Blackberrying for beginners

Clare Bryden. Blackberrying for beginners. Resurgence Magazine, Sep/Oct 2013. Issue available to purchase on Resurgence website.

The day has been fairly sunny, if not quite as warm as the previous week. Still, it’s nearly evening before I make it down the hill, and even then it takes an insistent sunbeam poking me through the window to prompt me to leave the house.

Briefly. Because I’ve forgotten that I’ll need to be wearing a bit more protection than is provided by tee-shirt and sandals if I’m going to pick blackberries. So I head back inside, and re-emerge five minutes later properly attired and equipped. Time is tight today, so instead of yomping down past the vast laurel hedge to the gate by the post box, I turn right just after the municipal quince planting and head to the gate in the cul-de-sac.

‘Down the hill’ means Ludwell Valley Park, one of the green spaces set aside by Exeter City Council for the enjoyment, experience and education of the general public. I am immensely grateful for its preservation, and for all the other parks, green lanes and playing fields that keep Exeter breathing. I am taking nothing for granted, though. Ludwell is a working farm, and the series of amphitheatres and other steep slopes would be a challenge to build on, but my nearby bit of suburbia also used to be a working farm. Now only the municipal quince, rowan and Darwin’s barberry, and the occasional back garden fruit tree or veg patch are remnants of the land’s former bounty.

Ludwell is a precious piece of countryside, a promise of the Haldon Hills and rural Devon beyond. When on my usual walk I emerge into the amphitheatres, it is possible to escape the traffic noise, housing estate and business parks, lie cocooned in a bowl of grass bounded by coppice, and gaze at the sky where a buzzard may be wheeling. There are cattle grazing during the summer months, two cherry orchards old and new, managed woodland and meadows, and – most importantly today – miles of hedges. And hedges mean brambles, and brambles mean free foraging.

As I go through the kissing gate, I hold some of my neighbours in my mind’s eye. To my wonder, they say they have hardly ever been ‘down the hill’, and almost in the same breath add that they would love to live in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps as children, they missed out on blackberrying. They may never have been given an old ice-cream tub, and told to pick over there, and not to argue with your brother over the best bushes, and not to pick too low, and mind the nettles. Perhaps they never even buy blackberries from the supermarket. And to be frank, why on earth would they, at £2.50 per 150g of engorged insipidity, inert, tinged with red and immured in a plastic sarcophagus?

I start picking, and my musing turns to foraging – my mythic ancestors surviving on nuts and berries, and its modern incarnations as wilderness food and forest gardening. Elizabeth Barrett Browning disparages plucking blackberries as the action of people who do not see earth “crammed with heaven” and “every common bush afire with God”. To my mind, blackberries are part of that fire, and I pick them in a spirit of celebration.

After a while, my musings return to my neighbours, and I imagine writing a manual to introduce them and the world at large to the joys and practicalities of blackberrying.

I might have opened it with a section on blackberries, our holy grail, but given my cluelessness today, some initial thoughts about what is required before taking the step outside the front door may be helpful.

So first, clothing and equipment. Wear old clothes. Brambles have thorns and blackberries have juice, and both will get everywhere. My blackberrying garb is a pair of old jeans and an old long-sleeved shirt. Today I grabbed an old waterproof too – possibly excessive but it felt a bit chilly and thorns are less likely to get a grip – and changed sandals for my trusty trampling boots.

Gloves may offer protection, but they make it hard to find and grasp the berries, and do the firmness-squishiness and ease-of-coming-away-from-the-stalk tests. The joy in blackberrying would be lessened if it did not come at some price, witnessed by the stained finger tips and fine traceries of scars on the back of hands and wrists. And no shades. Last week, I wondered why I couldn’t find any berries, took off my sunglasses, and there they were in multitudes, dark against the dark bushes. This afternoon, I turn my collar up and let the late sun warm the back of my head.

Boys who like toys may be disappointed by my equipment inventory. Optional: one walking cane or umbrella with hooked handle for pulling down hard-to-reach brambles. Required: one reusable plastic bag. Bags without holes in are the best. Today I’m not aiming to pick large quantities, so the berries at the bottom won’t be crushed, and it’s easy to hook a bag over my wrist and have two hands free for reaching and picking. Sometimes I might take margarine tubs in a shoulder bag. They each hold about half a pound of berries, which helps me gauge progress.

Important note: do not worry in the event of spontaneous blackberrying. It is possible even in short-sleeved shirt and sandals, and to collect in a hat or in extremis stomach.

When later in the evening I forage for information, Wikipedia tells me that blackberries are not berries at all, but aggregate fruits composed of drupelets, a wonderful word which conjures sad puppies. There are over 375 species, and I suppose somewhere between one and a hundred of those inhabit Ludwell. I know nothing about differentiating between species, or how much of the variation between bushes is due to soil condition or weather, but I do know from experience that brambles are fickle fruiters.

In my first year of Ludwell foraging, I picked most berries from the bushes dotting the eastern amphitheatre. The drupelets were sweet, though tended to be small and mostly skin and pip. Some misshapenly concentrated their life juice in a few huge drupelets, like a half-inflated balloon squeezed in the middle. The next year, I found early huge juicy sweet berries in the hedge at the bottom of the western amphitheatre, evidence that you can have it all… just not necessarily more than once. Every July since, I return to that corner on a hopeful but ultimately doomed quest.

Maybe bramble bushes boom and bust, doing well one year and exhausting their roots the next like an over-excited tiger cub economy. The timing of flowering certainly matters, to coincide with their pollinators’ lifecycles, and I worry that global warming will draw the blossom to open too early. This year the blossom was late, and I thought there would be very few berries. But even though it was well into August before it was worth bothering to look at all, some bushes have done well.

My quarries today are in what I have named the ‘dog-walking field’. It is very unusual to see a human in Ludwell without a dog appendage. It is equally unusual to see a human picking blackberries. More people pick in the ‘field of the postbox entrance’, shown by the trodden grass path weaving into and out of the hedgerow bays, a piece of Richard Long art. Yet the path is still less-travelled than the dog-walking circuit. I would like more people to be out here foraging and providing some competition. On the other hand, it does mean there is plenty of fruit when I return week after week.

The fruit in this hedgerow is almost as good as the early huge juicy sweeties of fond memory. Yet again, I return to the same bushes and can stand for minutes pick pick pick pick picking. There is no need to rove up and down bobbing and weaving and only finding a few at a time.

Many berries like to parade themselves in the sun. Others hide under a spray of leaves, and to get at them I have to lift aside several cat o’ nine tails. I have heard that it is best to pick during sunshine, when the sap is rising and sweetness flows to the berries. It makes sense, even if I might actually be extrapolating from elderflowers. The ripe berries are black – remember this is a manual for beginners who may have only eaten supermarket fruit – and come off easily in the hand. I have learned not just to rely on squishiness, but also to look at the core as my over-ripe-o-meter. Green indicates lovely, add to bag or eat at once. Grey indicates rotten, drop on ground for worms. I have also heard that the berry on the end of the stem is the sweetest. A blackberry and apple crumble made from the tip berries of one hundred bushes would grace the table of a Roman emperor, a dessert course to follow the larks’ tongue pie, fit for the gods.

This summer has not been content with just the legions of slugs and snails in my vegetable patch. It has also generated a preponderance of big-bellied speckled spiders, not that I like to look too closely. Happy to find a good crop of berries, I lack awareness as I start picking, and snag one of their webs. There follows a Saint Vitus Dance of panicked flapping and gyrating at the possibility of being landed upon by a creature a thousandth my size. I take extreme care after that, making exaggerated contortions, or leaving well alone.

That’s the third of the perils of the blackberrying quest: three arachnophobia, two soggy over-ripeness, and one the rune lines of thorns. And to add to these are the tumuli of nettle stings, for where your bramble is, there will be your nettle also. Some of them are vicious, and though I have tried to stop minding, I have some occasions for mild expletives and hand-wringing. The serious blackberryer should cultivate a thick skin, and a regular practice of yoga or tae kwon do is good training for any trampling required.

I’m still on the right side of September, and we’ve just had one of the few periods of good weather this year, but at season’s end beware the devil, cast out of heaven by St Michael to land in a blackberry bush. Uncomfortable. Who wouldn’t curse those thorns? This means the date to stop picking is Michaelmas on 29th September, or perhaps Old Michaelmas on 11th October. As is often the case, there is some science behind the legend; the fruit may become infected by mould in the cooler and wetter autumn weather.

The final perils are the cow pats that are the legisigns of grazed land, awaiting the quester who all unwary is focusing on the quest instead of the going underfoot, and the offerings of birds higher up, or dogs and rats on the lowest pickings. Some think that washing the berries washes out their flavour, and I tend not to worry too much. I’ll cook most of them anyway.

My field today is cow-free, and it takes me about half-an-hour to pick my quota. I have a quick look at the hazels for any nuts the squirrels may have missed, before going back through the gate and up the hill home.

A few berries are destined for the crumble this evening. Most of them I freeze, either whole, or pulped to reduce volume (now a pound to a margarine tub) as summer has o’er-brimmed the clammy cells of my freezer compartments. And there they will wait, ready to be turned into blackberry whisky or milkshake or jam or sorbet or pie or crumble or a pudding with orange and suet or a summer fruit pudding. But some of the best I just eat, luscious, plump, vitamin C packed, sweet, juicy, “honey of summer” blackberries.