‘Ebon in the hedges’: a hunt for the blackberry

Sylvia Plath’s poem, ‘Blackberrying’, perfectly captures the serendipities of blackberry picking. The high-sided, brambled lane, leading to the sea is groaning with berries, so much so that one bush is covered with flies. Plath captures the spontaneity of the pick: she’s armed with a milk bottle as a receptacle but the berries squash in, just the same. I may not have blackberried in such a lane, but the sense-experience Plath’s poem evokes is entirely recognizable: the stained fingers, the blue-black succulence of a berry in the mouth, the feeling of good fortune at being the only one to find this particular patch: to be the only collector of a free, absolutely free, bounty.

Roehampton blackberries

I’ve been blackberrying myself this week, in my lunch break. The Roehampton campus throws up some choice bramble patches, although the weather this spring and summer (wet spring, dry summer) means that the season is effectively over: I picked my first, admittedly mouth-puckering berry back in late July. Some have made their way into the freezer (to be added to a fruity sauce for game, or for a crumble) but others – especially some particularly lush ones from a five-minute pick in a Dorset field – went straight into our mouths. Even with our indian summer September, there are unlikely to be any left by Michaelmas (29 September) or 12th of October. This is good, as any brambler knows that one (or both?) of these dates is when the devil urinates (or spits or stamps, depending on which regional version you hear) on the bushes, ruining the remaining berries. I have always loved this image, and though hardly superstitious, abide by it religiously, if only for the sake of the folk who have repeated it down the generations (and I have repeated it to my daughter).

Unlike other foraged foods recently written about by the food journalist Jay Rayner, the blackberry has two things going for it: firstly, it tastes delicious; and second, it is seldom scarce, and so doesn’t run the risk of being foraged out of all existence. Like foxes, it has colonised the unkempt urban garden, as well as the country lane. It is a ‘food for free’ that makes metropolitan brambling the ultimate rus in urbes pursuit. There is serendipity in their growth, their flavour, their convenience: there they are, hanging on the end of a branching stem, and all you need to suffer is a scratch or two. They also don’t take much cooking (if any: lush berries are best eaten straight away, no cutlery needed).

What the blackberry doesn’t have in abundance, is a culinary history wrought in recipes and classic, haute cuisine dishes. As a free food, a hedgerow harvest, blackberries absent themselves out of the conventional historical food record, crafted from written texts like recipes, account books and eye-witness accounts of meals eaten. Their memory in this record is fleeting, as evanescent as ripe berries on the bush. Like many widely available things, there is an assumption that the blackberry needs no history: it is simply here, and ‘needs no further description’ (a line I have come across in many different texts on the hunt for blackberry history). We know blackberries were eaten – archaeological pip deposits show this to be so, in urban and rural sites – but there’s little evidence of the forms in which they might have been consumed, from cookery and gardening texts.  Even today, the blackberry ranks much lower than other berries as in ingredient in recipes lodged on the BBC’s Good Food website (208 recipes including raspberries; 160 with strawberries; only 75 for blackberries).

Hedgerow foods like the blackberry are often designated/denigrated as ‘poverty’ foods (although when you translate that into the Italian cucina povera, it all becomes a bit more hip, just as foraging has). These foods are often marginalized in culinary histories, although Ken Albala’s 2007 history of beans is a great corrective. Yet there is surely nothing impoverishing about a berry which packs such a nutritional punch, and which costs nothing but a few scratches and some leaf-lifting, to collect. Rich in vitamins C and K and manganese, the blackberry may be, as recent studies have suggested, one of the most cheaply sourced brain boosters: a 2012 American Chemistry Society-sponsored study[1] suggested it could be the anti-flammatory properties of berries like blue- and blackberries, which help to maintain good brain health and slow down the progress of conditions such as Alzheimer’s and other forms of clinical memory loss (but beware all such claims: I’ll come back to brain boosters later…). That anti-inflammatory value however was known to early modern English writers on ‘kitchen physic’ and botanical medicine, too: preparations of parts of the blackberry we don’t regularly consume now, the leaves and stems, were valued for the treatment of mouth ulcers and haemorrhoids, while decoctions of the leaves were believed to strengthen loose teeth; blackberry leaf tea was (and still is) recommended for relief of diarrhoea and stomach aches. (William Langham’s The Garden of Health [1597 edition] has a good overview of the root-to-branch uses of the plant, and is on Early English Books Online, if you have access to that site).

blackberryliqueurThe one textual trace for the berry in in the culinary historical record is blackberry wine, widely feted as a beneficial tonic. Recipes for it were included in many printed seventeenth and eighteenth-century household manuals, for example Elizabeth Moxon’s English Housewifery (Leeds, c.1741). I personally like the ever-crafty Thomas Tryon’s use of blackberry juice as an ingredient in his ‘Artificial claret’, which he claimed was ‘not Distinguishable from right Claret unless by those very well skilled in wines’ (The Way to Get Wealth, 1701, p. 25). But recipes for those dishes we now consider classic uses of the berry – crumble (or crisp, for our US readers!), cobbler, blackberry and apple pie, jam – belong (at least in print) to the nineteenth century and much later. Indeed, only with its commercial cultivation (from the 1850s in the US), its commodification, does it appear to have become a more visible ‘ingredient’ in cookery books, as growers sought to create a domestic market for their product.

Luscious though cultivated blackberries are, I still plump for the wild berry: free, capricious, misshapen, over- and underripe, the unsought bounty of a lunchtime’s suburban scramble through the brambles. The berries I picked have been made into blackberry liqueur, which I hope will be ready for tasting at the Memory Banquet on Saturday 15 November. This is a great deal simpler than Thomas Tryon’s artificial claret, and needs only a bottle of vodka, 100 or so grams of caster sugar, and 200-300g of berries. Open the bottle, pour off a third of the vodka (waste not want not: make a cocktail or two with this); add the sugar and then the berries; close up the bottle and shake to mix. Store in a dark but dry place for at least a month, longer if you can. Before drinking, strain through muslin or a fine sieve: then savour the fruits (and deep flavour) of very little effort, raising a toast to the fruit whose history is so often taken for granted.

[1] Marshall G. Miller, Barbara Shukitt-Hale. Berry Fruit Enhances Beneficial Signaling in the Brain. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2012

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