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Giving thanks for saskatoon berry pie, the quintessential Prairie dessert

With its own Canada Post stamp, the dessert has ascended to the pantheon of Canadian sweets. We look at the history and lore around this iconic pie.

With its own Canada Post stamp, the dessert has ascended to the pantheon of Canadian sweets

CBC Saskatchewan hosted a province-wide phone in on whether the saskatoon berry pie deserved its status as a prairie icon. The results? A unanimous yes. (Nichole Huck/CBC)

It's delicious enough to get its own song from children's singer Fred Penner, and famous enough to have a Canada Post stamp

And if you ask people from the Prairies, they'll tell you: no other dessert could be as deserving of the attention. 

"There's nothing that comes even close" to the saskatoon berry pie, says Grace, a caller into CBC Saskatchewan's Blue Sky. 

Over the summer, when the fruit was at its peak, host Garth Materie opened the phone lines to hear people's stories about the iconic dessert. 

Listen to Nichole Huck's Thanksgiving radio special about Saskatoon berry pie:

At the height of Saskatoon berry season, host Garth Materie held a province-wide debate: We asked listeners across Saskatchewan to weigh in whether Saskatoon berry pie is the quintessential prairie dessert. 24:01

Caller Paul described boyhood adventures buying the pies and eating them with his hands at the beach. "Our faces were purple, and then we'd go swimming," he said with a laugh.

Another caller, Pat, told the tale of the accidental inclusion of choke cherries — and their pits — in saskatoon berry pies that were to be eaten by the Queen during a royal visit. 

And Cheryl, who moved to Saskatchewan in the late '70s, described tasting them for the first time in a pie she had made herself. 

"I love them, and even though I grew up in southern Quebec, I'm a Prairie woman," she said.  

Saskatoon berry pie was among the Canadian desserts chosen by Canada Post for a stamp series this past spring. Other famous sweets, like the butter tart and Atlantic Canada's blueberry grunt, also made the cut. (Canada Post)

A hardy berry for a hardy people

The story of the saskatoon berry, which is also sometimes called the serviceberry or juneberry, begins long before it became a legendary pie filling for settlers. 

Caroline Harris, a traditional knowledge keeper from Big Island Lake Cree Nation, says the berry has played a "huge role in our culture for thousands of years." 

"We use them in soups, pies, to sweeten our teas, in bannock," she said. "You can also use them for dyes."

Combined with meat and fat, the berries are also a key ingredient in pemmican — a highly nutritious, long lasting food that's been eaten for millennia. 

Inspired by the phone in, CBC producer Nichole Huck took her kids berry picking this summer. The delicious result is the pie pictured at the top of the page. (Nichole Huck/CBC)

Nowadays, it's the freezer that allows the berries to stick around beyond their usual season in late June and July. 

Amy Jo Ehman, a Saskatoon chef and food writer, remembers finding milk cartons full of frozen berries in the freezer of her parents' house that appeared to date back to the 1990s. Without batting an eye, she baked them into pies. 

"The brilliant thing about frozen saskatoon berries is they don't seem to go bad," Ehman said. 

"Perhaps it's a nice metaphor for us hardy, strong Prairie people." 

A nostalgic taste of 'heaven' 

The pies can be intensely nostalgic for people who grew up with them — children's singer Fred Penner among them. 

"It's certainly one of my all-time favourite desserts," Penner told Materie, remembering one instance of being given a whole quarter pie to eat while visiting a friend's family in Manitoba and thinking he had "died and gone to heaven."

"I think it's the unique taste of the saskatoon berries," said Sandy Purdy, chief operating officer at Prairie Berries, a saskatoon berry grower. 

"You can taste the burst of flavour of almonds and cherries … that's kind of how I describe it." 

To make your own heavenly piece of pie, Purdy says its best to keep it simple. 

How to make a saskatoon berry pie:

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      "Lots of berries, a little sugar, a squirt of lemon juice, and then bake them in a pie crust that is one of those homemade ones," she said. 

      "We always say we never make the best pie because Mum or Grandma always does that. But we make the second best pie." 

      Want to give it a try? Here's a traditional recipe that keeps the focus on flavour. 

      About the Author

      Kate McGillivray is a writer and newsreader in Toronto. She's worked for the CBC in Montreal, Sherbrooke and St. John's, and she always wants to hear your feedback and story ideas. Get in touch here: kate.mcgillivray@cbc.ca.

      Produced by Nichole Huck

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