Simon’s Simples: Blackberry Feast

Blackberry Feast

Wild Blackberries

Blackberries were eaten in Stone Age times, pips from the fruit were found in the stomach remains of a Neolithic man preserved in clay in Essex. Blackberry picking time was once a most important country activity. Country people would pick in droves, gathering the fruit for jams, tarts, crumble, jellies, teas, wine, ale, syrup, vinegar, cordial, summer puddings and the rest!

Legend has it that wild Blackberries should not be eaten after October 10th because the Devil spits on every bush at this time and they certainly lose flavour and become ‘fly blown’ as autumn progresses. It is important to pick carefully and avoid the flyblown or over-ripe berries. Roger Phillips in ‘Wild Food’ notes that this choice of date falls around Michaelmas Day. This feast day celebrates “the primeval war in which St. Michael the Archangel hurled Lucifer out of Heaven and down to earth” and provides more evidence of how religion has assimilated folklore for its own ends.

These berries are rich in vitamin C and provide a recognised boost to the immune system. The fresh berries are rich in bioflavonoids, fibre and folate. The leaves and roots are also a valuable herb that can help to control diarrhoea. The chewing of blackberry leaves for bleeding gums goes back at least 2000 years.

As I have a Tayberry bush in the garden, for this recipe I used about 2 pounds of fresh Tayberries with a quarter pint of water (and a couple of Strawberries thrown in). Tayberries are a Raspberry / Blackberry cross that combines the best of both, with big, succulent fruits that crop early. Because they cannot be machine picked it is very unusual to find them in the shops, so this fruit bush is a good addition to your garden. The stems are easy to train along a wall, but nets are a good idea as you might have to compete with the blackbirds for them.  Tayberry, Raspberry or Blackberry jelly is a great way to preserve this fruit for when it is needed in the winter – the jelly makes a great base for a hot toddy.

Tayberries, fruit jam and crumble ingredients

Let the fruits simmer for a few minutes, add 2 pounds of sugar and stir until it dissolves, then add the pectin and a knob of butter to limit frothing, get it to a rolling boil for a few minutes, pour into sterilised jars and seal. It won’t last until winter as my son keeps eating it, and so do I.

There was a bumper crop of wild blackberries this year and I picked a lot in a couple of hours with the thought of making wild blackberry and apple crumble. As mentioned previously the humble blackberry is a powerhouse of positive chemicals – lashings of vitamin C when fresh, fibre, folate, bioflavonoids and useful carbohydrates.

They also contain the aspirin-like salicylates, which can trigger allergic reactions or even hyperactivity in some people. Blackberry has astringent, antifungal, antiseptic and tonic properties and the leaves of this most useful plant also reveal a load of useful constituents used for diarrhoea, mouth inflammation, skin ulcers and wounds.

I started by collecting the recipe ingredients including several pounds of blackberries. Everyone develops their own way of picking, but I enjoy eating only the ‘perfect’ blackberries straight from the stem. If they are too sour or seedy, I spit the remains out into a patch of soil nearby that is clear from blackberries – hence fulfilling my part in the reason for their existence – that of seed dispersal. I got ‘first pick’ of these blackberries and this time of year (beginning of September) they are tender and the seeds are not too woody.

I purchased five huge Bramley apples, sugar, lemon and spices (cloves and cinnamon) – also custard. It was clear I had too many blackberries so I would also make some blackberry tea, blackberry junket and blackberry and apple jam.

I started with the junket. Simply mash the ripe berries with a potato masher and give them a good working over with a wooden spoon to free the liquid constituents. Then strain through layers of muslin or similar material, or a juice extractor, and leave it untouched in a bowl, in a warm / darkish place without any additives whatsoever.

Blackberry junket, tea, spices and crumble

In a few hours this rich, dark liquid solidifies into a jelly. This stuff is nothing less than a wonder of nature; you can feel it doing good as you eat it. You can actually taste the vitamin C. Put it on ice-cream, eat it with biscuits and cheese, down it neat, freeze it into ice cubes for later, add it to wine, pour boiling water on it for tea, then go and get some more!

Onto the blackberry and apple crumble – a classic autumn dish in the UK. Peel, core and slice the apples – I usually cut them into eighths. Squeeze some lemon juice over them as this helps to stop the apples browning. Drop in a few cloves; they just have a natural affinity with apples. Put the smallest amount of water in the pan and turn up to a medium heat, simmer until the apples start fluffing and breaking down a bit.

This should give you just enough time to sort through the blackberries ejecting any stems or ‘wooden’ bits or spoiled fruit. Then pile them into the pan, lifting gently from underneath with a wooden spoon to stir them in, this avoids breaking the fruit up too much. Let them cook for just a couple of minutes and then add a pile of sugar (depending on the ‘tartness’ of the fruit and your personal preferences with sugar). Although generally I try to avoid processed white sugar, it seems to interfere least with the tastes of the fruit. Stir it in gently until the sugar dissolves and take it off the heat.

For a crumble mix add a generous knob of butter to some oats and hand squeeze it in. You can add a little flour to this mix, certainly some cinnamon to give it a nutty flavour – or even some roast almonds, and a touch more sugar. You want to get the texture of this crumble still just ‘open’ rather than a greasy lump!

Then select your bowls and spoon in the fruit mix to about two thirds full. Top it up, just short of the rim, as the fruit will bubble out in the oven otherwise. I like to ‘burnish’ the crumble down flat with the back of a spoon to minimise leakage. Put into a moderate oven for 30 – 45 minutes depending on the size. After a while make the custard and serve – it’s also delicious with ice cream.

Wild blackberry and apple crumble is one of the best ways I know to celebrate the abundance of nature, so make sure to invite some friends around for your own harvest supper.