Anyone who has grown up around blackberry bushes knows their true nature is not unlike a weed: hardy, expansive, and prolific. On the West Coast you can walk virtually anywhere and pick bucketfuls whenever you like. You begin to take blackberries for granted—until you move out east, that is. $3 a pint is a bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it you must if you love blackberries. Suddenly the days of pies, cobblers, buckles, shortcakes and anything else you can do with them are gone. Suddenly you’ve got to be selective about your projects. I was definitely sporting my selective glasses this summer, hunting around for the best recipe to spring on this year’s crop of blackberries. When I saw the recipe for Blackberry Acid in the August/September 2006 issue of Saveur, however, I knew it was the one.
What is Blackberry Acid? A thick, slightly fizzy syrup which, when you add seltzer water to it, makes a blackberry soda drink. Apparently, it was a popular drink in the South before the days of the Cola Wars, a true drugstore counter classic. Which may help to explain the presence of one of its principal ingredients: tartaric acid. Which begs the question, “What in God’s name is tartaric acid?”
As something that used to be a common household item, alongside citric acid and ascorbic acid, tartaric acid has all but disappeared from our shelves. Tartaric acid is a by-product of the winemaking process, and was used extensively in yesteryear as a preservative, an acidifier, and a carbonator, but has since been all but eclipsed. But who on earth would stock such stuff in this day and age? Somehow I knew my best bet was also the one closest to me: our corner pharmacy, N.J. Shore. Aside from having an almost poetic name that calls to mind images of boardwalks and salt water taffy, N.J. Shore is a true treasure trove—the kind of drugstore that’s practically a museum, the kind of drugstore where you can find all kinds of fascinating discontinued oddities, the kind of drugstore where Anthony used to pick up strange 1960s postcards for 10 cents a pop. They’d come through for me in the past with citric acid, so I figured I might as well ask.
“What do you want with that?,” the woman at the counter asked me. I didn’t know of any illicit use* for tartaric acid, so I had nothing to hide. “I’m making blackberry soda,” I responded. “Blackberry soda?” Suddenly things started happening. “I need some tartaric acid over here now!,” she barked into the backroom. “She’s making soda!” Seconds later a strange little bottle of white powder came from the back with a vintage of about 1941.
“How much?,” I asked, fully expecting some crazy big-ticket price for such a rarity, for such an antique. “Just bring us some soda and you can have it.” I ran home with it and, needless to say, I got to work right away.
Here’s what I did:
Blackberry Acid (from Saveur’s August/September issue)
8 cups blackberries
7 cups sugar
2 cups water
2 Tbsp. + 2 tsp. tartaric acid**
Mix all of the ingredients in a large glass jar and cover. Let stand 24 hours, stirring occasionally. Strain through cheesecloth and discard berries. Place syrup in sterilized jars and cover with cheesecloth secured with a rubber band. Store in a cool, dark place for 3 weeks.*** Store in the fridge and serve with seltzer water.****
After all was said and done, I was left with a syrup that was so good and so totally blackberry, that I vowed then and there that I would make this treat every year from now on (even if I have to import the tartaric acid from the Tartar Mountains myself).
As for you, dear readers… Believe it or not, there are still blackberries at the market if you run. Couldn’t you use a little good old-fashioned Blackberry Acid in your life?
Oh, and, yes, I did return to N.J. Shore with blackberry sodas for everyone.
Tartaric acid from the folks at N.J Shore: free.
Seeing their like-kids-at-a-soda-fountain expressions on their faces when I brought them their own batch of blackberry sodas: priceless.
* I later found out that it is toxic and can poison you if ingested in significant quantities (!). Pretty much like every other substance known to man.
** In the end, I didn't end up using that bottle of Atlas tartaric acid. I kept it as a souvenir and bought a slightly newer vintage at a big, modern drugstore on Van Horne. It wasn't something they stocked regularly. They had to special order it for me.
*** I tried a small amount before this step and found it to be too sweet and flat-tasting. The fermentation that occurs over the course of the 3 weeks makes a big difference in the final taste.
**** Just a brief note on the sad state of seltzer affairs in North America: almost all of the seltzer home delivery companies have shut down, with a few notable exceptions (i.e. Seltzer Sisters in the San Francisco Bay Area). I wish we could get local seltzer delivered to our door. We are looking for any traces of what must have been a big part of Montreal’s past. If anyone has any information on companies that used to provide this service in Montreal, please let us know. We mean it. Just think of how much better our blackberry sodas would taste.