Long before the blackberry was a type of communication device, and before the ‘pick your own food for free’ movement became fashionable because of the recession/ a general concern about where our food comes from, blackberries were the original free food. The summer tradition of scouring the nation’s hedgerows and fields for ripe blackberries has even given birth to its own verb, blackberrying - or, to pick the fruit of the bramble.
Blackberrying is as much a part of the English summer as summer fetes and swimming in the sea. Our summer may fluctuate between broad sunshine and torrential rain, yet I like to think this is helping the blackberries along. I have spent many a lazy day wandering canal side and through the countryside with a bag in hand, eating some guiltily along the way yet returning home with handfuls of delicious food, squishy but not soft, sweet but not too sweet.
In his poem Blackberry-Picking, which concerns a childhood blackberry picking memory, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney places the blackberry at the heart of summer, describing the ‘sticky’ juice of blackberries as ‘summer’s blood’. He makes it sound almost intoxicating by describing it as ’thickened wine’, going on to explain how its juice creates ‘stains upon the tongue’ and leaves the eater hungry for more. Blackberrying is an annual summer tradition, a rite of passage even, something to be looked forward to through the spring and early summer months, to be shared with family or someone special. He sums up the suspenseful summer feeling of waiting for the white flowers to give way to hard green berries that turn red and then, finally, into a ‘glossy purple clot’ ready to be eaten. The poem ends with a change of mood - like the summer, the edible life of the blackberries quickly comes to an end - they can only be picked for a short time, that comes around just once a year, like the all too short summer itself.
Similarly, the American writer Sylvia Plath found inspiration in the fruit for her poem Blackberrying. Blackberries are popular in England and America, where they are also grown commercially, although apparently the type of blackberries that can be bought in shops are blander and less flavourful. In Plath’s highly sensual poem she describes the excitement of the blackberry picking experience by telling of a ‘blackberry lane’ that has in it ‘nothing, nothing but blackberries on either side’. She paints pictures of ripe blackberries as ‘big as the ball of my tub’, ‘fat with blue-red juices’. Her blackberries too are alive and rich, giving a ‘blood sisterhood’ to those who pick them. (Rich in vitamin C, blackberries are a type of antioxidant and during the first world war children were given time off school to pick them so their nutritious juice could be sent to troops.)
My first summer in Manchester I spent hours picking my bounty along the banks of the Ashton Canal, culminating in the bushes of Phillips Park out by Sportcity. I was stunned at the riches on offer - Manchester blackberries are giant and juicy and, in the areas I went, completely unharvested by anyone else. Blackberrying is often a competitive business - in my hometown down South, I have often arrived at the best bushes, which deliver year after year, too late, finding only stumps - yet Manchester’s are ripe for the picking.
If you don’t have a park or canal near you (in South Manchester, I imagine that Chorlton Ees would be ideal), the chances are that you can find them in you back garden/ in your nearest alley way. Bramble bushes are weeds that tend to spread and take over any patch of uncultivated land, from wasteland to neglected gardens.
To pick blackberries, it’s advisable to wear long sleeved clothes - but nothing that could get caught on the bushes or is easily plucked - and closed footwear. Also, wear dark colours if possible and preferably old clothes as blackberries stain easily (in the old days, the juice were used as a dye). I generally use carrier bags to collect the fruit, although you can use any kind of container, from Tupperware to old ice cream tubs.
Blackberries can be picked in August and into September, although in English folklore they should not be picked after Michaelmas (October 10) as it was said the Devil had contaminated them with bodily fluids. Even today, children picking blackberries are told only to pick from the higher branches where dogs can’t reach them when urinating. On that subject, it’s also best to avoid picking blackberries by busy roads, although it can be tempting as they ripen earlier from the pollution, and to wash blackberries before use.
Once picked, blackberries will keep in the fridge for a day or two, but can also be frozen. Blackberries are good turned into jam and in cakes, buns and pies, as well as served on their own or with ice cream and custard. The classic blackberry dish is, though, undoubtedly the crumble.
The crumble is one of the easiest, cheapest and quickest, yet tastiest and most impressive dishes that can be made. It’s virtually impossible to get it wrong, as it contains just four basic ingredients, which you probably already have in your cupboard - butter, flour, sugar and fruit.
Blackberry crumble for two
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees c
200g blackberries (if you fancy it, substitute half the blackberries for apples, plums or another fruit of your choice)
30g butter (or vegetarian/ vegan equivalent)
60g plain flour
Extra adornments such as ginger/ cinnamon/ oats for the topping, as desired
Grease some kind of ceramic baking dish with butter. Cook the blackberries in a pan with a little water and half the sugar (or more, depending on how sweet/ tart you want the mixture) until soft. Place in the bottom of the baking dish. Place the butter in a large pan and add the flour, rubbing it into the butter until it resembles bread crumbs. Mix the rest of the sugar in. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the top of the blackberries ensuring all areas are covered and press it down a bit so it forms a tidy topping. Bake for 30-40 minutes until the crumble starts to go brown on top.
Best served with custard.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you could make blackberry brandy for the winter, which is delicious as a fruity accompaniment to Christmas cake and ensures the summer lingers on through the cold months. This is my grandad’s recipe.
1 litre gin
Wash blackberries and put in a large sterilised jar. Pour in sugar and gin, seal, shake well. Store in a cool, dark cupboard and shake every other day for a week. Then shake once a week for two months.