I used to think blackberries were only for picking in September; a truly autumnal fruit, so I thought. Every year I was disappointed to have missed the best of the crop. Amateur. Because the secret to blackberry picking is to go earlier than you think. The last couple of weeks of August is probably the best time, before the birds have pecked at them, before the weather rots them and before others pickers have been out. This year they seem to have ripened even earlier.
I have always gone foraging for blackberries – even in London on Putney Heath. Blackberry picking offers rewards many times over; from the initial leisurely pursuit of picking them, (a practice that is over 8000 years old and peculiarly British. During World War One, children in England were given time off school to collect blackberries for the production of juice that was sent to soldiers to help maintain health.) getting outdoors with the children, wandering but with a purpose that becomes surprisingly addictive, to sneakily eating a few handfuls on the way home, to the homemade blackberry puddings, pies, compotes, cakes, tarts, syrups, jellies and jam. And clearly best of all – they’re free (the shop bought ones are weirdly huge and lacking in flavour imho).
Blackberries are not always black, usually more like deep purple, and they are not strictly speaking berries, but are “aggregate fruits”, agglomerations of individual berries known as druplets. Each druplet as dark and sharp as the eyes of a wood mouse. As we picked our berries along a quiet unused track the hedgerows were alive with insects such as moths, crane flies, and wasps, and the rustlings of other unseen beasts and birds hidden in the brambles; all with the same idea as us. From somewhere close by could hear a horse, it sounded as if it too was in the thicket, joining in the hunt.
Traditionally blackberries should not be picked after Michaelmas (29 September), as after this time, the devil is said to spit or stamp on the berries rendering them unfit. We saw a few on our blackberry foraging that had clearly been visited by the devil already, although my main concern is not picking the low fruit in dog walking areas. Pick high, I tell the kids, just not your nose.
Blackberry-Picking by Seamus Heaney
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
The rat-grey fungus is the ‘botrytis cinerea’ mould which quickly spreads over the fruit. The trick is that once gathered they must be frozen (on a tray first so they are not touching and later transferred to a freezer bag) or baked to avoid them going squishy and yucky. The drupelets (such a great word) should be soft and plump, not mushy. Besides the usual crumble with its bff the apple, (or in a jumble crumble which is basically a crumble with any ripe fruit from the garden including plums and raspberries) our other favourite is blackberry muffins. Delicious warm from the oven with a cup of tea in the afternoon, or as breakfast with fresh coffee, if you’re feeling a bit indulgent.
250g plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp cinnamon
100g caster sugar
1 lemon zest
1 large egg (lightly beaten)
300ml Kefir milk (or natural yogurt)
50g unsalted butter, melted
As many blackberries as you like
- Preheat the oven to 200ºC and line a 12 hole muffins tray with cases.
- Sift the flour, baking powder, cinnamon and a pinch of salt in a bowl.
- Add the sugar and lemon zest.
- Stir together the egg, Kefir milk and melted butter and mix into the dry ingredients.
- Gently fold in the blackberries – they will give a lovely purple ripple through the mixture.
- Divide the mixture between the cases and cook for about 25 minutes until risen and golden.