Mini Aronia Berry Fest will highlight benefits, uses of locally-grown fruit

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McGregor’s By the Spoonful will hold its first Mini Aronia Berry Fest Oct. 6-7, highlighting the benefits and potential uses of the antioxidant-rich fruit that’s seen a burst in popularity. The Brink family grows aronia berries near Elkader and will answer questions about the berries, while also sharing recipes, samples and nutritional information. (Submitted photo)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

McGregor’s By the Spoonful will hold its first Mini Aronia Berry Fest Oct. 6-7, highlighting the benefits and potential uses of the antioxidant-rich fruit that’s seen a burst in popularity. 

“A lot of people have heard of them,” remarked By the Spoonful owner Katie Ruff of the dark purple berries sometimes referred to as chokeberries. They contain even more antioxidants than the blueberries one can buy in the store, making them a growing “superfruit” of choice. 

“But for most people, all they know is to put them in a smoothie,” Ruff noted. “They want to use aronia berries, but they just don’t know how. There are other things they can be.” 

Ruff felt creating a Mini Aronia Berry Fest could provide the information people are seeking, while also getting the word out to those who don’t know a lot about aronia berries. 

Preston and Megan Brink agree. The Brink family began growing aronia berries near Elkader several years ago, and Ruff has sold their berries at By the Spoonful for the past year. They will also be part of the Mini Aronia Berry Fest, answering questions and offering recipes, samples and nutritional details about the berries. 

“There was talk of it being a viable market,” said Preston, who was introduced to the idea of growing aronia berries by Aronia Berry Services of Northeast Iowa.“It was a way to diversify the farm, so we took a risk and invested. It’s not big, but it’s enough to get in the market. We hope it will be new and upcoming.” 

When her husband broached the idea, Megan said she was swayed by the tasty aronia berry muffins he had her sample. As a registered dietitian, she said the berry’s health benefits also convinced her. 

“Just doing a little bit of research, I saw how beneficial they were,” she shared. “I thought, ‘at least we can eat them and get the benefits ourselves.’” 

The Brinks are now among the growing network of aronia berry farms scattered throughout the Midwest and Northeast. 

They recently completed the harvest, picking 6,300 pounds of aronia berries off 5,000 plants. The bushes were finally strong enough that the berries could be harvested mechanically, rather than by hand. 

“As the bush matures, it will put on more berries,” Preston added. 

In addition to By the Spoonful, the Brinks sell their aronia berries at Wilke’s Grocery Store in Elkader, at the Dubuque Farmers Market and off their farm. The Cafe Rose Winery, located in Edgewood, uses their berries to create a special aronia berry wine. Another individual has shown interest in using the berries to make jams and jellies. 

Most of this year’s crop, though, is with other growers’ aronia berries in cold storage in central Wisconsin. That way, said Preston, they’ll be available in mass quantities when a company is ready to create a product that features aronia berries. 

Megan said aronia berries are nutrient dense, low in calories and a good source of fiber. They are also high in anthocyanin, the plant pigment that gives many vegetables and fruits their blue, purple, red and orange colors. In fact, aronia berries have three times the anthocyanin concentration as blueberries. This strengthens brain health and helps reduce inflammation. It could lessen the risk of cancer and heart disease too. 

“We have friends who take aronia berries religiously,” said Preston, “and they claim their personal health has improved.” 

Megan said aronia berries are unique in that their skin is tart and bitter, while their insides are juicy and sweet. 

“You could do either sweet or savory,” when cooking with them, she explained. 

“Some people find the flavor dry or bitter,” Preston said, “so adding sweetness helps.” 

Ruff suggested pairing aronia berries with another fruit, like raspberries. 

Aronia berries should be kept frozen or dehydrated, which Megan noted draws out the moisture and makes them more plump and easier to cook with. 

The Brinks have incorporated the berries into a number of dishes, including baked goods like breads, muffins and bars. Megan recently topped a cheesecake with aronia berries. 

“It’s very vibrant, so it makes a pretty topping,” she noted. 

When muddled, the berries can be incorporated into a salad dressing. They can be added to apple sauce or brats, or dehydrated and put into a trail mix. 

Beverages are also a good way to use aronia berries. In addition to the aforementioned smoothies, the berries can go into teas, lemonade, carbonated beverages, wine and more. 

“People just need to be open-minded about trying aronia berries and bringing them into their diet,” Preston said. “They’re easy to throw into a dish.” 

Aronia berries are especially easy to use when they can be easily purchased, said Megan. She hopes people will use the Mini Aronia Berry Fest to not only learn about the berries, but the Brinks’ operation as well. 

“It’s cool that we’re able to grow them locally,” she remarked, “so you’re supporting a small business.” 

“The market can only grow if people know about the berries,” Preston said. 

The Mini Aronia Berry Fest will begin Saturday, with food and recipe sampling from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

At 11 a.m., people are encouraged to join the McGregor-Marquette Chamber of Commerce’s pie and tart baking contest at Old Man River. There is a special category devoted to aronia berries. 

From 1 to 4 p.m., Cafe Rose will sample its aronia berry wine, created from berries grown by the Brinks. 

“I’ve been selling the wine for several years,” Ruff said. 

“It’s more earthy,” and also pairs well with pork, she added, a plus since October is Pork Month. 

On Sunday, food and recipes can again be sampled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

At 1 p.m., By the Spoonful will host an aronia gourmet dinner, featuring aronia berries in each course. To reserve your spot for the five-course meal, contact Ruff at (563) 873-2900. 

“We’re going to start small to get the word out about the berries and that they are readily available,” Ruff said. “Hopefully it can turn into a yearly event.”

To learn more about the event, visit By the Spoonful’s Facebook page.

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