I hate cooked berries,” he says. “You have to add vanilla and sugar and heat them. It changes the flavour and colour, they’re not the same.”

Turchi is the regions hors d’oeuvre specialist creating dozens of one-bite appetizers that are available fresh or frozen in his gourmet storefront called Savoia on Martindale Road in St Catharines. Throughout the summer, fresh berries adorn many sweet and savoury flavour appetizers and is why his menu of hors d’oeuvre changes frequently.

Like Chef Oscar, Antoinette D’Amico-Coles, Pastry Chef at Commisso’s Fresh Foods in Niagara Falls hates cooking berries. “I use raspberries fresh as a garnish, whole in desserts or puree them for a delicious mousse”, says Antoinette who loves walking through Niagara’s farm markets. “I go out to the markets to see what’s in season. I talk to the farmers about the season because the weather can really change the flavour of fresh berries.”

The pastry counter at Commisso’s changes dramatically through the summer but one thing you can count on are some classic desserts brought to life with Niagara’s fresh fruit. “I love the classics,” says Antoinette. In the pastry counter you may find frangipane with blueberries, raspberry bread pudding with white chocolate, cherry cobbler or classic strawberry cake with toasted almonds. “My inspiration comes from my visits to the market and talking to the farmers”.

Like Antionette, Pastry Chef Giovanni Del Priore of Criveller Cakes and Pastry in Niagara Falls loves all berries and he blends them all together in his famous Zuppa Inglese (translated it means English Soup, but this delicious creation is anything but soup).

First, he lines a cake pan with bits and pieces of sponge cake. He pours an Italian liqueur called Alkermes over top. Alkermes has flavours of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vanilla. He spreads a fresh berry puree over it all and tosses a mix of fresh Niagara berries over that. It’s all allowed to sit, soak and blend the flavours. To serve it, Giovanni scoops it out of the cake pan with an ice cream scooper and puts it into a dark chocolate cup. The finishing touch is more chocolate garnish and more fresh fruit. “My customers die for it and so do I”, says Giovanni.

Chef Jan-Willem Stulp at Grand Oak Culinary Market in Vineland is inspired by his neighbours produce. “Cherry Lane Farm and Allberry Farms are my neighbours”, says chef Jan-Willem who adds Niagara cherries to grainy mustard in his signature cherry mustard that goes deliciously well on summer sandwiches, pork and even salmon. “It works like a charm, like honey mustard but better.” While his cherry mustard is mostly a seasonal product, he’s quick to point out that Cherry Lane Farm freezes pails of cherries so he can make his cherry mustard any time of the year, but notes, “it’s really a bright summer flavour.”

Part of Grand Oak Culinary Market includes fresh produce as well as a gourmet market and here Jan-Willem encourages his customers to pick up a pint of strawberries or blueberries as a good wholesome snack to be eaten right out of hand. In the gourmet market he offers fresh cherry juice and other artisan products from local berry growers.

Take it from these berry-loving chefs, Niagara berries and cherries have so much more to offer than the delicious pies and tarts we all love.

Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com.