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Burgeoning British Brambles

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Unlike many of our European neighbours, the British don’t have a widespread culture of foraging for wild foods. Foraging has experienced a bit of a resurgence in recent years, as a way of really ‘getting back to nature’, but for most people I imagine their only real experience of foraging is picking blackberries.

Blackberries are certainly the only wild food I remember picking as a child. In late summer we would head out as a family (including the dog) and walk up through the local wood to a farmer’s field. The field was always inhabited with cows, but they generally stayed away as we plundered the hedges for juicy fruit. A couple of hours later, we returned home with bags of blackberries, stained fingers and scratched arms. Even the dog looked a little worse for wear – she loved sucking blackberries off the low-hanging branches.

 

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Dad would turn the best of the fruit into a blackberry and apple pie, served with custard. The rest became blackberry and apple jelly, making the most of the bruised windfall apples that fell from the tree in the garden. Blackberry and apple jelly was, and still is, my favourite jam – and dad still makes some every year, although he’s now in his 70s.

There are blackberries ripening (early this year, I think) in the hedgerows near me, but they have to contend with hazards those field-ripening berries didn’t. There are lots of dog walkers here, so low-hanging fruit is best avoided. The easily accessible bushes are alongside roads, so the fruit won’t be the cleanest, and there will be plenty of competition for it from local residents.

 

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These brambles are a common native species, which spread via seed and through the tips of their branches rooting into the soil. Some can produce fruit without the need for fertilisation, and their mixed methods of reproduction have led them to become an aggregate species, with many micro-species that are very difficult to distinguish. This is why wild blackberries can vary quite a bit in terms of fruit size, quality, flavour and productivity, even between plants growing next to each other.

Foraging is fun, but if you grow your own blackberries you can be guaranteed a harvest of tasty berries, without the risks of contamination (and you can net them to protect them from birds). Different varieties crop at different times, spreading the harvest from midsummer through until the autumn, and you can even now choose thornless varieties, making picking much less of an extreme sport. For those of us with small gardens, dwarf varieties are appearing, meaning you can pop them in a pot on the patio, or a hanging basket.

 

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Lubera’s Lowberry Little Black Prince is the first compact autumn blackberry. It fruits on this year’s canes, producing large and tasty berries from July right through until the frosts arrive. Its upright canes don’t reach more than a metre, and are thornless. It can be treated as an everbearing plant, as sideshoots on last year’s canes will also produce fruit, earlier than the new growth. Prune the fruited canes back in February, but only to 15cm, not right back to the ground.

The Navaho blackberry varieties incorporate genes from the East Coast of America. They’re thornless, and fruit earlier – in midsummer. Bigandearly produces very large fruits in July, whilst Summerlong fruits through July and into August. Navaho has the longest fruiting period, from July right into the autumn.

Direttissima Montblanc is a thorny variety, but like Little Prince it fruits on new growth, and can be treated as everbearing by pruning canes that have fruited down to 15cm in February. You can even trim the canes to 50cm in May, to keep the plant bushy and encourage it to become bushy and produce more flowers and fruit.

 

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According to British tradition, blackberries have to be picked before Michaelmas, which is now on 29th September, but used to be 10th October. This is when archangel Michael kicked Lucifer out of heaven. Lucifer landed in a blackberry bush, which must have bruised his ego, and spat on it to show his displeasure. His spit magically recurs on the anniversary of his disgrace. A more modern explanation is that this is when the flesh fly lays its eggs on blackberries, in a saliva-like substance. Beyond being completely disgusting, it seems that its eggs are slightly poisonous. Or it could just be that the damp autumn weather encourages mould to flourish on the remaining fruit. Whatever the reason, it’s a good excuse for leaving the last of the crop for the birds (and deer, round here).

But if you remember to get your harvest in before that, you can preserve some for the winter in a recipe very similar to sloe gin:

 

Blackberry brandy

You need:

 

  • Clean jars or bottles
  • Fresh blackberries
  • Brandy
  • White sugar (granulated or caster)

 

Fill your chosen jar/bottle one quarter full with sugar, then make it up to half full with the blackberries. Fill to three quarters full with brandy, and then put the lid on.

For the first week, shake the jar every day, until the sugar dissolves. Then store it somewhere dark and warm and shake once a month. It will be ready in about 3 months, when you can remove the brandy-soaked fruit (sounds like a good reason to make a boozy pie!) and strain your brandy into a fresh bottle. Enjoy responsibly as a warming tot on a winter evening, or mixed with ice cold lemonade for a summer sundowner.

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

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